With the 2018-19 NHL season firmly in the rear view mirror, it’s time to look back at what we learned about the players of the Los Angeles Kings. How did they fare in a down season? What’s next for each of them? Who will still be here on opening day? Join us as we take a look back at the season, try to figure out what went wrong, and see where we go from here. Today we look at forward Tyler Toffoli, often the subject of trade rumors, and how well he performed with little to show for it in the end.
The 2018-19 season, for Tyler Toffoli, was one of frustration. His career average shooting percentage of 11.1 plummeted to just 5.8, despite taking the second-highest number of shots in a season in his career. He recorded just 13 goals, his lowest since 2013-14, his first nearly-full professional season, where he scored 12 in 62 games.
When you look at Toffoli from an analytics perspective, he had a relatively solid season. He was among the team leaders in possession, posting one of the highest Relative Corsi percentages at 5.49 — that is, the difference in number of shot attempts when Toffoli is on the ice as opposed to when he is off the ice — on the team.
With Toffoli on the ice, the Kings had slightly more high danger chances, 55.87%, than their opponents, and more scoring chances, 53.75%, as well. The Kings took more shots, particularly in the dangerous area in front of the net, with Toffoli on the ice. Without Toffoli? The area in front of the net was a wasteland. The Kings barely generated anything at all — dangerous or not — without Toffoli on the ice.
But here’s the problem: Toffoli’s 5.49 Relative Corsi? His 55.87% High Danger Scoring Chances? All those numbers?
They’re good… for a player on the Kings.
They’re not great for a player in the National Hockey League — at least, not for a player who’s expected to be a difference maker on his team.
For example, of regular players in the NHL, players including Dylan Larkin (9.76%), Mark Stone (8.16%), Brendan Gallagher (6.83%), and Kevin Hayes (5.92%) all posted better Relative Corsi stats than Toffoli. The closer you are to zero, the closer you are to just being A Guy — someone who doesn’t make his team better or worse. Larkin, an elite player on a bad team, made the Red Wings better every time he touched the ice. Hayes, a good-but-not-earth-shaking player who posted most of his numbers while with the Rangers, is closer to Toffoli territory: makes his team better, a little, but it doesn’t matter much when the team isn’t good to start with.
A tale of two centers
Toffoli’s disappointing season, one which saw his name surface repeatedly in trade rumors, is tough to view in isolation, however. The team around him was almost historically bad. Age, bad contract decisions, terrible coaching decisions, apathy, whatever the reason was: the Kings were bad, Toffoli was bad, everything was bad.
His most frequent center, Jeff Carter — 451:27 spent on ice together at even strength — was bad. His second-most frequent center, Adrian Kempe — 440:46 together at even strength — is someone who we’re still not sure is a legit option as a second-line center. He didn’t have much by way of a consistent left wing, spending time with Ilya Kovalchuk (173:13 TOI), Carl Grundstrom (163:48 TOI), and Brendan Leipsic (131:46 TOI) as his most frequent counterparts, none of whom he ever really generated much chemistry with.
But let’s back up to Carter for a minute. You’ll hear more about him later in our Season in Review series. There’s no question that he struggled this season. But that struggle pulled down Tyler Toffoli, who couldn’t drive the play on his own or make up for Carter’s deficiencies. With Carter and Toffoli both on the ice, the Kings generated some net front shots, but overall weren’t much of an offensive threat. Most of their chances came from back towards the blue line, or along the walls. Toffoli without Carter was somewhat more dangerous, generating more shots from the area right in front of the net.
While many watch Kempe and think he is probably better suited on the wing, it turns out that he and Toffoli were a tremendous threat on the ice together, peppering the opponent’s goalie with shots. Toffoli without Kempe, however, might as well not have even approached the net. Something about their play together made them more effective as a pair, able to drive play and drive the net in a way that Toffoli and Carter were unable to do.
We’re all at least a little bit nostalgic for the 2014 Cup run and the glory days of “That 70s Line”. But if Jeff Carter isn’t going to be able to bounce back and be the effective player we remember him as, is it worth dragging Toffoli down with him? If Kempe’s main weakness as a center is in taking draws, then could he perhaps center a line with Carter and Toffoli as wings, allowing Carter to take crucial draws but otherwise free him from the responsibilities and heavy usage expected of a center?
The other elephant in the room
At the Kings’ exit interviews, Toffoli was perhaps the most blunt about some of what ailed the season.
Toffoli was the first to drop the word “pathetic”, a sentiment that was later echoed by some others on the team.
The fact that Toffoli went public to confirm something obvious to anyone who watched more than a few Kings practices is notable, given hockey players’ general reticence to say anything controversial.
But perhaps the biggest moment of growth for Toffoli is this: Well, what do you, personally, do about it?
Yes, you can only push back so much on a coach, even one as hapless in the position as Willie Desjardins. And maybe he didn’t feel comfortable pushing the issue with so many other veteran players who wear letters in the room.
But when it comes down to it: if you’re going to publicly put your team on blast for their poor practice habits, it’s got to be at least a little bit on you to try to do something to change that. And maybe Toffoli did — we’ll never know; it didn’t really come up in any of the media quotes released from his interview. But for an aging team looking for their younger players to step up and start showing leadership — seeing a younger player like Toffoli not just say “we practiced poorly” but also say “and here’s what I personally am going to do to change that in myself” would go a long way towards setting an example for even younger players.
Players like Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis are never going to be lauded for their on-ice prowess, but if you go and watch a Kings practice, they’re the hardest workers there. You can’t ever say they float through a practice, or leave as soon as it’s remotely acceptable, or don’t give it their all.
Think your practices are pathetic? Then commit to doing something to change it.