Jake Muzzin and Jonathan Quick. Image by: Getty Images
The Kings have elite possession numbers but they have one glaring problem this season -- they can't put the puck in the net.
The Los Angeles Kings are at it again. A team that everyone believed would be a contender and everyone would be afraid to play in the playoffs if they made it is, once again, struggling to actually make the playoffs.
The team currently has a 38 percent chance at making the dance, just two years removed from missing the playoffs completely right after their second Cup win. I’m not sure how they keep getting in these predicaments, but it’s clear they’ve got to start taking the regular season seriously because we all know what they’re capable of when they actually make it. Like any year where they squeak in, they’d be a low-seed no one would want to match up against.
That’s less of a concern this year because it’s looking more and more unlikely they’ll be invited. Even after Thursday night’s win over the Sabres the team appears to be too far back of St. Louis with too little runway to get there. It’s obviously possible, it’s just not likely.
That leaves some explaining to do from the Corsi crowd. The Kings currently sit second in the entire league, as usual, with a sparkling 54.6 percent mark after adjusting for score and venue, but have a middling 34-29-7 record and are on pace for 88 points (though we project they’ll be closer to 90). They’re currently four points out of a playoff spot with just 12 games remaining. So what’s the deal here?
Right off the top, Corsi isn’t everything. It matters a lot, but you can’t just take a list of the best shot rate teams and say “this is the exact order of the best teams in the league and there will be no debate otherwise.” Some folks tend to believe Corsi is a synonym for analytics, but there’s so much more to it than that. It literally just means systematically analyzing the numbers and making sense of them -- not look at one stat and call it a day. The Kings are a good case study for that.
With the Kings, it always comes down to the percentages. They may be Corsi kings, but they’re more like jesters when it comes to actually converting those chances. Since the hiring of Darryl Sutter, the Kings have a 55.8 percent Corsi at 5-on-5, a full 2.3 percent better than the next best team (Boston). They’re also 29th in shooting percentage at 6.9 percent and 6th in save percentage, good for a 24th ranked PDO of 99.7 (more evidence that these things regress to 100 over time).
It’s a big difference in shot quantity and quality, but the Kings have made it work. It’s their system, one that’s entirely defense first and built to suffocate any offense from the game. Brutal to watch, but it gets rings. The more they control the puck, the less the other team can generate chances. Even when the Kings are on offense, it’s a defense first mentality of simply keeping the puck away from the other team. It may mean low quality chances, but in the long run it pays off.
After six seasons, it’s pretty safe to say this is what the Kings are: a dominant possession team that struggles to score. Thursday's game was a microcosm of that as they outshot the Sabres 25 to 11 after two periods, yet the game was still tied 0-0. In the end they prevailed with a much-needed 2-0 win, but it must be frustrating to watch this team play this way.
From year-to-year there’s massive variance for shooting percentage, but given the Kings talent level you’d still expect them to be closer to the bottom than the top. This year they’re exactly where they are over the last six: 29th in shooting percentage. A look at some key stats for Los Angeles this season shows that converting chances is absolutely their biggest problem.
Everything else is fine. They’re possessing the puck at an elite level again, they’re limiting shots to cover up for bad goaltending, and their special teams at both ends of the ice are terrific. Everything except scoring is either very good or elite. But that one flaw has pushed their goal percentage at 5-on-5 to a below average rate.
This isn’t the first time the Kings have had massive problems scoring. The other time was in 2013-14 – the year they won their second Cup. Here’s the same chart from that season, and you’ll see that really the only thing that’s different between then and now is in net. Their special teams were actually worse.
Despite an offense ranking 23rd at 5-on-5, the Kings were third in goals. That hasn’t been the case this year because their offense is slightly worse and their goaltending has struggled. That 2013-14 season was an outlier year for Jonathan Quick so his injury isn’t solely to blame, but he probably might’ve helped a bit.
Even in the year they won the Cup, they weren’t as good as their Corsi suggested they were. In fact, that seems to be the case every year. Based on Corsi, expected goals and actual goals, this is what the Kings have looked like every year under Darryl Sutter.
Every single season their shot attempt rate vastly out-performs their goal and expected goal rate. Before this season, their averages were:
Corsi: 56.5 percent
Expected Goals: 54.9 percent
Goals: 53.5 percent
Those are elite numbers whichever way you look at it, but it’s clear they’re not as good as their hefty shot attempt advantage. Their goal mark is 1.5 percent below what’s expected of them and another three percent below their shot attempt rate. The 53.5 percent of goals is nothing to sneeze at, but the poorer quality of chances is something that always needs to be accounted for. Even the expected goal rate seems to be a little conservative, so there may be other factors outside of what’s included that might be to blame.
Whether the gap is one percent or three percent doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it shouldn’t be as large as the one Los Angeles is experiencing this season, controlling 54.6 percent of the shot attempts, but only 48.8 percent of the goals. That 5.8 percent difference is way larger than usual and has pushed them below 50 percent in goals for the first time under Sutter.
That’s why I’m very skeptical of those who believe the Kings aren’t a good team this year. Even after coming to terms with their shooting struggles, the effect shouldn’t be as large as what we’re seeing. “Their shooting percentage deserves to be low” and “they’re a bit unlucky right now” can both be true.
Going by their past history, if the team is at 54.6 percent Corsi right now, they should, at worst, have a goals percentage around 51 to 52 percent. That would be good enough to put them just outside the top 10. That’s the range they likely belong in. They’re not as elite as their Corsi might suggest, but not a below average team either. Along with their excellent special teams rates, they should be a top 10 team, but that’s just not the way it’s gone for them.
Whether they make the playoffs or not shouldn’t change the fact that this is still a good team. This team is mostly similar to the one that everyone is afraid of every other season, just a little worse for wear on the depth side. There’s no doubt this is the worst Kings team since they became contenders, but statistically speaking they’re still quite good.
With the amount of variance in an average hockey game and the current level of parity, weird results like this will happen. Bad teams will make it (remember the Flames, Avs or Leafs from the past few years) while good teams will be on the outside of the picture. It’s how we get a Stanley Cup champion missing the next year or a Stanley Cup finalist making it a year after missing. Even over 82 games, a lot can go wrong for a good team and the element of luck plays a big part in the standings. It’s why predicting them before the season is so difficult and always ends up going terribly for everyone.
They may not be the second best team in the league because their Corsi says so, but they aren’t the 19th best because their record says so either. Somewhere in the middle is where you’ll find the real answer: a team that deserves to be in the playoffs – even if it’s looking more likely that they won’t be. Given their numbers this year, I wouldn’t count them out just yet.