JFTC Roundtable: Surprises, disappointments, and expectations
The writers of Jewels from the Crown share their thoughts on the team to date.
With the 2019-20 NHL season more than a quarter of the way over, the Jewels from the Crown staff have put their heads together to answer some burning questions about the team’s performance this season. Make sure to check back on Wednesday when we all make some pretty bold predictions for the future.
How does the Kings performance this season compare with your expectations of them at the start of the season?
Julius: Where the team finds itself now as opposed to when the season first began, the Kings have been playing where I have expected them to be. After finishing in second to last place in 2018-19 where the narrative of goal scoring struggles began, there weren’t any new additions to a team that would address that issue. You can’t really do much when four players over the age of 30 make $27.25 million of the $42.2 million being spent on forwards. So it makes sense that they are being forced to dip into their young assets to take up roster spots with hopes of becoming a play-off contender within 3-5 years.
Michael: Anything would be better than last year. Willie D. broke something in my fandom that may never be fixed. I blame Rob Blake. He should have never hired a guy over the phone. Who does that? This year, I see a coach that has a team that’s either too young or too old playing competitive. Most games see the Kings in it, firing shots and playing with heart. This team has the decades long problem of not being able to finish and rack up a significant goal total. Maybe one day we will be able to score again. This team is far better than 11-17-2 and 29th place. The future is bright and they are coached well.
James N.: I expected the team to lose but look fun while losing. That has been met!
Filip: I expected the Kings to perform exactly like this before the season started. The Kings tend to play their way. When they win, they win deservedly. When they lose, it’s a big margin. To be a playoff team, you have to win the games you don’t deserve to win. Nevertheless, I think the Kings are headed in the right direction. Despite being in last place in the division standings, it could have been far worse.
Dominic: About right, at the very least. With a change in coaches and systems, my expectations were not based on conventional stats like points, wins, or rankings among the other 30 teams. Rather, the important indicators entailed how motivated the players throughout the roster were in rebounding from last season, how well they adapted to new head coach Todd McLellan, and how quickly they learned the new systems on both sides of the puck and on special teams. A quarter into the season, I get a sense that the Kings are trending towards the right direction in all those indicators, despite their overall position in the league. I’m looking at the team in a 5-year period, more so than just this season. I see enough encouraging signs to suggest the team becoming a viable contender as soon as year two or three, not having to wait until year four or five . . . or another point in our lifetime.
Robyn: I knew they were gunning for a top-5 pick so I expected them to be bad. Basically, standings wise, they’re about where I thought they would be.
James L.: Honestly, it’s worse so far. I had no expectation either. But it was made worse by a struggling Jonathan Quick, who has visibly dulled and aged this season. Pucks that he reliably saved in previous seasons are now finding ways to zip by him. Quick is the anchor that this team is built around, the reason that the Kings were competitive every game—and fun to watch—even if the team struggled. Now that he looks fallible, it’s open season on the Kings. However, since benching Ilya Kovalchuk they have improved a bit....
The Jake Muzzin trade also hurts Quick, who has to watch a developing young defense falter in front of him. Do you miss Muzzin yet?
Sarah: If you’d — you, I say, knowing full well that I was 100% the person who wrote these questions — asked me before the start of the season, I would say they’re right about where I thought they’d be. Overall not good in the standings, with some flashes of the kind of skill and energy that will give you hope for future seasons. If you’d asked me during any of those games where they were scoring four, five goals, I’d have said they would maybe be a bubble team at best.
Overall, though, what I expected was “fun bad” and, for the most part, that’s what we’ve been getting. There are growing pains, and there aren’t going to be a ton of wins, but every so often you can see a glimmer of a better team.
Which player has been the biggest (positive) surprise? Who’s been the biggest disappointment? Whose game are you enjoying watching the most so far?
Julius: While I can say that I like how Blake Lizotte’s game has been improving after he finally scored his first goal in the big leagues after 17 contests, he is still a player that is just beginning his development. With him being only 21 years old, he can make a lot of mistakes because he is on a team where the pressure isn’t on him every night which is fine. That being said, Dustin Brown has seemingly found a fountain of youth somewhere down the line. A player of Brown’s caliber, someone who’s playing style is physically taxing (second in NHL in hits (2,938) since 2007-08), it is remarkable how he is playing 19 minutes a night despite understandably losing a bit of his speed. It does helps that he plays on a line with Anze Kopitar but part of it is also that he plays a lot smarter on the offensive end.
Michael: Biggest surprise? Sean Walker. He seems to make the right plays every time and has great instincts. I wish he scored a bit more.
Biggest disappointment? Adrian Kempe. An underperformer and unable to produce anything tangible. I have no answer to his woes.
Best game to watch? Kopitar. Remember when I wrote this in the offseason?: ”You can bet in the 2019-20 the trophy-winning, hockey genius, Dr. Jekyll persona will return. As a matter of fact, bet on it. I have.” Every bit is true. He’s been the best player on the ice on either team in 20 of the 24 games this season.
2018-19 Season in Review: Will Anze Kopitar Return to his Dr. Jekyll Selke Form?
James N.: The biggest positive surprise has been the reliability of Ben Hutton.
The biggest disappointment has been Adrian Kempe, but his game against San Jose was the single players’ game I enjoyed watching the most this year.
Filip: Players like Sean Walker or Anze Kopitar have been really impressive. You would expect Kopitar to be that high-grade, however, last season wasn’t positive even for him. Walker has been one of the Kings’ most reliable defensemen. I wrote more about him in this year’s Top 25 Under 25 Rankings; if you read it, you cannot be that surprised by his progress.
2019 Los Angeles Kings Top 25 Under 25: #13 Sean Walker
Disappointments? Veterans like Jeff Carter or Jonathan Quick have not started the season on a high note, but they’ve been improving ever since then. The biggest disappointment goes to Ilya Kovalchuk and his unfortunate situation.
Dominic: Sean Walker is the biggest positive surprise. The advanced stats support the positive impact. He came in well under the radar below more highly touted defensemen in the system (Tobias Bjornfot, Mikey Anderson, Kale Clague, etc.).
Ilya Kovalchuk is the biggest disappointment. With a new coach and new systems in place, Kovalchuk had a new chance to thrive. The Kings have seen enough from him to conclude that he cannot or will not incorporate his game to the coaching and systems changes for the good of the team. Hence, he’s played his last game in a Kings uniform. The issue has got to be with the player.
Anze Kopitar has been most enjoyable to watch. As has always been the case, great at winning faceoffs, excellent playmaking, responsible defensive play. Individually, he’s putting up statistics comparable to his Hart Trophy Finalist season of 2017-2018. One recent criticism about him was how he didn’t shoot enough. As the current leading goal scorer on the team, people can’t use that criticism on him so much.
Robyn: Sean Walker has been the biggest surprise. I would not have said he was going to play as well as he generally has so far this season back in September. Biggest disappointment to me was Kovalchuk. I honestly expected more from him and he never really seemed to live up to that.
Weirdly I’m really enjoying Clifford’s play right now. I long called for him to be off the roster but he’s having a great year so far and doing amazing things driving play.
James L.: Positives (and who I’m enjoying watching the most):
Sean Walker. Does it say he’s a defenseman? All this time I thought he was a forward! He carries the puck confidently, just like a forward, and gets involved with the offense at the best times. Notably, he has a +5 rating so far despite playing in a losing team. It takes pressure off of Drew Doughty to do everything, which is a huge relief. Walker was the team’s Player of the Month in October. If this keeps up we will see the emergence of a new star in the league.
Blake Lizotte. A few years ago the Kings wouldn’t have given the undersized Lizotte a chance. But at age 21 he is already making a difference for the Kings, by generating offense with his speed. The Kings have thirsted for this for years. If this keeps up, the Kings can finally place Adrian Kempe in his natural habitat at wing, and relieve pressure on him.
Besides Kovalchuk? Tyler Toffoli. I’m surprised he has six goals so far, because he looks invisible out there. Perhaps at age 27 he is overshadowed by the younger players that fans are excited about, and the older core players that have earned the team Cups. But Toffoli expressed resignation to Sportsnet on November 4, saying “Whatever happens, happens” regarding trade rumors and his slumping performance. Scoring chances keep coming to him, but he simply isn’t converting. He was even a healthy scratch on October 30. Toffoli was once reputed as a goal scorer, but he has lost the mojo that gave the Kings offensive depth from 2014-2016.
Sarah: Like everyone else, Blake Lizotte and Sean Walker have been the biggest surprises for me. Walker, I had expected to be at least a competent defenseman based off of his performance in limited games in 2018-19. Lizotte, I’d just penciled in to be assigned to the AHL during training camp. I should have learned from thinking the exact same thing about Alex Iafallo, though, as Lizotte claimed his spot during training camp and never looked back.
The biggest disappointment — aside from Ilya Kovalchuk, who I’d expected to perform better under a different (better) coach — is probably Tyler Toffoli for me. Last season, we spent a lot of time saying that he was at least doing the right things and not being rewarded for them. In 2018-19, his shooting percentage was 5.8%, well off of his current career average of 10.0%. He’s currently sitting at about 8.1% on the season, which is a marked improvement, but overall there’s been something lackluster in his game. He’s on track for about 36 points, which is fine, really, for a depth player, but maybe not fine for a depth player who’s going to be looking for a salary increase on his $4.6 million average annual value cap hit.
In terms of who I enjoy watching: Anze Kopitar is always the gold standard of solid, defensive hockey and is one of the reasons I fell in love with the Kings in the first place. Seeing Jeff Carter back to what’s closer to his true form has been a delight, too.
Knowing that this team isn’t exactly going to complete for a playoff spot: what does success look like to you for the 2019-20 Los Angeles Kings?
Julius: Success this year will come in the form of Todd McLellan finding a philosophy that bodes well with Los Angeles in his first year here as he has cultivated a winning culture everywhere he has been during his coaching career. A clean bill of health that has been the case so far this season, would be nice if it continued till the end.
Michael: Alexis Lafrenière or bust.
James N.: Alexis Lafrenière.
Filip: Success? There is no result of the season the Kings will be disappointed with. The progress and step forward the Kings will take under new head coach Todd McLellan is the most important criterion of this season.
Dominic: Getting statistical for this answer: Top 15 for both the power play and penalty kill, 75+ points in the standings. When losing games, the majority of those will have them playing with an empty net late in the game. They will likely pull off a convincing win against a team or few who will play in a Conference Final.
Robyn: If they get a little bit of scoring luck, maybe a 90 point season but I don’t know.
James L.: Not so fast! Though this team is much maligned, as of November 29 they are only 8 points behind Vegas for a playoff spot. And they have stopped the bleeding—since benching Kovalchuk on November 12, they are 5-3-1. Finishing as a bubble team will be success for the Kings this year.
Sarah: I’ve said this probably on every podcast I’ve been on lately to talk about the Kings, but success to me looks like this team not making the same mistakes in game 82 that they were in game one. Learning a new system takes time, learning your new teammates takes time. And so we give players a bit of a pass early on in the year that we should extend to them later in the season. By the end of the season — yes, even the end of this season, when the team will most likely be out of playoff contention — I still want to see the players competing, learning lessons that will serve them well for a hopefully more competent 2020-21 season.