Hopefully I'm not the one breaking this news to you - the Los Angeles Kings of hockey missed the playoffs last season. After winning two Stanley Cups in three years, the Kings didn't play a single playoff game. It was an event that shocked many. Perhaps even more said it was inevitable, after all the Kings had played more playoff games than anyone else the past three years. They also fought to ice a consistent roster.The season's sour end was capstoned by a 4-2 loss to the basement feeding Edmonton Oilers, which featured an emotional Anze Kopitar breaking his stick over the net after a defining open net goal.
I'm not going to try and break down all the reasons the Kings missed the playoffs as we covered that in thorough detail earlier this year. Since then, there have been a lot of personnel changes to the team, many of which some would consider core changes. Yet, there's still a lot of reasons to be optimistic about this year. Let's cover some of them.
1. The Kings are Still Good at Winning Hockey Games
In our diagnosis of the Kings failings last year, we covered their struggles in OT and the shootout. We also covered their healthy goal differential. Despite all of that, the Kings were tied for fourth most regulation wins last season. If you isolate it to the Western Conference, they were tied for second most, just one behind the Minnesota Wild. That's pretty darn respectable. What's more, it's the most regulation wins they've had since the 2010-2011 season, which makes it more than they had in either of their cup years. Even if the team was tired or lacked what were defined as key players, they still the ability to win a lot of hockey games.
We talked about how the Kings' PDO sucked at 4v4 last year, but it was actually an uncharacteristically bad year for Quick. Over the past eight years, of goalies who have played at least 500 minutes, Quick is fifth out of 23 in save percentage.
Is Jonathan Quick elite Sorry, reflex. While it doesn't meet the typical 3000 shot metric for evaluating goaltenders, the numbers suggest Quick is at least decent in 4v4 situations. If tracking pucks and dealing with traffic are his weak points and mobility are his strong points, I can begin to see an idea for why that may be. It will be interesting to see how that translates to 3v3 this year.
2. They Remain a Possession Powerhouse
One of the focus points of the Kings' playoff miss was their strong possession stats. In fact, since the stats that allow possession metrics to be calculated have been kept, the top Corsi team has never missed the playoffs. Oops. Possession teams also have very strong playoff records and it's been shown many times it's a great predictor of success.
To be clear, though, the Kings weren't just top possession team at even strength. They were also the top at home, or on the road. They were third in close score situations. Up by one, up by two, down by one and down by two? Top, top, second, top. In fact, they were the only possession team above 50% when up by two or more. So, any narrative that they sucked on the road or just couldn't close out games anymore is just that, a narrative. The team fundamentals stayed true in all situations.
How about other situations? At 4v4, they were twelfth. Given they had so many OT losses, perhaps this is part of their woes. However, if you go back to 2013-2014, they were again top. Given the roster was largely the same over those two years, it could just be an aberration. At 3v3, who knows how much possession will matter, but we do know that the Kings have a very good chance of earning a fair few wins in regulation.
3. Addition by Subtraction
This off season, the Kings lost Justin Williams, Robyn Regehr, Mike Richards, and Jarret Stoll. All were veterans who were said to be valued in the locker room. Do you have a song jingling in your head yet? "One of these is not like the other..." Valued teammates as they may be, only one of these players these players contributed positively to the Kings' identity.
We all know Justin Williams was great at possessing the puck, even at his age. However, the others represent three of the four worst possession players relative to the team who played over 500 minutes. The last rhymes with 'Smordan Smolan." I'll give you time. To put it simply, these players were largely given valuable minutes and were holding the Kings back from being an even better possession team. The players replacing them in the lineup fared much better in possession last year, even in Nick Shore's limited minutes. Thus, we have every reason to believe the Kings were still be very good at puck possession.
The leaving players also had bad penalty habits. Jarrett Stoll was particularly egregious, as he seemed to revel in taking penalties in the offensive zone. He had the most minor penalties on the team last year, with 29. Robyn Regehr took 20 penalties last season. The people replacing them will not take near as many penalties. Even Milan Lucic, who has a reputation for penalties, took 18 minor penalties. That's a big drop from Stoll and could be worth up to two goals.
4. Defense, Man
The Kings have always been known as a defensive team. They've lost what are identified as key veterans, but they are still in phenomenal shape. In fact, the top six are all less than a year removed from being a positive possession player. Yes, even Matt Greene. Yes, I checked.
On top of that, the defensive core for this year is probably the most offensively gifted the Kings have iced in their competition era. Five of the six defensemen have noted abilities to contribute offensively. We talked about Ehrhoff earlier today, but I don't think you're excited enough for him yet. Sutter has loved talking about Christian's Vancouver years and part of the reason is definitely his power play performance. In 2010-2011, Ehrhoff generated 16.5 shots per 60 minutes on the power play. That's more than any teammate and more than any King in their competition era. Granted that was with the Sedins, but shame on you, Kopitar is awesome. Naturally, that turned into a lot of points on the power play.
Ehrhoff is also fantastic at getting shots though. In a piece where Muzzin talks to Jon Rosen about getting more shots through, all of the team's back-end is compared to Ehrhoff. Christian got shots through at a much better percentage than any King, and this was a 'down' year in Pittsburgh. Of the Kings who had at least 100 shots, the percentage difference between Ehrhoff and that player (Greene) is bigger than the difference between best and worst on the team. He didn't do this by being extremely selective, either. He trailed only Kris Letang in shot rate and was higher than any Kings defensemen in shot rate last year. Any kind of return to form will be very positive for the Kings.
5. It's in the Tea Leaves
As we all know, the opinions of fancy stat bloggers are the most important opinions in hockey. Okay, that statement should get rid of anyone who would argue with this next point. We talked about the Kings possession stats in point two, but there is much more to the game of hockey. Shot location matters. Shooting percentages matter. Goaltending matters too.
As the years go on, more and more people are putting predictive models together to try and assess a team's ability to earn standings points, which are what really matter for getting into the playoffs. One piece looks at the western conference and compares three models (WAR, xGF%, and Vukota). All three models like the Kings and say they'll be a playoff team. Another model says they'll be top in the West. Follow the links to look at methodology, but the history of success for Kings in key metrics that decide games suggests they'll continue to be the Kings we expect.
The Kings are still good. They'll win a lot of hockey games. They'll lose some too (see last night), but they'll still probably make the playoffs. This Kings team is different in interesting ways, and they have two point-per-game AHL players who will try to get ice time with the club this year. In the playoffs, maybe they both will (2013-2014, I love you). There's lots to look forward to still. I'm excited. Are you?