Los Angeles Kings' 5 Biggest Surprises Thus Far in 2013-14 Playoffs
Though most knew the Los Angeles Kings were Stanley Cup contenders ahead of the playoffs, not every part of their ongoing 2013-14 postseason run was anticipated.
Sure, Anze Kopitar has been ever-reliable, the center depth has been strong and Jonathan Quick has been brilliant of late, but L.A. has also enjoyed contributions from individuals who were perhaps question marks coming in.
Based on how far these players’ performances have deviated from expectations, here are the biggest surprises—both pleasant and unpleasant—from the Kings’ start to the playoffs.
Alec Martinez's All-Around Play
The Kings are simply better with Alec Martinez in the lineup. It took head coach Darryl Sutter a good while to realize this fact of life, but at least he did before it was too late.
Always ready to join the attack, the fleet-footed 26-year-old is a key cog in L.A.’s puck-possession game, posting a stellar 56.3 five-on-five Corsi percentage during the regular season. He also enjoyed an offensive breakout following the Olympic break, tallying 15 points and a plus-nine rating in 22 games.
That streak has continued in the playoffs, with Martinez currently sitting on two goals and five points in nine games.
With that said, where he’s proven himself the most thus far in the postseason is in his all-around game. He’s been dependable on the defensive end, which has earned him more ice time.
In the team’s 2012 Stanley Cup run, he saw 14:28 of action per night (three points, plus-five in 20 games). In last year’s postseason, he played 13:14 per contest (two points, minus-four in seven games).
Through nine playoff contests in 2014, he’s seen over 18 minutes per game without missing a beat, registering a plus-one rating and chipping in wherever he can—his pace helps the breakout and closes gaps in the neutral zone, while his physicality continues to surprise forwards.
Though his epic overtime block on Corey Perry in Game 1 against Anaheim grabbed most of the headlines, he’s used his stick to effectively disrupt opposing forwards and has been generally sound in coverage despite subpar pairmates such as Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell.
The higher stakes and tougher opponents haven't fazed him in the least, as he's elevated his game to that of a second-pairing blueliner.
L.A.'s bench boss used to scratch him on a semi-regular basis. Now he trusts him to kill off penalties.
Tanner Pearson's Composure
Tanner Pearson looked the part of a frantic rookie during his first call-up of the season.
Ever since, he’s been a high-effort winger whose poise and grunt work have vaulted his line to a higher level. His decisions with the puck have improved and he’s learned to utilize his blazing speed to keep plays alive and pressure opposing defensemen.
The 21-year-old appears to have raised the bar in the playoffs too, notching four points in seven games after registering seven in 25 regular-season contests.
Most importantly in L.A.’s system, he’s done well in possession, staving off defenders in the corners to fish out pucks and win one-on-one battles. Despite a nice pair of hands, he never gets too fancy either, opting for simple, straight-line plays that best utilize his skill set.
He has good chemistry with fellow youngster Tyler Toffoli and established sniper Jeff Carter. Though they aren’t great on defense, Pearson’s hustle and ability to extend shifts in the offensive zone have prevented the line from getting pinned in its end for too long.
L.A. has conceded 19 of them. Carter and Toffoli have each been scored on six times at even strength.
Not Pearson, though. To this point in the postseason, he’s coupled the pace of an upstart with the savvy of a veteran.
Jake Muzzin's Defense
Jake Muzzin has been serviceable on defense.
That doesn’t appear to be saying much, but leveling out his formerly up-and-down performances has instilled a greater sense of calm on L.A.’s back end.
He was a disaster in the 2013 postseason, coughing up pucks in dangerous areas multiple times per game and appearing flustered by the increased physicality of the playoffs. In the first round, the St. Louis Blues mercilessly targeted him on dump-ins because they knew he’d get rattled.
At present, he’s learned to absorb contact and take hits to make a play. For the most part, he’s also cleaned up his puck management to limit mistakes when he’s in possession.
Drew Doughty doesn’t have to babysit his partner quite as much anymore, which has allowed Doughty to assert himself on the attack (eight points in nine games in 2014 versus five points in 18 games last spring). Facilitating Doughty’s offense by merely playing solid defense has been crucial thus far.
Muzzin is still getting his shots blocked far too frequently—his five-on-five Fenwick percentage of 47.7, which weeds out blocked shots, is well below his five-on-five Corsi percentage of 53.3—and he isn’t spotless in coverage just yet.
However, he’s displayed a relatively safe, more controlled brand of hockey. Through nine games, he’s been on the ice for the second-fewest even-strength goals against on the team while seeing over 19 minutes per game against tough competition.
He’s also registered five points and a plus-four rating in nine games.
The 25-year-old has a ton of potential, but he’s progressed quicker than anticipated, giving the Kings a top defensive pair that is nowhere near as unbalanced as it was only a year ago.
Slava Voynov's Struggles
Slava Voynov had a tough regular season, continually fumbling pucks and floundering on defense.
Considering his track record of solid postseasons, however, he was expected to bounce back by the start of the playoffs—at least a little.
The 24-year-old’s confidence looks entirely shaken, as his execution has been clumsy and his decision-making seems slow as molasses. He’s playing his worst hockey and has been the worst defenseman on the team by a comfortable margin, routinely committing turnovers and finding himself out of position in every zone.
His five-on-five Corsi percentage is a team-worst 46.2. His usual pairmate, Robyn Regehr, is all the way up at 54.1.
As an offensive defenseman, these issues could be mitigated by black-and-white production. Alas, he’s only mustered two points and a minus-two rating through nine games. Furthermore, he’s been on the ice for more even-strength goals against than any L.A. player.
In a nutshell, Voynov has burdened the team in possession and on defense, with only two points to act as the counterweight.
Expecting him to regain his 2013 playoff form (13 points, plus-nine in 18 games) is a bit much, but surely he could look the part of an NHL blueliner. Even Jeff Schultz, who was recently called up from the AHL, put forth a competent performance on Monday.
Marian Gaborik's Finish
Marian Gaborik is a sniper. There’s no getting around that fact.
However, his recent performance seemed to suggest that he was merely a good finisher rather than an elite one. Over the last three years, he’s scored 23 times in 88 contests. After his arrival in L.A., he potted a respectable five goals over 19 games to close out the regular season.
He’s already tallied six through nine postseason outings. For the sake of comparison, that equals the total amassed in his previous 25 playoff games with the New York Rangers—another defense-first club.
Granted, playing with a great talent like Anze Kopitar helps, but the benefits are clearly mutual. As a shooting threat that must be respected, Gaborik provides his center with much more room on the ice. Conversely, Kopitar’s puck possession and playmaking are supplying the trigger-happy winger with higher-quality looks than ever before.
Looking at the best chance at a championship in his career, Gaborik appears rejuvenated and has registered crucial markers for the Kings in this year’s playoff run despite facing the team's stiffest competition.
His most significant points came in Game 1 against the Anaheim Ducks, batting home a rebound off a Mike Richards shot with seven seconds left in regulation to force overtime. In the extra frame, he tipped home a nice Kopitar pass that allowed the Kings to nullify the Ducks’ home-ice advantage.
Both of those goals were the product of silky touch, hand-eye coordination and undeniable finishing ability.
After a number of ordinary years, Gaborik has proven that he remains deadly with the puck.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater.