What the Hell Just Happened?

LOS ANGELES CA - JANUARY 20: Ilya Bryzgalov #30 of the Phoenix Coyotes watches the puck slide across the crease with Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings during the second period at the Staples Center on January 20 2011 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

[This is part 2 of the previous post]

I happen to believe there's a lot of truth to the "young team got big headed, took big fall" interpretation. I also think the five games in seven nights was deadly. And once they were losing, it was self-sustaining. "We suck because we lost and now we lose because we suck because we lose because." And soon it's too late. Just like giving up one bad goal, and then giving up two more right after, and then you start scoring and it turns out the first bad goal wouldn't have killed you after all. Too bad you crapped out and let in two more.

My problem with that interpretation is it's too broad. It's so broad that it lets everyone off the hook, because it pinpoints no one cause, nothing that is correctable, except that "you have to lose to win," so in a way it's good! The adversity is fine, as long as the adversity is not self-inflicted. Saying "young teams have to learn to win" is saying the problem is externalized. It's just "what happens" on the path to greatness, as long as you don't panic and blow the thing up.

In that sense, it's self-protective. "This is what's supposed to happen when you're learning to win." Now, I agree with that in principle, in the abstract. I agree that there is no magic answer, that teams don't just become dynasties all of the sudden without any grief or without fighting their way through many dark days, or whatever.

But I keep coming back to the reality I underlined a couple of posts ago ("A worse run of Kings' games?"). A run like the Kings just had -- or are in the middle of? -- hasn't occurred since 2003, and before that 1996 and 1997, and before that who knows, pre-Gretzky at least. Which is to say, in the last quarter century, the Kings have only gone 12-19-1 in seasons that are disasters. They don't do it in seasons where everything turns out all right in the end. And they don't do it in seasons where they are on the road to greatness, where a great period in Kings history is just around the corner. 1996 was the end of the Gretzky era, five years from the next playoff appearance. 2003 was the first of seven playoff-free seasons. So far, these really really really bad runs don't happen to Kings teams on the way up -- the adversity right before the big win -- but to Kings teams on the way down.

And how about this: both the 1996 and 2003 teams were being dismantled at the time of their badness. The 2011 team has no such excuse. The roster is as stable as it's ever been since I've been a Kings fan. Whatever has caused this remarkable run of losing, it's not a bunch of trades and lack of chemistry and too many new faces or whatever.

So what is it?

At the risk of this becoming the longest blog post ever, let's run down the possibilities:

  • The roster is not as good as we think it is. -- that might be true, but it's too general to be helpful.
  • Kopitar is not the superstar we think he is. -- Nobody ever said he was Sidney Crosby. No, I think he's as good as we think he is. 
  • Kopitar needs better line-mates. -- Hmm. Yes, a pure scorer, a sniper, a left wing who is dangerous in that European "he's invisible and suddenly he has a hat-trick" way. This is a problem. But we had that problem last year, too. So it can't be THE problem.
  • We have two third-line centers instead of a true second line center. -- also true, but true last year as well.
  • Alexander Frolov is much better than everyone thought. -- the idea here would be that even though he wasn't putting up the numbers, his wily puck-possession genius amounted to brilliant defense and he gave Handzus room to be great. I think that's true, to an extent. But the Kings' problems are not defensive. So the Frolov angle doesn't really cover it.
  • Drew Doughty is having his sophomore slump a year late. -- maybe. But his defensive numbers are good. However, see power play, below. 
  • Injuries to Poni and Mitchell hurt the Kings early on. -- but they're here now, and it's not helping. And every team has injuries. I don't buy it.
  • The power play is terrible. -- Yeah, I would say this is a pretty big deal. In 13 of the Kings 23 losses, the Kings power play was shut-out. In the other nine losses and one OTL, they went 1-3,1-5,1-3,1-5,1-9, 2-6 (!),1-2, 2-5 (!), 1-5, 1-2. The four that are 1-5 or worse I'm going to call problems. That's 17 out of 23 losses with a power play problem. (The Kings' power play is 20th overall -- and if you look at the teams above, all but two or three are playoff teams; below, all but maybe two are not.)
  • The penalty-killing unit is terrible. -- No. However, when the PK isn't great, the Kings usually lose. PK gave up 2 goals in 8 of the Kings 23 losses, 1 goal in 7, and 0 in 8. PK has given up 6 goals in total in the Kings' wins. The Kings are 1-8 when they give up two PP goals (so, you know, don't do that). 
  • This is an aside to the PP/PK observations. When the Kings' power-play outscores the opponent's power-play, the Kings are 9-1. When the Kings' power-play is out-scored by the opponent's power-play, the Kings are 2-11. In the rest of the games, when it's a power-play "tie," the Kings are 13-9-1.
  • Interestingly, in terms of power-play goals for and against per game, the Kings PP is (after 47 games) seven PP goals worse than last year, while the PK is 4 goals-against better than last year. Imagine how bad the PP would seem if the PK hadn't improved. (!) This alone is an argument for putting Loktionov and Moller on the power-play and keeping them there for the rest of the reason.
  • The coach is mismanaging the roster/the system is suffocating/etc. -- I'm not one to say that lines are being over-juggled; I think that's part of hockey. And, as far as doghouses go, Ponikarovsky has been inconsistent, so I can't really fault Murray there. And I also see why he's kept the Smyth/Stoll/Williams line together more or less all season (they've been mostly great, that's why). It's not his fault he has no first line LW. I'm starting to be vulnerable to the "it's all Murray's fault" argument, as one is during bouts of extreme losing, but rationally I don't see how that makes sense. 

I kind of think that if the power play were playing like last season and we had those seven extra goals, we'd probably have seven extra points, too, and we wouldn't be having this conversation.


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