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Twelve’s a Crowd: How Should LA’s Forward Shuffle Shake Out for the Stretch Run?

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Iafallo, Toffoli, Rieder, and Thompson are just some of the forwards jostling for position.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Chicago Blackhawks Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Amazing that having a healthy squad can make a coach’s job harder, but since getting Jeff Carter back, John Stevens and the Los Angeles Kings have had an interesting time trying to figure out their forward rotation.

Darryl Sutter had it so easy in the past, didn’t he? Look at the forward crew he had as recently as 2015-16; a nice clean top six by season’s end and a nice clean top nine to boot, with several young players to shuffle in on the fourth line (and nowhere else).

Fast forward two years and we have... whatever you see below. Just feast your eyes:

At least Jeff Carter’s return gives Stevens a solid top three, and Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli are still rightfully a four-five punch with second-line minutes. Toffoli has played 13 and 12 minutes in his last two games, which would worry me more if the games weren’t (1) night two of a back-to-back and (2) a 7-1 demolition. I don’t see him taking a backseat down the stretch, especially as he’s only two short from the quietest 25-goal season in recent memory. After that? Everyone’s got their own ideas. Let’s talk it out.

Forward #6: Adrian Kempe, Tobias Rieder, Trevor Lewis, or Nate Thompson?

The graph above might be slightly misleading because, in contrast to past seasons where penalty killing responsibilities have been handled by top offensive players and also Trevor Lewis, this season has seen Nate Thompson and Torrey Mitchell slot in on the PK since their trades. (In fairness, it’s also seen Trevor Lewis move closer than expected to grouping in with LA’s “top offensive players.”) Having said that, this is an interesting debate.

Lewis has consistently been the sixth- or seventh-most used forward in past seasons, and was solidly in that slot before his injury. Thompson has carved a niche out, and last game he led all Kings in PK time. Adrian Kempe has pulled off an unusual feat for a 21-year-old: his goalscoring has dried up (no goals in 22 games), but due to a decent assist rate and increased discipline, he’s back at the amount of ice time he was getting before Jeff Carter’s return. And Rieder’s the wild card after a two-goal performance after Colorado.

My hunch? When Lewis is fully healthy, he goes back to that level of all-situations ice time regardless of which line he slots in on, making him LA’s sixth-most used forward. Rieder and Kempe are boom-or-bust options, but Rieder might still be in that Kris Versteeg zone of “middle-six or scratch?”. Thompson will stay on the PK unit, I imagine, but with the return of Lewis I think he’d be a better fit on the fourth line.

Poll

Who do you see as the Kings’ "#6 forward" down the stretch?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    Adrian Kempe
    (183 votes)
  • 1%
    Nate Thompson
    (5 votes)
  • 34%
    Trevor Lewis
    (120 votes)
  • 8%
    Tobias Rieder
    (29 votes)
  • 2%
    Someone else
    (8 votes)
345 votes total Vote Now

About that someone else...

You were thinking of Alex Iafallo, right?

23 of LA’s top line on Opening Night has stayed there, literally, all season. The other guy is Alex Iafallo, and John Stevens has gotten restless with the frequent LA sparkplug. There is no obvious area of blame for why Iafallo’s ice time has dropped so significantly as of late. Iafallo hasn’t been lighting up the scoreboard lately, but he wasn’t doing that earlier in the season either. In his last ten games he’s been on the ice for nine Kings goals at even strength, with only three goals being scored against LA while he’s out there. And Iafallo’s possession numbers have not only just been consistent, they’ve been consistent whether or not he’s with Anze Kopitar. Iafallo has a 52.1 CF% and a 50.6% SCF (Scoring Chance For%) with Kopitar this season, and a 53.2% CF% and a 50.6% SCF% without Kopitar, receiving slightly more defensive zone time than offensive zone time in both scenarios. So why is Iafallo playing less?

Sure, it could be a matter of resting Iafallo, who has never played this much in a season and got big minutes in October and November. It could also be related to special teams usage; Iafallo’s barely had a sniff of the PP or the PK since the start of February. Otherwise, it might just be a case of Stevens preferring others in late-game crunch time. Iafallo has largely disappeared in the third period of recent games. Aside from the Winnipeg game, where Iafallo was the only forward who hadn’t played the previous night, he’s seen little action in the final frame. Against Colorado, three shifts, 2:07. New Jersey, March 17: three shifts, 2:06. Detroit, March 15: six shifts, 3:54, though that was in line with his other two periods. Arizona on March 13: three shifts, 1:23. And Vancouver, March 12: six shifts, 3:05.

Iafallo isn’t going anywhere, and he’s still generally spending his time with #11 and #23, but he’s not being used as the secret sauce anymore.

That’s ten guys, what about the others?

The nice thing is that the remaining options are, for all intents and purposes, completely different players. Torrey Mitchell wins draws, plays the PK, and has some burst. Kyle Clifford is ol’ reliable, managing achieve a useful balance of hitting guys and limiting shots against. Michael Amadio is the youngster with upside, though his recent games have seen lots of offensive zone starts with no payoff. And Andreoff brings elements of all three guys but has found himself the odd man out with a less certain role. The easy option, especially in a grind-it-out playoff race, is to sit Amadio and Andreoff once Lewis returns. Then again, if Lewis takes Mitchell’s spot on the PK, perhaps Stevens will give Amadio a couple more chances to produce from the bottom line.

The Kings have gotten noticeably top-heavy in recent days, so it may not matter a whole lot who Stevens slots in at the bottom. But on a team where the defense has been so stable since Dion Phaneuf’s arrival, Stevens might be looking for similar stability on the forward lines heading into April. Tell us whether you think he’ll find it.