How the Los Angeles Kings Can Turn Special Teams into a Strength

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How the Los Angeles Kings Can Turn Special Teams into a Strength
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For a club that controls the bulk of even-strength play—leading the league in Corsi percentage according to ExtraSkater.com—the Los Angeles Kings sport one major area of concern: special teams.

These are the situations that can allow L.A.’s opponents to gain a foothold in games and cost the Kings points.

If we extrapolate the Kings’ power-play and penalty-killing performances over 60 minutes, their plus/minus rating would be minus-1.2. In other words, their special teams are hurting them in a bad way.

Whether opponents are exploiting the Kings’ inconsistent penalty kill or generating momentum by stifling L.A.’s power play, the squad needs to elevate its performance in these departments. Special teams will become increasingly vital in the postseason, where a single goal can make all the difference.

Merely breaking even in this respect would give the club a leg up in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. A couple of minor tweaks, though, could turn these situations into outright positives.

As of March 18, the Kings’ penalty kill ranks 11th in the league. That’s certainly a decent place on the totem pole. Unlike in recent seasons, though, the unit doesn’t feel impenetrable. It doesn’t seem as though L.A. can lock it down when it absolutely must.

Meanwhile, the power play ranks 25th. Given the talent on the roster, that’s not acceptable.

As Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider notes, the Kings have recently been turning the tide on special teams. Here’s how they can further shore up their PK and PP to become a greater threat in the Western Conference.

 

Penalty Kill

Give Kopitar a Break

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

As a minute-munching, first-line, two-way center, Anze Kopitar is one of the most valuable forwards in the NHL. At 6’3” and 225 pounds, his possession game is superb and he can use his frame to completely smother the opposition.

While he can play in any situation, it doesn’t necessarily benefit L.A. to deploy him in so many different capacities.

To wit, he’s not the most effective penalty-killer. This is not a new development, as Kopitar has been among the worst regular (top five in penalty-killing time on ice) Kings forwards on the PK in consecutive seasons.

Since many penalty-killers can create scoring chances of their own, which should be taken into account when considering overall effectiveness on the PK, the most telling metric to consult is plus/minus per 60 four-on-five minutes.

In 2013-14, Kopitar is minus-8.64.

For the sake of perspective, Jarret Stoll shoulders a similar penalty-killing burden and his plus/minus per 60 minutes is minus-4.35. If Kopitar performed as well as Stoll has on the PK, the Kings' short-handed efficiency would jump from 83 to 86.4 percent—or from 11th to second in the league.

Mike Richards (minus-4.08), Jeff Carter (minus-2.86) and Trevor Lewis (minus-6.09) round out the top five regular penalty-killing forwards on the Kings.

When Kopitar’s on the ice, the Kings allow more shot attempts and goals than when he’s not. In fact, their penalty-killing is at its best when he's off the ice.

It’s not a coincidence.

Should Sutter reduce Kopitar's penalty-killing ice time?

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Penalty-killing and even-strength defensewhich is an area of the game that Kopitar excels inare entirely separate propositions. Where Kopitar’s containment style is brilliant at five-on-five, using his size, reach and positioning to stifle the opposition, that conservative approach is burned on the PK.

The extra space granted by a PP demands that penalty-killers either play an aggressive brand of hockey or thrive on blocked shots. According to NHL.com, L.A. currently ranks 29th in the latter category.

With that in mind, the Kings must pressure puck-carriers before they can grow comfortable enough to shoot.

Richards, Carter, Stoll and Lewis are stronger penalty-killers than Kopitar for the very same reason that he is stronger than them at even-strength defense. They gamble and harass the opposition’s power play, never letting it feel at ease.

They fervently deny zone entry at the blue line, which is the key.

Once the power play establishes possession on offensewhich is almost inevitable due to line changes and leads to larger gaps between attackers and defendersthese four players hound their opponents, deploying active sticks and quick feet to act as a thorn in the side of the power play.

An individual might not always break up a play by himself, but Richards, Carter, Stoll and Lewis frequently affect the opposition’s execution by limiting its time to make the correct choice, forcing errant passes and shots.

That sort of high-wire act isn't in Kopitar's hockey DNA. He's the type to continually stay on the right side of the puck.

With better options on the PK and a top-tier forward who could use the rest, head coach Darryl Sutter should scale back his star center’s presence in short-handed situations.

 

Scout Teams’ Tendencies on Man Advantage

Much like goaltenders watching tape to pick up on forwards’ proclivities in the shootout, the coaching staff should study opponents’ go-to looks on the power play and emphasize the importance of snuffing them out.

A single PK stance to depend on won’t suffice.

Some clubs prefer to work the blue line for point shots whereas others opt for net-crashing plays down low that cause confusion and loose pucks.

The Colorado Avalanche, for example, heavily rely on Matt Duchene’s skating to generate opportunities. His strength on the puck and unparalleled ability to stop and start on a dime routinely bewilder penalty-killers who try to follow his every move.

Earlier this season, his darting style of play gave the Kings fits during a two-assist night. As the highlights show, L.A. had a world of trouble dealing with the Avs’ work down low.

Also attacking from a lower area, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews and Minnesota Wild star forward Zach Parise love to receive the puck along the goal line and immediately cram the net-front area.

Conversely, the Phoenix Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks focus their power play on the activity of their point men.

Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf is a wizard with the puck. If he is neutralized, the Ducks’ PP becomes considerably less threatening. In Phoenix, blueliners Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson govern the play.

As seen in Monday’s game against the Kings, Phoenix works the point for opportunities. When Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell failed to return to his spot after drifting too high (29-second mark in the video below), the forwards were pulled lower in the zone to compensate, allowing Ekman-Larsson to pick apart L.A.’s PK with a one-touch pass.

Mikkel Boedker received the puck in a high-percentage area and filtered a backhand by Jonathan Quick for a goal to go up 2-0.

Keeping a tighter gap on Ekman-Larsson would have negated this play entirely. However, the Kings were fixated on the puck, losing sight of the big picture and ultimately paying for it.

If the Kings can establish and abide by a clear game plan for each power play they encounter, such hiccups will be minimized.

 

Power Play

Maintain Aggressive, Direct Mentality

Noah Graham/Getty Images

The power play is slowly waking from its slumber because the Kings have adopted a much more direct approach on the man advantage.

Against the Coyotes, Kopitar did a phenomenal job of retaining possession upon entry of the offensive zone. Rather than engaging in a series of passes to the outside, he went straight for the jugular, slicing Phoenix’s penalty kill open with a pass into the heart of the defense. Marian Gaborik finished the play for a go-ahead marker.

The shot luckily deflected off Derek Morris’ stick, but these are the kind of bounces that can occur by simply attacking the middle of the ice.

If Sutter does choose to dial back Kopitar’s PK minutes, he should be fresher and more threatening from the half-wall on the PP. In the past, penalty killers would essentially dare him to shoot. He’s displayed a willingness to take over the PP of late, which is paying off in spades.

Other members of the power-play units should also distill the game down to the basics.

In their recent 2-1 loss to Anaheim, the Kings’ lone goal was once again the result of a straightforward, meat-and-potatoes design. At the 50-second mark of the video below, Jarret Stoll fired the puck on goal from a poor angle and Tyler Toffoli, positioned in the slot to convert any greasy chances, potted the rebound home.

Not every PP must string together a series of passes in hopes of a perfect shot. The Kings were often guilty of this in the past, passing back and forth on the outside until someone fired a puck into a penalty-killer’s shin pads.

The best method can sometimes be the simplest.

Provided the shots get through, sending the puck on net early and often doesn’t allow defenders to sit in their box. First and foremost, it can create rebound, tip and screen opportunities. Furthermore, it forces the penalty-killers to turn, which subsequently leads to scrambles and a bevy of open passing lanes.

In other words, it takes advantage of, well, the man advantage.

 

Put Mike Richards at the Point

Regardless of which PP grouping he’s on, Richards should man the point. His decisive play from the blue line has generated a ton of goal-mouth chances for his teammates in the pastincluding during his time in Philadelphiaand he appears far more comfortable there than lower in the formation.

He isn’t strong enough to retrieve pucks against bigger defensemen and his skill setsolid decision-making and visionwould be put to better use as a general patrolling the point.

If Sutter leaves the first unit untouchedKopitar, Gaborik, Carter, Drew Doughty and Slava VoynovRichards could then join Alec Martinez on the second pair, forming a duo that moves the puck crisply and is not reluctant to shoot.

Martinez has been on fire recently, as his combination of mobility and eagerness to join the offense has yielded stellar production. More specifically in regard to the PP, his on-ice Corsi with the man advantage completely dwarfs that of his teammates.

Kings opponents will likely catch on to this on the PK, which will leave the second point man with more room to operate.

That latitude would be wasted on Jake Muzzinwho can get his shot blocked like none otheror whichever other defenseman is plugged into that slot.

Richards fits the role to a tee and could form a lethal twosome with Martinez.

In crucial situationsdown one goal late in the third periodRichards should replace Voynov, who can be too hesitant for his own good. Also, the Russian’s formerly uncanny ability to sift shots through traffic has all but vanished.

With a more prominent Kopitar on the half-wall, Doughty’s one-timer threat at the point, Gaborik’s ability to score from anywhere on the ice, Carter’s net-front presence and Richards’ ability to quarterback play from the blue line, the Kings should boast a solid crunch-time PP.

L.A. isn’t likely to dominate penalty-killers through its sheer volume of power-play goals scored, but a timely marker here and there would provide the team with a huge boost.

On the whole, the Kings are set at even strength. They dictate the play more often than not and are tied for sixth in the league in five-on-five plus/minus per 60 minutes.

That figure should improve in the playoffs, as a handful of L.A.’s playerschiefly Doughty, Richards and Jonathan Quickhave developed the habit of stepping up to the plate when their season hangs in the balance.

The prevailing question mark remains special teams. With a few small adjustments to both personnel and tactics, the Kings can position themselves for a third straight deep playoff run.

 

Advanced statistics courtesy of Behind the Net unless otherwise noted.

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