Kings Showing Faith in Two Rookie Defensemen
A look at how the Kings' young blue liners are faring halfway through the season
One of the more intriguing plot lines at the start of the 2016-17 training camp was how the Los Angeles Kings would sort through their collection of veteran and rookie defensemen to fill out their starting six. On one side, the veteran trio of Matt Greene, Tom Gilbert and Rob Scuderi seemed to have the inside track, at least based on Darryl Sutter's proclivity for experienced players. On the other end of the spectrum was another trio of players, Derek Forbort, Kevin Gravel and Zach Trotman, all fighting for their first opportunity to crack an NHL roster.
Fast-forward to the half way point of the NHL season. Scuderi and Trotman are in the AHL, and they haven't played an NHL minute between them. Tom Gilbert has been a healthy scratch most nights, not seeing any action since before Christmas. Matt Greene has seen similar deployment, playing just a handful of games more than Gilbert. Instead, Coach Sutter has put his trust in two first-year defensemen. Have Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel rewarded Sutter for his leap of faith?
Forbort, the 24 year-old former first round pick, has dressed for all 43 games this season. He earned top pairing minutes alongside Drew Doughty when Brayden McNabb went down with an injury earlier in the year and has stayed tied to his hip ever since, getting 69% of his total ice time with the Kings' Norris Trophy winner. It is unlikely that Sutter views Forbort as a top-pairing guy at this point in his career. Rather, it would seem to follow his pattern of asking Doughty to carry less dynamic partners in order to bolster the other two pairings.
Burdened with the tough assignments that come with top pairing minutes, Forbort has taken a bit of a beating on the possession ledger. He currently sports a 5v5 corsi of 50.4% (-6.1 CF rel%), worst among Kings defensemen. Like Robyn Regehr and Rob Scuderi before him, Forbort drags down Doughty's Corsi, currently 52.1% as a pairing. Without having to carry Forbort, Drew is coasting at 62.41%.
Much like the two veterans that preceded him on Doughty's left, Forbort has embraced his role as a defensive specialist, leading the team in blocked shots with 92 and is third in hits, with 91. Unlike those "stay-at-home" guys, Forbort has shown some offensive aptitude, delivering 2 goals and 11 assists. That has him only a single point behind Jake Muzzin in scoring this season. His skating is as smooth as advertised and he puts 45.6% of his shot attempts on net, slotting him right between Muzzin and Alec Martinez in that regard. Sutter has leaned on him for second-unit PK minutes, where he has held his own, averaging 1:55 SH minutes a game, with a -0.8 relative corsi and 4.3 GA/60.
Forbort's overall numbers fail to elicit any excitement, but he has managed to keep himself in the line-up thus far in spite of the occasional rookie gaffe. Fellow rookie Kevin Gravel has not received the same allowances from Darryl Sutter, though he has still managed to largely keep his starting gig away from veterans Gilbert and Greene. Sutter has been gentler with Gravel than his rookie counterpart, giving him the easiest zone starts on the team at 65.4%. He has responded with a 1.8% relative corsi while averaging 13:51 of ice time.
Strangely enough, Gravel has seen the most minutes with Matt Greene, the guy he generally starts over. (The injury to Brayden McNabb made that the de facto third pairing for a while.) Gravel has propped up the veteran, as the pair enjoys a CF% of 57.24 together, with Greene averaging only 46.56% away from Gravel. An ill-advised pass against Detroit last week landed Gravel in the doghouse for two games, but he returned to the line-up for wins against St. Louis and Winnipeg, paired with fellow lefty McNabb.
Gravel's ability to play on the right side has been invaluable for Sutter and his lefty-heavy defensive corps. His metrics skew better when paired with Greene and Gilbert, so it is telling that Sutter prefers having the rookie on his weaker side over either of his two right-handed veterans. Gravel has looked composed and decisive with the puck, getting his team out of their own end quickly, even if it leads to the occasional mistake.
So, has Sutter had a change of heart about young defensemen, especially after living the nightmare that was Luke Schenn and Rob Scuderi last season? Perhaps he just sees the value in their skating ability, realizing that you need mobile defensemen to win in today's game. Gravel and Forbort are not finished products and may never be considered true top-4 guys in this league. For now, they are filling two roles for league minimum, allowing the Kings to allocate any of the few assets they may have towards improving their forward depth.