The Los Angeles Kings Struggle Out Of The Gate

The Los Angeles Kings start what’s going to be a TV gala of sports for the city of Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon. The Kings visit Detroit for an NBC game against the Red Wings (12:30 PM ET), shortly before we have consecutive games with the city’s basketball teams, as ABC’s doubleheader of Clippers-Knicks followed by Lakers-Heat begins a half-hour late. The Kings don’t give you the soap opera drama of the Lakers, or the recent struggles of the Clippers, but last year’s Stanley Cup champions are off to a very slow start, and in a compressed NHL season, that can’t be taken lightly. What’s the problem?

The Kings are 3-4-2 at this early date, five points out of the final playoff spot. There’s not a lot they’re doing well, as they rank in the bottom third of the NHL in both scoring and defense, their 5-on-5 play is poor, their power play subpar. Their ability to generate shots on goal hasn’t been awful, but being in the middle of the league, it doesn’t give you a sense of an imminent turnaround.

There’s one exception to these early doldrums and that’s the Los Angeles defense—not the ability to stop goals per se, but the ability to stop shots. The Kings are playing every bit as well here as they did last year, both regular season and playoffs. The defenseman led by Drew Doughty are keeping the exposure of goalie Jonathan Quick to a minimum.

It’s Quick, who won the Conn Smythe Award last June as the playoffs MVP (the NHL’s postseason award is based on their entire playoff run, not just the Finals). This year his 89% save rate is one of the worst in the hockey. There’s not much margin of error for goalies—the range from top to bottom goes from 95 to 89%, so that’s only six percentage points to cover thirty goalies. The positive is that if Quick regains his edge, the overall defensive effort will quickly move back up.

But what if he struggles? While Quick has been a good goaltender throughout his fairly young career, the 27-year-old had a breakout season a year ago, as he was Los Angeles’ one bright spot that carried them into the playoffs as the #8 seed and then made them unstoppable when the offense found themselves. If Quick reverts to pre-2012 norms, he’ll still be good, but no longer a defining factor in a game. And if he’s on a championship hangover and slips below those levels, even a little bit, Los Angeles is really going to get desperate for offense.

It was the emergence of the Kings’ offense that was the most stunning part of last year’s playoff drive. Anze Kopitar went from being a decent center to a positive beast. Dustin Penner and Jeff Carter turned into scoring machines. Mike Richards, Justin Williams and Doughty were dishing the puck with ease. I would use the word “breakout performance”, but it understates how out-of-nowhere it all was.

Kopitar dealt with an injured knee in the early part of this season, but is back to playing regularly. Penner has been in and out of the lineup. Carter has provided a little bit of scoring, but not like he did last June. In short, all of these players have reverted to form and that means Quick is going to have to turn it around…well, quickly if Los Angeles doesn’t want to find itself looking a long way up at the #8 playoff spot that they cashed into a Stanley Cup last year.