LOS ANGELES — Although it is too early in the 2021 National Hockey League season to draw a lot of conclusions about any team, after six games, there are reasons for optimism as well as cause for concern when it comes to the Los Angeles Kings.
With a 2-2-2 record after six games, the Kings are, mathematically speaking, neither a winning team or a losing one. Even their goals for and goals against statistics are even, as they are giving up and allowing an average of 3.33 goals per game. They are ranked 16th on the power play and 12th on the penalty-kill—not great numbers, but not bad, either. One glaring statistic is that they are losing more face-offs than they are winning, with a 49.3 percent winning percentage—they are starting a lot of shifts behind the eight-ball, trying to retrieve the puck instead of controlling it and going on the attack.
If one were to grade the Kings over their first six games by the traditional percentage scale, they would receive an “F,” with their .500 record (anything under 60 percent would earn a failing grade). But the NHL isn’t school. Nevertheless, some of those statistics are of concern going forward.
To be sure, a 23.1 percent rating on the power play is a positive, as is scoring 3.33 goals per game. But over a season, whether it’s 82 games or 56, allowing more than three goals per game or a penalty-kill rating of 84 percent is not going to get the job done, especially since the Kings have taken far too many penalties through the six games.
“It’s really hard to create any type of rhythm in a game when you’re killing six penalties a night,” head coach Todd McLellan said following his team’s 3-2 loss vs. Colorado on January 15. “Until we keep it to two or three—I don’t expect us to be perfect. But I certainly expect us to be better in that area. I’d like to see our team when we can roll four lines, consistently. There is a bit of a rhythm for every player, and right now, we’ve overtaxing some players and under-playing others.”
Looking at the way the Kings have played in their first six games, it is clear that their defensive zone play has been dragging down their entire game. Whether it is giving up far too many outnumbered attacks, allowing a plethora of Grade-A scoring chances, or turning the puck over repeatedly, the Kings have been a mess in their own zone. Even worse, their poor defensive zone play often prevented them from clearing their zone and getting anything going in the offensive zone, in terms of sustained pressure, let alone quality scoring chances.
As negative as all that sounds, the Kings have shown gradual improvement, especially in their last few games. That was especially noticeable in their 6-3 win at St. Louis on January 24. Despite starting the game giving up several outnumbered attacks, including a four-on-one break, goaltender Jonathan Quick bailed them out. Eventually, their defensive zone play improved and they were able to generate an offensive attack, most notably in the second period, when they scored three unanswered goals.
“We came out with a little bit more authority,” said center Anze Kopitar. “That first period, even though we didn’t score a whole lot of goals, I thought it was one of the best periods that we’ve played—being aggressive, being on top of pucks, and shooting the puck, too.”
“In the second period, the floodgates opened up for us, and the third period? We’ll work on that,” he added.
McLellan accentuated the positives after the game.
“We were skating, there was a tenacity to us, we were responsible,” he said. “I thought this was the first time [this season] that we took the game to a team, rather than receiving it.”
“We were much better in our end, which allowed us to get in on the forecheck,” he added. “The pieces were all working together. Where our forecheck last night was, maybe one to three pieces, tonight, it was four or five, and that extra piece allowed us to keep pucks alive and play in their end in the first two periods, anyhow.”
“I liked how we broke pucks out of our end against a really strong forechecking team. I liked how we managed the neutral zone. We passed the puck better.”
More on those reasons for optimism…although six games are a very small sample size, so far, their offense appears to have improved over last season.
“I think that we have a little more depth,” said McLellan. “I also think that we’re more familiar with the tactics and the structure that we want to play with. Our power play is further ahead than it was last year, at this time. We’ve scored a goal, or we’ve come close to scoring every time, which helps us. It gives us some confidence, offensively.”
“We’ve scored goals on face-off plays that we never had in place last year, at least in the firs half of the season,” added McLellan. “A lot of it is just being around each other for a year and a bit now.”
“Even late last year, we were scoring goals,” said Kopitar. “Getting power play production is huge. That gives us confidence, even [during] five-on-five [play]. We just want to keep on going, keep creating. In the first two periods, offensively, we were creating, and yes, the goals were scored, but I think the offensive zone time has a lot to do with that, and we want to keep on building.”
Another reason for optimism has been the stellar play of Quick, who has often bailed his team out, given that they’ve been giving up so many outnumbered attacks and other Grade A scoring chances. He has, for the most part, kept the opposition off the scoreboard in those situations.
“I don’t think there’s many nights that you win without solid goaltending, and Quick was there for us again,” McLellan said after the win at St. Louis. “As good as our start was, we did give up some long rushes, a little reminiscent to the beginning of last year when we got careless and over-aggressive. Our goaltender was there to bail us out [tonight] and we needed that.”
As stated earlier, there are reasons to be optimistic about the Kings, as well as reasons for concern. In any case, their next games, which include two games at Minnesota and two in Las Vegas against the Vegas Golden Knights—both were playoff teams last season—should be very revealing, in terms of what we should be able to expect going forward.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick. Photo by Gann Matsuda/Frozen Royalty
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