Defensively, the Los Angeles Kings had seemed to have it figured out, but the Kings are learning that it becomes hard to win hockey games when you can only manage to shoot 5.6% at even strength.
The Kings have seen a modicum of success over the last two seasons; they made the playoffs twice, as a low seed, losing in six games to superior Vancouver Canuck and San Jose Shark clubs.
In the offseason, the young and improving club went out and traded for Mike Richards in a well-publicized deal with the Philadelphia Flyers, while also signing veterans Simon Gagne and Ethan Moreau. Joining their young core of Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jack Johnson, emerging stars three, the team looked prime to make a run up the Western Conference standings.
However, as often happens in this business, the pre-season stories we had written took a back seat to reality. Under then-Coach Terry Murray, the Kings were just an average possession team—50.4% of all score-tied events were in the opposition’s end—well below the level of the Conference’s elite.
To make matters worse, the team was just scoring on 5.6% of its shots. After a contract dispute, Doughty started the season slow, not scoring until November 8th. Captain Dustin Brown, fresh off a 28-goal season, scored just four goals through November. After trading away Ryan Smyth to Edmonton, Dustin Penner, the younger, power-forward left winger, didn’t endear himself too much to Kings fans, got hurt midway through November after not having scored a goal, despite putting up 23 a year ago.
More importantly, after a quick 6-2-1 start, the Kings lose 5 of their next 6 and were a disappointing 13-11-4 after their first 29 games. As a result, Murray lost his job.
There’s probably no player on a hockey team who is less expendable than his coach, and this winter has seen an unusually high number of coaches fired. After a few games under assistant John Stevens, the team brought in former Calgary Flames brain trust Darryl Sutter to guide the team the rest of the way.
On the surface, the team is better. With Sutter in charge, the Kings are 5-1-3 and within striking distance of a couple of fading teams and could hold a playoff position for the first time since early November. The team is generally healthy and, under Sutter, have improved their on-ice possession numbers up to a solid 56.2%, which would equal one of the better markers in the league.
But they still can’t shoot. The team are 4th in goals against average this season, thanks in part to limited shot numbers an thanks in part to some strong goaltending from Jonathans Quick and Bernier. Kopitar, who is having a fantastic year possession-wise, has scored a single goal since November 23rd. He’s been emblematic of the Kings’ season: a quick start, followed by a sudden inability to hit the back of the net. Only two regular players, Richards and defenseman Slava Voynov, have managed a shooting percentage of 10% or higher.
That’s a number that can’t continue to stay this low. A team crippled by bad luck, good defense has at least allowed the chance to compete: a good cautionary tale for teams who intend to build at only one end of the ice. You can’t win by succeeding in just one strong aspect, but a well-rounded team will be able to cover up for mistakes and bad bounces and give the team a chance.
Tonight, LA will face Washington at home, in a game that won’t be as well-publicized as it should be, between two of the league’s best teams, inexplicably fighting for a playoff spot halfway through the season. If I were a betting man, however, I’d put money on both of them making it. Los Angeles especially are just too good of a team with too many good players to be out of a spot for this long. And, in recent days, it looks like they’ve finally turned a corner.