LOS ANGELES — 26 games into the 2021 National Hockey League season, the Los Angeles Kings are an improved team over last year, but in an abbreviated season filled with games against division rivals—all four-point games—so far, that improvement has not been enough to get them into the top four in the standings—playoff contention.
Frozen Royalty last looked at the Kings performance back on January 26, after they hit the six-game mark, and that look at their statistics was quite revealing. Twenty games later, another look is equally revealing.
Looking at the Kings’ won-loss record, they have been wildly inconsistent, going 2-2-2 in their first six games, followed by a 1-4-1 stretch. After that, they won six straight before going 1-3-4 in their last eight games. In three of those eight games, the Kings put in poor defensive performances, contributing to their losing record over that span, allowing 13 goals in those games.
Looking at the Kings’ last twenty games, they have improved, but not in a big way. After six games, they were allowing an average of 3.33 goals per game—way too many for a team that is expecting to make the playoffs. That number is down to 2.81 (ranked 12th)—a definite improvement. But working against that is that they are ranked 24th in the NHL in shots allowed per game (31.3)—too many. Nevertheless, it has been plainly evident that when the Kings are on their game, defensively, they have been quite successful. But this also illustrates that their defensive play has been somewhat inconsistent this season, despite some noticeable improvement, especially when compared to last season.
Another issue is that there are eleven NHL teams that are better defensively, including three teams in their own division, all ahead of the Kings in the standings. The Kings will have to climb at least one of those teams in order to qualify for the post-season party.
Despite the concerns, head coach Todd McLellan is focusing on the positive when it comes to his young team’s defensive play.
“I look at the big picture,” he said. We’ve cut our goals against down a lot. A significant amount on the penalty-kill, a lot in the defensive zone.”
McLellan added that he isn’t concerned about the occasional
lapse in defensive play that has struck his team a handful of times this season, the most recent coming in a 6-5 overtime loss at Anaheim on March 8.
“A game got away from us in Anaheim,” he noted. “That’s going to happen, at some point. A lot of those mistakes weren’t necessarily structural mistakes or group mistakes. There were turnovers—we put the puck right on their tape and they scored.”
“The shorthanded goal was one that was preventable without being [caused by players being] loose or lazy,” he added. “Nights like that happen when you play 56 or 82 games. There’s going to be games that get away from you. Nobody’s happy about that.”
“I don’t think it’s an overall symptom of our defensive play. In fact, we’ve improved immensely in that area [compared] to last year and from the beginning of this season, so I don’t think it’s an issue at all.”
Offensively, things haven’t changed all that much. Back in late January, the Kings were scoring an average of 3.33 goals per game, a very respectable number. That number hasn’t dropped all that much since then—2.96 (ranked 15th) goals per game.
A lot of their offense has been generated by their power play, the one area where the Kings have been very consistent this season, clicking at a 26.6 percent rate, ranked sixth in the NHL. This has been the brightest of bright spots for the Kings this season, a huge reason that they’ve won as many games as they have.
Puck possession has been an issue on both sides of the puck, not just in terms of giveaways/turnovers, but also in terms of face-offs, with them winning 50.2 percent of their face-offs, ranked 16th in the league.
Although ranking 16th in the league in the face-off circle isn’t bad, three of the Kings’ division rivals are ahead of them in the face-off rankings. That doesn’t bode well for hopes to secure fourth place in the division standings with puck possession being so critical—they start too many shifts trying to get the puck and defending instead of starting with possession and going on the attack.
On the penalty-kill, the Kings have had very strong runs of play while killing penalties this season, along with a couple of rough spots. They are currently ranked eighth in the NHL, with an 83.5 percent rating.
“This year, our penalty-killing has been fairly strong,” said McLellan. “We’ve been stung a few nights on some sloppy mistakes, but that happens. We’re a little more predictable with each other than we were early last year. After Christmas last year, it improved a lot. But it’s been consistent throughout [this season].”
Despite the solid penalty-killing, McLellan expressed concern mistakes that he thought his team had gotten past.
“We made two critical mistakes tonight, and they capitalized on them,” McLellan said following his team’s 3-2 loss at Arizona on March 3. “Mistakes that we saw last year in our penalty-kill, and we thought we had corrected them—we’re seeing them creeping back in, so we’ve got work to do there.”
“Penalty-kill has structure,” added McLellan. “The power play has a little more artistry, a little more free play—creativity. When one player reacts, the other three need to have some predictability regarding what happens next so they can get ahead of it. In my mind, that’s how penalty-killing works.”
Back in late January, yours truly wrote that the Kings had given their fans and their front office reasons for optimism and concern. Now, after 26 games, based on the numbers, their overall play, and the standings, that hasn’t changed.
LEAD PHOTO: From left: Los Angeles Kings goaltender Cal Petersen, defenseman Drew Doughty, and left wing Adrian Kempe. Photo by Gann Matsuda/Frozen Royalty.
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