Breaking Down the Los Angeles Kings' 2nd-Line Dilemma

Vinh CaoContributor IIIApril 1, 2014

Though the Los Angeles Kings have won six of their last seven regular-season games and are looking like a nightmarish first-round matchup, the NHL playoffs will separate the men from the boys.

Head coach Darryl Sutter’s club just so happens to feature a pair of the latter in its forward ranks with Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli.

Can he afford to play both of them alongside Jeff Carter in the postseason, where the slightest mistake could spell the difference between victory and defeat?

The answer would be a straightforward “no” in most circumstances.

However, L.A. finds itself in a muddier situation.


The Dilemma

Three of the team’s four forward lines have been performing well since Mike Richards was plucked from Carter’s line and placed between Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford.

Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik have been afforded the time to jell, and it’s starting to pay off in emphatic fashion. Meanwhile, Jarret Stoll’s group with Dustin Brown and Dwight King has performed brilliantly over the past couple of games.

As I mentioned last week, Richards has also been reinvigorated next to Lewis and Clifford to form one of the finest fourth lines in the league. They're producing chances and energy on a nightly basis.

In big-picture terms, L.A. has maintained its stout defense while ramping up its offense in the past month.

On the season, the Kings have scored 2.41 goals per game while conceding 2.08. Since the March 5 trade deadline, they’ve managed 38 goals for (2.92 GPG) and 28 against (2.15 GAPG) in 13 outings. Their goal differential per game has ballooned following the acquisition of Gaborik.

The team’s rolling tide is redolent of the one spurred by Carter’s arrival in L.A. in 2011-12, when the Kings took home their first and only Stanley Cup.

As such, any tweaks made to fortify his line would invariably split up another group in good form. Conversely, starting two rookies in the top six against elite opponents is an awfully dangerous proposition.

Sutter could shelter them at home with the advantage of last change, but when the Kings visit opposing rinks in the postseasonbarring a collapse, L.A. will face either Anaheim or San Jose in the Western Conference quarterfinalsthere will be no hiding Toffoli and Pearson from the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Joe Thornton and Logan Couture.

Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau or Sharks bench boss Todd McLellan would surely be keeping their eyes peeled for the opportunity to send their big guns out against a couple of rookies.

Carter isn’t exactly a defensive stalwart either. Despite improving his two-way reputation after landing in L.A., he can’t carry an entire line’s three-zone burden while achieving his primary mandate of scoring goals.

Strictly in terms of his defensive game, he’s fast and rangy, which allows him to be a demon on the backcheck. Those qualities have also seen him blossom into a very effective penalty-killer. His minus-2.84 rating per 60 short-handed minutes is tops among Kings forwards.

However, his even-strength instincts once the puck enters the Kings’ zone are mediocre. He occasionally gets lost in coverage and keeps a looser gap on his assignment than L.A. would prefer.

Against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, he failed to tie up Matt Halischuk in front of the Kings’ net, allowing his counterpart to fire a shot by Jonathan Quick for a momentum-shifting tally.

Coupling those shortcomings with Pearson and Toffoli’s blemishes is a recipe for disaster.

Against the Minnesota Wild on Monday night, Toffoli coughed the puck up twiceonce on a blind pass into traffic and once at the offensive blue line with no support behind himleading to gifted shots for the opposition. Those are the sort of errors that are entirely unacceptable in the playoffs, yet also to be expected from up-and-coming, skilled forwards.

Pearson, meanwhile, has been woefully inconsistent. Some nights, he looks the part of a true second-line winger. Other nights, he glides in no-man's land.

The Kings can mitigate such issues down the regular season’s home stretch by virtue of sheer depth, but the postseason is a pressure cooker that routinely eats youngsters alive.


The Options

In theory, swapping Pearson and King’s places in the lineup would be quite promising. With his formidable size and stellar positioning, King would offer the second line a defensive conscience, better puck possession and stronger board presence.

His plus-0.84 rating per 60 even-strength minutes ranks third among the club’s forwards and his on-ice Corsi (shot attempt differential per 60 minutes) ranks fifth at 18.53.

With that being said, he’s been playing lights-out hockey on the third line and may not replicate that success on a different unit with such a small window for cultivating on-ice understanding with new linemates.

Another route would be to reunite Richards and Carter.

The two were never a strong fit in Philadelphia, but for some inexplicable reason, they appeared to mesh well early on in Los Angeles. Richards would send no-look or one-touch passes to Carter, who was seemingly always ready to fly by a defender or blast a shot on net. Their shared sense of timing was uncanny.

Recently, however, the chemistry has all but vanished.

While Carter has still registered shots, Richards has barely seen any of the puck, which has severely hampered his ability to create and produce.

What’s worse, the former Flyers aren’t an ideal fit from a defensive standpoint. Both are natural centers, and the one who is pushed to the wing continually looks uncomfortable.

When Richards is on the wing, his crafty skill set is tempered and Carter isn’t savvy enough in the middle of the ice to keep their opponents at bay.

When Richards is slotted at center, Carter struggles with his task of winning battles along the wall to clear the zone and deflate the other team’s pressure. This leads to far more shots against than Sutter would like.

Furthermore, there’s a moment’s worth of hesitation in their defensive decisions, as though they’re stopping to sort out where they should be rather than simply drifting into appropriate positions.

In the NHL, a lot can happen in the blink of an eye. As a result of their brief hiccups, the two rank as the worst Kings forwards in five-on-five goals against per 60 minutes.

Richards has been noticeably better at even strength since being paired with Lewis and Clifford. Carter remains a question mark in between Pearson and Toffoli.

When playing No. 10 and No. 77 together works, though, it works really well.

In the 2013 playoffs, Richards and Carter boasted respective plus/minus ratings of plus-1.09 and plus-1.33 per 60 even-strength minutes. Those were among the strongest marks on the team and came against some of its stiffest competition.

This season, however, Richards sits at minus-0.62 and Carter (plus-0.40) would be around there too if not for an extended stay on Kopitar’s right wing.

When pondering this matter, Sutter must gauge whether the risk of Richards and Carter not clicking soon enoughthereby negating the positives that both could deliver on separate linesis worth the potential reward of a unit with a history of effective two-way hockey.


The Verdict

If only 40 rather than 76 regular-season games had already been played, trying to rekindle a Richards-Carter partnership would be worth Sutter’s time and effort.

As it stands, the Kings are roughly two weeks away from the start of the playoffs and Richards has just turned the corneraway from Carter.

Reuniting them and carving out distinct, stable rolesno longer seesawing between center and wingshould be a point of emphasis in the offseason.

With only the upcoming postseason in mind, however, the Kings should maintain their spread-the-wealth approach down the middle, keeping as many of their centers in a groove as possible. 

A few tweaks on the wings should be enough to fine-tune this roster into a championship-worthy squad.

Bumping the reliable King up provides a much more balanced look to the forward corps—especially if Pearson could then take Clifford's spot on Richards' wing, offering the pivot great pace on both sides and an offensive upgrade on the left.

Stoll's line taking a hit can be stomached in order to squeeze the best out of Kopitar, Carter and Richards. Those three will be leading the way in the playoffs, and Sutter must make his choices accordingly.

Gaborik-Kopitar-Williams, King-Carter-Toffoli, Pearson-Richards-Lewis and Clifford-Stoll-Brown would constitute a stellar lineup with skill, speed and defensive awareness across the board.

In any event, Toffoli and Pearson simply cannot take shifts together in the playoffs. Opponents would make the Kings pay by targeting their rookies without mercy. If they’ve looked bad of late, they’ll look even worse once the competition grows fiercer.

The second line, as it is presently built, is sinking in quicksand.


Advanced statistics courtesy of Behind the Net.


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