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Assessing the Kings' Defense Part 1: What Went Wrong?

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The Los Angeles Kings ceded a three goal lead in the last game of the season, forfeiting a division title. While this would have been an anomaly for past seasons, this was a much more common occurrence this year, and it left us all asking "why?"

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This is part one of a three part series on the woes of the Kings defense, what they should do differently, and how they should utilize this off season to address their deficiencies.

It's fair to say that the defense has been the most tumultuous group for the Los Angeles Kings these past few years. Through a combination of free agent departures, retirements, injuries, and one player being a downright despicable person, this defense has, at best, shared half its personnel with those of years past. Of course, we could bemoan the declining performance of some of these departed players, but that wouldn't address the now.

Blowing the Lead

A common observation of the Kings this season had been their inability to hold a lead. Was this mere armchair posturing, or do the numbers back it up? Were the Kings' deficiencies in this area covered up their fantastic overtime record? Some questions we can answer, but others are best left for speculation. To dig into these questions, I compared this defense to the previous years of the Kings' competitive era, which I took the liberty of starting in their 2011-2012 season despite the fact it was not their first playoff season.

Before diving into those numbers, I want to talk about my methodology. First of all, rather than focus on shot attempts or specific scoring chances, I've chosen to be completely goal focused and rely on their goal allowed rates. In addition to this, I am using the expected goals, or xG, metric, which takes things like puck possession and shot quality into account, all in one nice metric. For more on this metric and its predictive abilities, be sure to read this piece on hockey graphs. The idea behind this is to separate the team's luck from their GA60 rate and focus on their quality of play in those score states. To evaluate the claim that the Kings' defense cannot clamp down, we'll look at the 5v5 GA60 rate as a whole, as well as focusing in on the tied and leading numbers (no score or venue adjustments were made).


Defensive Performance Based on Score State

Season 5v5 GA60 5v5 GA60, Tied 5v5 GA60, Leading 5v5 xGA60 5v5 xGA60, Tied 5v5 xGA60, Leading Penalty Differential Penalty Differential, Tied Penalty Differential, Leading
2015-2016 1.88 1.74 2.26 2.21 2.08 2.6 -31 -22 -25
2014-2015 1.93 2.27 1.72 2.15 2.36 2.28 -5 -1 -8
2013-2014 1.66 1.59 1.81 2.16 2.23 2.32 33 24 -2
2012-2013 2.11 2.5 1.66 1.99 2.15 2.07 -3 1 -9
2011-2012 1.89 1.46 2.34 2.21 2.18 2.2 -14 4 -15

Let's get the positives out of the way - the Kings' 1.88 GA60 rate this year at 5v5 was their second best ever in their modern competitive era. It is second only to the 2013-2014 team, which had an absurd 1.66 GA60 rate. Yet, this doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know. This team barely missed out on the Jennings Trophy, after all. From this view, the optics of the defense are absolutely fine. Once we sift through the numbers, the true patterns start to emerge. For one, the team's expected goal rate of 2.21 is much more than their actual, and what's more, it's tied with the worst it's been over the past five years. There are two specific reasons for that disparity this year-- Jonathan Quick and Jhonas Enroth. The latter posted strong numbers in his precious few starts, but Quick's even strength save percentage was the best it has been since the 2011-2012 season.

Looking at the tied score state certainly reinforces the possession success we saw the Kings enjoy we games were tied. Their GA60 rate was very solid, and their expected totals was the best it has ever been. However, give the Kings the lead and it all falls apart. The 2.26 GA60 rate they have when leading is the second worst of this period, but the expected goals allowed rate was downright abysmal, and far worse than any we've seen in recent years. On top of this, their -25 penalty differential when leading was also atrocious, and while not reflected directly in these numbers, would also explain their reasons for giving up the lead this year. For some reason, the Kings were falling apart when up on their opponent. The question of why naturally arises next.

Who is to Blame?

Ok, so the Kings were really bad when leading a game, but why? They had all the signs of being a regular Kings team that was focused on defense. Naturally, we would suspect the new players spoiling the formula. Yet, new players also means new usage, and perhaps Darryl Sutter has some culpability here. Before we jump into per player stats, I'd like to show two defensive usage charts. The first is from this season, 2015-2016. The second is from 2013-2014, which serves as quite a benchmark for the team based on the numbers presented earlier.

Defensemen Deployment by Score State, 2015-2016

Defensemen Deployment by Score State, 2015-2016

Defensemen Deployment by Score State, 2013-2014

Defensemen Deployment by Score State, 2013-2014

What a difference two years make, huh? in 2013-2014, Darryl Sutter followed the same approach he does for offense when he says he is "roiling four lines." The defense used to see almost the exact same deployment no matter the score state. Aside from trusting Matt Greene to protect a one goal lead, Sutter had the utmost confidence in all six players to help the game no matter the situation. This contrasts wildly with this past season, where we see large variance across the lineup and score states. One thing is very clear though - Sutter relies on Drew Doughty to help the Kings when they're behind. To complement this, Sutter relies on everyone else increasingly as the score tips in the Kings' favor. Now that we understand how the Kings are being deployed, let's see how they performed.


Player Performance Based on Score State

Player 5v5 GA60 5v5 GA60, Tied 5v5 GA60, Leading 5v5 xGA60 5v5 xGA60, Tied 5v5 xGA60, Leading Penalty Differential Penalty Differential, Tied Penalty Differential, Leading
Drew Doughty 1.66 1.28 2.66 2.17 2.04 2.73 -15 4 -14
Christian Ehrhoff 2.4 2.63 2.2 2.43 2.22 3 3 -1 -5
Alec Martinez 1.67 1.41 1.91 2.22 2.07 2.47 -13 -18 -2
Jamie McBain 1.73 1.47 1.97 2.15 1.95 2.66 4 -1 1
Brayden McNabb 1.74 1.7 2.1 2.27 1.92 2.94 -25 -4 -18
Jake Muzzin 2.12 2.02 2.17 2.15 2.17 2.31 5 -8 2
Luke Schenn 2.34 2.44 2.89 2.4 2.32 2.63 -5 -7 -7
Rob Scuderi 1.7 1.07 2.47 1.96 2 2.24 -4 1 -6

If anything is clear from this table, it's how much Christian Ehrhoff struggled to be a consistent defender for the Kings. It's also very apparent that Brayden McNabb often hurt the Kings when he was trusted to protect a lead. While his actual numbers when leading were very respectable, his expected numbers were second worst only to Ehrhoff, and we begin to see why there was such a large penalty gulf when the Kings were leading. Luke Schenn also jumps out, also for being remarkably disappointing . Regardless of the score state, it was pretty likely he'd be the on the ice when bad stuff happened for the Kings.

I will shy away from heaping too much praise on Scuderi thanks to his numbers mostly not being related to his time with the Kings this year, but it definitely does not seem inappropriate to trust him to protect a lead, even at his age. Perhaps we are being a bit unfair with McNabb as well. After all, his main partner was Drew Doughty, and those numbers aren't much better. Without specifically ascribing blame on one or the other, it seems clear that that pair isn't working out when they're trying to protect a lead for the Kings.

Of course, we would be remiss to assume this is only an issue of defense. A cursory look at forward deployment casts a bad shadow on the Carter line, which also happens to see a spike in deployment when the Kings lead by a goal. The team as whole would do well to examine how they use their players, but there are definitely some glaring examples, and culprits, on the back end that hurt the Kings' ability to protect a lead this past season. That's the topic for next time.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we'll look at what the Kings can do differently with the defensive core to turn things in their favor. [UPDATE: You can now read Part 2 here.]

Thanks to corsica.hockey and hockeyviz.com for all included stats!