The Curious Case of the Los Angeles Kings Power Play

Want to know why the power play has struggled so mightily? Go back to where it all begins: zone entries.

Note from the editor: Scott Maran from Blueshirt Banter very graciously loaned himself out to us in order to help break down exactly what’s going on with the Kings’ power play. Thanks to Scott for jumping in with this guest post! If you want to read more from him, head over to BSB and keep an eye out for his posts breaking down the Rangers’ on-ice systems.

It all started when the Los Angeles Kings put Ilya Kovalchuk in front of the net on their first power play attempt of the season. Then it’s been downhill ever since.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit (I think people made too big of a deal about trying Kovalchuk in front of the net once anyway). But it’s true that the Kings power play has had a very bad start to the season. Through the first two weeks of the season, the Kings were the only team without a power play goal (they just scored their first two power play goals against the Islanders). With a unit composed of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, and Iyla Kovalchuk, you’d hope that there would be better results.

But even besides goals, the underlying strategy behind the Kings power play hasn’t worked well for them either. Over four of the Kings games so far this season (out of the seven total they’ve played), they’ve only entered the zone successfully on the power play 67.4% of the time. In comparison, the league average from my data set from last year was 85.9%.

So why have the Kings struggled to enter the zone? Most of their breakout strategies have failed them, both in entering the zone and entering with control.

Breakout Strategies

Five Back29.5%61.5%61.5%
Drop Pass16.3%71.4%71.4%
Transition Turnover7.0%66.7%66.7%

Failed Five Back Attempts

Out of all of their breakout attempts, the Kings most common setup has been the “Five Back Formation.” The Five Back Formation is my name for the entry structure where all five players on the attacking team come back into the defensive zone and attack the neutral zone. Here’s a good example of what the typical Five Back entry looks like.

Generally I’m against this type of entry as it’s difficult to enter the zone with control. Looking at entry data from last year, the Five Back Formation had the lowest percentage of controlled entries out of any breakout formation. Already too many times the Kings were too predictable when they’d line up in the formation, facing a defense that could easily shut them down.

Here as soon as Kempe gets the puck the Sharks know that he only has two options – carry the puck himself or pass it to Muzzin. But for whatever Kempe decides to do, the puck has to stay on that side of the ice, because there’s no realistic option to get it to the other side or even the middle of the ice. Because of this, the Sharks can ignore all the space the Kings can’t use and turn their attention towards the side of the neutral zone with the puck. Brent Burns has an easy time anticipating the pass to Muzzin and stopping the entry.

Here Alec Martinez tries to pass the puck up to Tanner Pearson in the middle of the ice but Erik Karlsson can easily anticipate it, stepping up and stifling the zone entry attempt.

The Five Back Formation is a hard strategy to make work and, combined with all the other mistakes the Kings have made, it has led to a difficult time getting into the offensive zone with the man advantage.

The only real times the Kings have successfully entered the zone with the Five Back Formation has been due to an excellent individual play from a player. Here Jeff Carter faces two Red Wings defenders and manages to fool Justin Abdelkader and to enter the zone and pass the puck to Kopitar.

And even when they did enter successfully, often there’d be limited time and space for the receiver to do much with the puck. Here Kopitar is able to enter the zone successfully but is quickly covered by two Sharks players before he can make a play with the puck.

The Five Back Formation has been the Kings most used entry strategy yet overall, it has not been very effective for them.

Too Many “Random” Entries

After the Five Back Entry, the Kings second-most used entry strategy has been “Random” entries, which is classified as an entry attempt where the Kings aren’t in a set formation. It’s not the worst thing in the world entering the zone without being in a specific breakout formation, but these kinds of improvised entries are usually harder to complete and end up unsuccessful. Only 60% of the Kings random entries have led to a successful entry, which is the worst out of all their entry strategies so far this year. It has also only led to a controlled entry only 50% of the time, which is again one of the worst (only behind Regroups in controlled%).

Here against the Red Wings Doughty starts the rush up the ice with the puck, but the rest of the Kings players aren’t ready and in formation. Then I don’t think I can really tell you what happens, as Doughty spins and passes the puck to nobody, where its collected by the Red Wings and cleared.

Maybe Kovalchuk was supposed to be there and instead he was going off for a line change, but either way it was a wasted opportunity for the Kings. They would have been better off spending the extra few seconds waiting behind their own net for everyone to get ready and then starting the breakout.

Same goes for this entry (again against the Red Wings), where Kovalchuk would have been better off letting Martinez take the puck and allow everyone to get set up before attempting to enter the zone. But instead, Kovalchuk practically steals the puck from his teammate and tries to break out himself.

As Kovalchuk skates the puck up, it’s a disorganized mess (tactically speaking), with some Kings players stuck behind the play and some even going off for a line change. Kovalchuk doesn’t get a good pass off and the Kings waste another opportunity to enter the zone.

So how do the Kings fix it?

The goals will eventually start coming, as it’s still very early in the season. Just in the past two games the Kings have scored three power play goals. [Note from the editor: This post was submitted prior to the Kings game in Dallas, where they failed to convert on the man advantage.]

However, along with the small sample size, the Kings underlying strategy has contributed to their poor performance. The best way to improve their power play would be to change their entry strategy. Right now the bulk of their entries are coming from Five Back and Random entries, which isn’t a great power play strategy.

What the Kings should look into is using their drop pass setup more often. It still needs some work but out of the few times they’ve attempted it there have been some promising signs. In its limited showing it looks like it has the potential to be one of the Kings best options.

Here against the Sharks the Kings did a good job of entering the zone with a drop pass and only failed to get into form because of miscommunication between Muzzin and the player who was supposed to receive his pass at the blue line.

When Kopitar receives the puck, the Kings do a good job of keeping many options open for him. Besides just taking the puck up himself, Kopitar also has Muzzin on his left and Kovalchuk on his right.

This keeps Tomas Hertl from being able to pressure Kopitar harder, even as he gets closer to the offensive blue line, because if he did then Kopitar could easily pass to the sides and let the Kings enter the along the boards.

By the time Kopitar reaches the offensive blue line with the puck, it’s too late and Hertl can’t effectively cover him, resulting in a mini two-on-one with Kopitar and Muzzin. This gives Kopitar the space to pass to Muzzin as he’s about to enter the zone.

There was also this gorgeous drop pass entry orientated around Kopitar, where the Kings are able to catch the Jets flat-footed and skate right past them through the blue line.

It’s not a perfect option, as the Kings need to make sure that they keep a high pace when executing the drop pass. Going too slow gives the defense time to read the play and recognize the primary point of attack, allowing them to converge and block the attempt like in this entry against the Sharks.

And other times they have just been poorly coordinated.

Those kinds of mistakes can easily be smoothed out with more practice though. Right now the Kings have barely used the drop pass. If they want to improve their play on the power play, switching to a new strategy with the drop pass as their main option may be their best bet.