This is part two 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.
You can read Part One of the series here.
Looking Back: Pairs as They Stand
Due to trades and call-ups, we saw quite a few defensemen suit up for the Kings this year. Matt Greene played a meager three games before succumbing to an injury that kept him out the rest of the year. Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel enjoyed brief stints with the big club. Jamie McBain was called up and never left the team. Christian Ehrhoff never really worked out, and neither did Luke Schenn, despite their very different fates. Aside from all this shuffling, the defensive pairs we saw most often, or should at least consider baseline now, are Brayden McNabb with Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin with Alec Martinez, and Rob Scuderi with Luke Schenn. Given the volatility on that last pair, we'll try to focus on the top two, but they all matter.
Let's start off by looking at pair usage this past year so we can understand the deployments Darryl Sutter made and how they did or did not tilt the ice for the Kings.
From this chart, we can see that Drew Doughty and Brayden McNabb were a premier shot-limiting pair without sacrificing the Kings' offensive baseline. Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez were trusted with tough starts, and that resulted in higher event hockey at both ends of the ice without sacrificing LA's overall share too much. Other observations include how reliant Martinez is on Muzzin and how far from the norm that Luke Schenn and Rob Scuderi fall. Also, add Jake Muzzin to your defender of choice for instant shot production.
The Case for Jake Muzzin
At this point, it's probably natural to look at this chart and think everything looks absolutely fine. LA's average shot share is great, and their top two pairs are a big part of why it's great. However, in part one we showed that Sutter's usage of defenders means that Doughty is trusted to bridge a deficit, while Muzzin and Martinez (along with all other defenders), are trusted to protect a lead. The issue with this deployment scheme becomes apparent when you look at even strength offensive production from LA's defenders over the past several years.
Believe it or not, Jake Muzzin is the Kings' best offensive defenseman. Since he came into regular usage with the Kings, he averages 0.91 points per 60 minutes of hockey. That is good for first on the Kings, and much higher than Doughty's 0.69 points per 60 over that same period. This year, Muzzin was again tops with 0.85 P/60, and Doughty was third on the team with 0.64 P/60. Yet, if you go back just one year, those numbers were 1.09 and 0.93 P/60, which is a huge jump. The difference was that Jake Muzzin was paired primarily with Drew Doughty, and Drew Doughty was also put on the ice last year to help his team get back in the game.
Defensemen Offensive Contributions, 2012-2016
The anomalies don't end there, either. Last year, the Kings got 129 points from the back end. Their next highest total over the last five seasons is 91, from this most recent season. The high totals of 2014-2015 are due to higher individual points percentage from players like Jake Muzzin and Brayden McNabb, but 48.7% and 51% are not unheard of for good offensive defensemen. It does go to show how much the defense was picking up offensive slack thanks to black holes like Jarrett Stoll regularly skating at the third center position. The takeaway from all of this is that Jake Muzzin was 38th and 18th this year and last, respectively, among defensemen in points per 60. In short, if Darryl Sutter wants to skew his defensive deployments, he should be putting Jake Muzzin on the ice when the Kings need a goal. If you look at the underlying numbers, we see that there's nothing magical about a Jake Muzzin and Drew Doughty pairing when it comes to goals. Jake Muzzin is a top two defenseman, and if Sutter has his heart set on Drew Doughty helping the Kings climb back into a game, Muzzin should be there by his side.
Where Does McNabb Fit?
Where does this leave Brayden McNabb and Alec Martinez, though? In part one, I covered McNabb's struggles when entrusted to hold a lead. However, last year, he managed to put up a healthy point total, even if it was a bit inflated. He likely did this because of his decreased responsibility. With the majority of his playing time occurring on the third and second pairs, he was in less high pressure situations. Another issue with pairing him with Drew Doughty is that he comes religiously deferential. McNabb is still not safe from the wrath of Darryl Sutter, and if he always passes to the team's star defenseman, it helps him fly under the radar a bit.
The best thing for McNabb's future development may be to get him away from that top pairing. It is not unfair to expect a fair amount out of McNabb offensively. He was a point per game player at the end of his junior years in the WHL. His last year with the Rochester Americans in the AHL, he earned a point three out of every four games. He also possesses a slapshot that can exceed 100 MPH. Last year, he had very good numbers when paired with Greene. In the short time the Kings enjoyed the mobile defenseman Andrej Sekera, that pair became outright dominant at times.
McNabb was acquired to be a defenseman on the second pair, and that's where they should be trying him moving forward. He is not ready for top pair responsibility, and he may never be. Putting him back on the bottom pair just creates a new problem with either overexposing Rob Scuderi next year or not giving Kevin Gravel and Derek Forbort a good chance to develop with the club next year. His very few minutes with Alec Martinez have not been good, but it's something they should try again next year if they're committed to not shaking up the defensive core this off season.
The New Guys
It's time to give Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel a chance at the sixth defenseman spot. While Kevin Gravel has one year remaining on his contract, Derek Forbort will require a new contract this summer, and will not be waiver exempt next year. In his first 14 games with the Kings, Derek Forbort posted strong possession stats in addition to earning his first NHL goal and assist. This is a super small sample, but it shows that this player is ready for a much longer look at the NHL level. On the flip side, Kevin Gravel only got five games in, but looked extremely poised and comfortable in NHL play. As we saw in Part 1, Rob Scuderi does a serviceable job preventing goals, but not much else. His NHL tenure is also one more year at best. It's time to prepare the organization to move on, with a cheap, and trusted option, at 6D. At the very least, they need to be putting Gravel and Forbort on display if they need pieces to deal for a new defenseman to help the club out.
From sitting down to catching Gaudreau, fine recovery speed displayed by Gravel here pic.twitter.com/fmlkmhtPnu— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) April 6, 2016
Stay tuned for Part 3 soon, where we'll look at what options the Kings have on the free agent and trade market to bolster their defense.