The Los Angeles Kings did not end 2013 on a high note. They lost four consecutive games in regulation and all of them were to Western Conference opponents.
They now sit nine points back of the Anaheim Ducks in the Pacific Division. There is no need to panic just yet, but there are a few things the Kings need to work on if they want to contend for a division title.
Look no further than their current losing streak where they've struggled offensively—scoring just six goals over four games—for an example of an area they need to be better in.
With that said, here are the Kings' five areas they must improve on in the second half of the season.
The fourth line has been inconsistent all season in both its play and the players on it. Head coach Darryl Sutter has been unable to find a trio—or even four players—who will consistently play a smart, simple checking game.
Colin Fraser, Trevor Lewis, Jordan Nolan, Matt Frattin, Kyle Clifford and many others have spent time on the fourth line in the first half of the season.
As the second half progresses, look for a couple of players to step up and establish themselves as regulars in the lineup. Matt Frattin is one winger in particular who needs to be better.
He should be able to play his way onto the third line if he plays a better two-way game. If he can do that before the Olympic break, a solid fourth line should start to take shape and establish chemistry before the playoffs, one perhaps featuring Clifford, Fraser and Nolan.
At 84.5 percent, the Kings penalty kill ranks eighth in the league. It's a great strength of the team, but not one that should be on display on a regular basis.
L.A. has been shorthanded 161 times this season. To put that in perspective, only the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators have been down a man more often. In fact, L.A. has spent just over 44 minutes more on the penalty kill than on the power play. Only the Boston Bruins rank worse in that category.
While some penalties may be necessary in order to prevent a good scoring chance, there are many the Kings take that are unnecessary.
The benefits are obvious. Take fewer penalties, spend more time at equal strength and take the stress off your goaltender and penalty-killers.
Operating at 16.2 percent, the Kings power play ranks 22nd in the league. That's unacceptable considering the talent and firepower they have up front and on the blue line.
It's been particularly bad in recent weeks, as L.A. has tallied just two power-play goals in its past eight games.
To better their chances of winning a division title and also being able to defeat another strong defensive team in the playoffs like the St. Louis Blues, the Kings power play needs to be closer to 20 percent.
It starts with generating chances from the point. Whether it's Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov of Jake Muzzin, the Kings defensemen need to do a better job of getting pucks to the net. On top of that, the forwards—specifically Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown—need to make better decisions with the puck and find open spaces when they don't possess it.
After signing an eight-year, $47 million contract extension in the offseason, expectations were that Dustin Brown would continue to be the same dynamic player he's been in recent years, if not better.
He continues to be a strong leader, but his production has declined significantly. With seven goals and six assists for 13 points, Brown sits 11th on the Kings in scoring. The L.A. captain was fifth on the team in scoring last season and third in 2011-12.
The Kings are usually at their best when Brown is grinding it out on the forecheck and contributing offensively both five-on-five and on the power play. For example, when the Kings made their Stanley Cup run in 2012, Brown notched 20 points in 20 playoff games, made a number of hard hits and was in the conversation for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Lucky for L.A., there is still half a season for Brown to get back on track before the playoffs.
The Kings are so sound defensively that they usually don't need to score more than three goals in a game to win. That said, their lack of offense of late has been one of the main reasons they've lost four consecutive games.
While they don't need to be a top-10 team offensively, ranking 20th with 2.54 goals per game isn't good enough.
The Kings have no trouble getting pucks to the net—they average 30.8 shots per game—but they aren't generating quality scoring chances. As one of the best puck-possession teams in the NHL, L.A. must continue to forecheck effectively and cycle the puck well but also create more odd-man rushes.
Previously mentioned areas—including the power play and Dustin Brown—will go a long way in helping the Kings to score more and therefore give them a better chance at winning their division.