Drew Doughty (Aaron Poole/NHLI via Getty Images)
Los Angeles’ offense has been non-existent, Jonathan Quick hasn’t played well and the roster appears to have depth issues, but there’s no reason to worry about the Kings quite yet. In many ways they’ve been the same old Kings. Should the slide continue into late-October, though, coach Darryl Sutter could find himself on the hot seat.
After missing the post-season in 2014-15, the Los Angeles Kings were supposed to be making a statement this season. Instead, they’ve left their fans asking questions.
The Kings have scored twice in three games, allowed 12 goals against and have dropped contests to division rivals Arizona, San Jose and Vancouver, the latter of which shut out Los Angeles Tuesday night. A season that was supposed to be the Kings’ resurgence has instead seen them sputtering out of the gate. For obvious reasons, no one is pressing the panic button quite yet. It is, after all, just three games of an 82-contest marathon.
If the trend continues, though, one has to wonder what kind of leash coach Darryl Sutter is on. In February of the 2014-15 campaign, Sutter was famously locked out of the dressing room by players so he couldn’t get in to speak with the team, which for some signalled that maybe he had lost the room. However, Kings GM Dean Lombardi saw it another way, saying he had no problem with his team’s reaction because it sparked them to an eight-game winning streak. He wasn’t about to argue with results.
But those results aren’t coming this season. Lombardi hasn’t constructed a roster that is building towards a championship, either. This isn’t a young team taking early-season lumps en route to bigger and better things. This is a team that still has many of the players who won the Stanley Cup twice in four seasons, and the goal this campaign isn’t to qualify for the post-season but to win the Cup for a third time. It seemed like a long shot that Sutter could be axed this season, but with three losses to open the year, his chair may be warming up already. One worry is the issues that have plagued the Kings through their first few games aren’t exactly new ones.
The Kings goal-scoring has left much to be desired under Sutter. Since he took over on Dec. 20, 2011, the Kings have scored 665 times. At a glance, that looks like a solid number, but it’s the 23rd-fewest goals in the entire NHL. That they’ve managed only two tallies through three games doesn’t bode well for the Kings shaking their offensive woes this season.
So far this season, talking about individual player performances on offense would be a waste. The Kings have been universally bad at finding the back of the net and while Jeff Carter has an assist, Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Milan Lucic and Tanner Pearson have been held off the score sheet in each of Los Angeles’ first three contests. The most glaring flaw in the Kings’ roster, however, is their lack of depth on offense.
Jordan Weal, who scored 20 goals and 69 points in the AHL in 2014-15, has seen only one game of action and a total of 7:38 in ice time. He made a bad turnover which led to Max Domi’s goal in the Kings’ second game of the season and was subsequently scratched against Vancouver. Nick Shore has been fine in limited minutes and he has one of the Kings’ two goals this season. But outside of Weal and Shore, Los Angeles’ bottom-six consists of Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis, Jordan Nolan and Andy Andreoff. Not exactly a murderer’s row in a league where depth might matter more than ever.
Exacerbating the scoring issue is the play of Jonathan Quick, who has an .855 save percentage at 5-on-5 through three games. In Tuesday’s game — not yet a must-win for the Kings, but certainly one they could have used to get on track — he was beaten two times on 25 shots and the Los Angeles offense mustered a mere 15 attempts on the Vancouver goal. Quick rose to stardom thanks to timely stops on a club whose offense was never high-powered, but he has been average for much of the past three seasons. That hasn’t changed and Quick’s sub-par performance will level out.
Some will point to the Kings’ defensive changes as their issue, but the overhaul on the blueline hasn’t been that major. Gone are Robyn Regehr, who retired, and Slava Voynov, who went to the KHL following his off-ice legal troubles. Voynov’s absence isn’t much change from the 2014-15 campaign considering he played only six games. The loss of Regehr, though, is an interesting one. He suited up for 67 games last season and averaged more than 20 minutes per night. That said, of all regulars on the Kings bluleine, Regehr had the worst shot attempts for percentage relative to his teammates. He wasn’t leading the charge by any means.
To repair the Kings’ back end, Lombardi replaced Regehr and Voynov with free agent Christian Ehrhoff. And to level out ice time, Sutter has been heaping more minutes on Brayden McNabb, though he has only been on the ice for five defensive-zone draws in two games. Sutter doesn’t have the confidence in him quite yet to take on the important minutes that he would task Regehr with at times. Derek Forbort, the Kings’ first-round pick (15th overall) in 2010, is next in line to get a shot on the backend. If he doesn’t work out, though, Lombardi might be out of options on defense barring a trade.
No matter what holes the roster may appear to have or what the box scores read, though, the Kings’ trademark puck possession has remained. Through three games, no team has a better shot attempts for percentage. Small sample size? Absolutely, but if the Los Angeles faithful are looking for something — anything — to hang their hats on, it should be that the club is still managing to control the puck in the way they have under Sutter’s watch. Eventually, that will turn into goals for Los Angeles.
The puck possession game and grinding wins out of opponents in low-scoring affairs has been a staple of Kings hockey since Sutter stepped behind the bench. The wins haven’t been coming, but the process that leads to the result has been there.
This team has Stanley Cup aspirations and anything short will be a disappointment for fans. No one will be calling to blow up the Kings roster and Sutter’s job is safe for now. But no matter what the analytics say or how hot the offense may get, the fact remains that in a results-driven business, the Kings aren’t getting positive ones to start the season. Lombardi isn’t going to wait for his team to far too fall out of post-season contention. Panic mode hasn’t set in quite yet, but a few more losses could be cause for Lombardi to push that button.