The Los Angeles Kings made the playoffs last year, which made many people think adding Ilya Kovalchuk in the off-season and a healthy season from Jeff Carter would put them right back in the picture this season, but clearly that isn’t the case.
Watching the Kings over the last few years, it’s fairly clear that while there are still some remnants of the great team that won two cups in three seasons, since the 2014-15 season something has been missing, with the Kings alternating between being embarrassed in the first round by divisional rivals and missing the playoffs entirely.
The way the Kings dominated the game at the height of their power was by dominating shot volume and cutting down scoring chances, overall. They have been a team throughout this incarnation that generated fewer scoring chances than the league average, with most of their scoring plays coming off of a deadly forecheck that created opponents' mistakes.
While injuries have no doubt played a part in the decline of the Kings over the last couple of seasons, the biggest things working against them are their core players are getting a little older, and the game has shifted underneath them.
Even while the Kings were good, they played a style under Darryl Sutter that people who focused on the analytics found a little confusing; far more dumping and chasing than what was supposedly ideal, but they had a roster that was made for that style of play.
Grinding teams into oblivion, slowing the game down, clogging up lanes to prevent smooth transition, the Kings were essentially the ideal clutch-and-grab-era team, but they had talent as well, with a one-two punch at centre of Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, not to mention that Drew Doughty kid on defence.
Kopitar and Doughty remain franchise-level talents, two of the best transition players in the entire NHL, but they can’t do it alone, and the Kings’ style of grinding things out and slowing down play no longer works in a game that’s getting faster and leading to more scoring.
Over the last four seasons since SPORTLOGiQ began it’s statistical database, the average NHL team has moved from shooting from the slot on 28.4 per cent of their total shots, to 37 per cent. The 8.6 percentage-point bump is representative of the volume of scoring chances in the NHL increasing by more than 30 per cent over this time, as shot volume itself is up, with teams recording an average of two more shots per game than they did five years ago.
While the league has increased the percentage of scoring-chance shots by an average of 2.87 percentage points per year, the Kings are increasing their own slot-area shots by just 1.67 percentage points per year, and when you’re already starting from behind, that means you get further and further behind as time goes on. In short, the league has left L.A.'s offence behind.
While the Kings’ shot quality has always been below average, they were able to maintain strong differentials anyway due to being the most impressive defensive squad in the NHL for nearly a decade. The question now is whether they’re still capable of holding off opposing offences as the league transitions into even more speed.
We have chance types going back only to 2016-17, but the three-year trend is illustrative.
For years and years, no one cut down dangerous passes in the defensive zone like the Los Angeles Kings, meaning that Jonathan Quick rarely faced shots that were preceded by passes, which allowed him to play his style of aggressively challenging the puck carrier by telescoping extremely far out of the net, without worry that a pass to another player would leave him completely exposed.
Even last season, no team allowed fewer passes to the slot than the Kings did, but this year they’re only 11th-best in that area, and they’re allowing more scoring chances preceded by cycle passes than the average NHL team, ranking 18th, which is a big reason why Quick has dropped from a lofty .921 save percentage last season to just .892 this year.
With their offensive style — more than just systemically, but in the types of players they have on the roster — being left behind, and their defensive style no longer working to insulate their goaltenders, the Kings look truly cooked.
The problem they have going forward is not just that their team is built for a different era of hockey, they’re also locked in to five players who are 30 or older for three more seasons after this one at a combined cap hit of nearly $38 million, not to mention two more seasons of Dion Phaneuf and Ilya Kovalchuk in their mid-30s for another $11.5 million.
That’s two more seasons of nearly $50 million against the cap tied up in older players, and while Doughty and Kopitar are $21 million of that, they’re the only two in the group likely worth the money.
It’s an extremely ugly situation that doesn’t look to be easy to get out of, and the core is just too old to build around in the modern NHL.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.