Los Angeles Kings' 5 Biggest Concerns Amid Playoff Push

Vinh CaoContributor IIIMarch 20, 2014

Los Angeles Kings' 5 Biggest Concerns Amid Playoff Push

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    Though the Los Angeles Kings are currently in playoff position, they've dropped three straight games and are in danger of slipping in the Western Conference standings.

    Anze Kopitar has been a stalwart up the middle after a slow start to the year and Jeff Carter has also had a strong season on the whole. However, some of the Kings' other key contributors are faltering down the stretch. This has caused a slide at the most important juncture of the regular season.

    Extra Skater indicates that the Kings' possession numbers are still terrific and they've been frustratingly streaky all year—so, the wins should come if L.A. keeps its collective nose to the grindstone.

    Nevertheless, the Kings will need the following members of the team to raise their level of play in order to secure a postseason berth and aim for a second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

Marian Gaborik

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    The Slovakian sniper hasn’t enjoyed the finest start with the Kings, notching only two goals and one assist in the six games following February’s trade deadline.

    Perhaps most alarming is his minus-two rating over that span. Anze Kopitar, his current center and one of the best two-way forwards in the game, has been a minus player in the last three contests. On the season as a whole, he’s a plus-24, which indicates that the new top line hasn’t been as sound in all three zones as it was beforehand.

    However, shuffling the deck wouldn’t be a wise move on head coach Darryl Sutter’s part.

    This late into the campaign, chemistry is paramount and a shake-up could severely hamper the Kings’ playoff hopes. Moreover, Gaborik’s most suitable fit is on Kopitar’s wing, taking advantage of the Slovenian’s unrivaled knack for puck possession to fire shot after shot on goal.

    He’s been granted quality looks too. Thus far, he’s struggled to find the net, with one goal banking off his skate and the other deflecting off Derek Morris’ stick.

    Gaborik must prove that he’s still the sort of deadly sniper who can beat goaltenders with a clean shot. If he can’t, the opposition won’t show him as much respect and will subsequently put the clamps back on Kopitar, who has seen more open ice in the last few games than he has in ages.

    As the team with the 27th-ranked offense in the league, L.A. needs its weapons to begin clicking soon.

Drew Doughty

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    Following another brilliant Olympic performance, Doughty returned to L.A. as a two-time gold medalist. His spirits may still be high, but his game has since landed in the gutter.

    While he’s still among the best in the game when he’s on, he hasn’t seemed like himself on the ice lately—displaying a far more selfish, offense-oriented side that doesn’t flatter his all-around skill set. It’s exciting to be sure, but that isn’t what Kings hockey is about.

    In fact, his looser play has exposed the holes in former pairmate Jake Muzzin’s game. Where Doughty typically covers for his less experienced partner, he’s been jumping up into the play far too often in recent outings, leaving Muzzin to his own devices. Doughty's three assists over the past five games have been offset by a minus-four rating.

    The result for his partner? A couple of subpar showings and a healthy scratch against Phoenix.

    Doughty has been attempting to beat entire teams by himself when a simple pass to a teammate would suffice. He’s capable of me-against-the-world dashes, but only when the time is right.

    Rushing headlong into the opposition at every turn isn’t helping L.A. out in the least. The curious thing about this all is that he usually brings such a pronounced team-first mentality to the table, sacrificing sexy offensive numbers for the good of the club.

    Given his sterling body of work, he should be granted the benefit of the doubt for now.

    With that said, his 2013 playoffs were forgettable, so he needs to re-establish his status as a big-game performer in the NHL down the stretch.

Dustin Brown

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    L.A.'s captain deserves ample criticism for his play this year.

    However, that isn’t why he finds himself on this list. Since an embarrassing benching in Sochi, Brown has found renewed life and his contributions have been generally positive on a line with Jarret Stoll.

    Over his last eight games, he’s posted six points and a plus-one rating. Before the break, he had managed a mere 16 points in 58 games to go with a plus-one rating.

    Unfortunately, he felt under the weather prior to the game against Anaheim and has missed the club’s last two contests.

    In that window, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli have developed a stellar rapport with Stoll. Pearson has buzzed around the ice with great pace and tenacity, whereas Toffoli’s hockey sense and willingness to pull the trigger have seemingly yielded more chances than the third line had mustered all year.

    Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider reports that Brown is likely to return on Thursday against the Washington Capitals. The projected lines pit Brown on the third unit with Stoll and Dwight King. Can Sutter afford to spoil the burgeoning chemistry Stoll has uncovered with the young guns?

    If the fit between Brown and Stoll is no longer there, Sutter won't have many options for his captain.

    Since he’s not a fourth-liner, Brown would have to suit up alongside Kopitar or Mike Richards. He’s enjoyed success with the former in the past, but has been a drain on the top line this season. Meanwhile, he and Richards have always clashed as linemates. Richards’ need for touches and Brown’s propensity for turnovers just don’t mesh.

    The third line may well pick up right where it left off. If it doesn't, however, Sutter will be trapped between a rock and a hard place.

Veteran Defensemen

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    Experience is vital in the spring, but not at the expense of an optimal lineup.

    Seeing as Alec Martinez has been playing the best and most productive hockey of his career of late, his spot should finally be safe.

    That leaves Jake Muzzin as well as grizzled vets Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene vying for the final two places on the starting rosterDoughty, Slava Voynov and Robyn Regehr are locks.

    On performance alone, Mitchell should be the odd man out. His puck management has been downright brutal on a team that runs on possession, while his defensive coverage has clearly regressed following a debilitating knee injury that sidelined him for the entire 2013 season.

    Greene is another blueliner recovering from a serious injury who has struggled to regain his previous form. He’s still hard-nosed, but his already modest skating has taken a hit. Throwing checks without the ability to spring back into position creates sundry holes in the defense and hangs teammates out to dry.

    Of the club’s last 117 regular-season tilts (2013’s lockout-shortened campaign and L.A.’s 69 games this year), Mitchell has participated in 64 and Greene in 38.

    The rust is showing, and at their respective ages of 36 and 30, it’s not shaking off that easily.

    Sitting one of these leaders when healthy would be a tough pill to swallow for Sutter, but their sloppy play warrants such a decision.

    However, the Kings’ bench boss has always been stubbornly loyal to his favorites.

    Mitchell is currently seeing over 20 minutes of ice time per game in spite of his poor showings. Moreover, in the past year-and-a-half, Sutter has intermittently plugged a slow, 33-year-old Regehr on the top pair when it was clear that he wasn’t suited for that responsibility.

    In fact, Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider projects Regehr as Doughty's partner for Thursday's game against Washington after Mitchell floundered on the top pair against Phoenix.

    Rinse, repeat.

    Who knows? Sutter might even scratch Martinez again for the millionth time.

Mike Richards

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    To state the obvious, Richards’ on-ice impact extends well beyond the scoresheet.

    He sets the tone and leads by example, battling in the trenches and forcing opponents to earn every inch of ice they get. He’s also a facilitator, providing good puck support and routinely putting his teammates in a position to succeed with subtle, crafty plays all over the ice.

    Nevertheless, CapGeek.com indicates that he’s paid like a top-six forward and he must produce in kind.

    At the very least, he needs to produce more scoring chances.

    After a really strong start to the season (27 points in 32 games), he’s run into a dry spell, tallying a miserable 12 points over his last 37 outings. He's recently been paired with a great skater and shooter in Jeff Carter—with whom he has wonderful chemistryso he has no excuse for his offensive output.

    On L.A.’s second forward unit, which is more rooted in swift transition than grinding possession, the key is dominating the neutral zone. Richards, Carter and whoever starts on left wing must focus on exiting their end cleanly and with speed.

    When Richards has his feet moving and the puck on his stick, his line is difficult to handle.

    Carter’s pace and shot can cause fits for the opposition while Richards’ savvy playmaking should be generating more opportunities than this group has seen in the past week or so.

    Obviously, not every shift Richards’ line takes will gravitate around rushes, so the trio must pull up its sleeves and do the dirty work when the tempo slows to a crawl. Richards has to outmaneuver bigger and faster players to extend shifts in the offensive zone. While that’s a tall order to be sure, he’s dealt with it throughout his entire career.

    In a nutshell, L.A.’s second-line pivot has to find his postseason fire a couple of weeks early. When he’s on his game, there isn’t a team in the league that can handle the Kings’ all-around 1-2 punch at center.

    If he digs in, then the chances, points and wins will follow.

    If he doesn’t, then the Kings' playoff chances will suffer a serious blow.