As noted by Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider, the Los Angeles Kings are the first team in NHL history to survive three Game 7s on the road to the Stanley Cup Final. However, the fourth round of the playoffs wipes the slate clean and presents a whole new challenge.
Head coach Darryl Sutter and his staff must act accordingly, tailoring the squad’s look to best stack up against a speedy and balanced New York Rangers club.
The Western Conference Final was certainly an exhilarating affair, but it was far from ideal from L.A.'s perspective, with spotty defense and questionable bottom-six performances plaguing the team from the middle of the series onward.
Here are three adjustments the Kings should consider as they prepare to take on the Rangers for the right to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Shore Up the 2nd Defensive Pair
Let’s not beat around the bush: L.A.’s defense has been horrid in the postseason, currently ranking ninth with a goals-against average of 2.86.
In the regular season, the Kings led the league with a 2.05 GAA. In the 2013 playoffs, they conceded 1.89 goals per game. When they won their only Stanley Cup in franchise history, they registered a phenomenal 1.50 GAA.
2014 has obviously represented a significant drop-off.
Drew Doughty has been outstanding—he should be the Conn Smythe Trophy front-runner by a mile—and Jake Muzzin has fared much better this spring than in 2013. Alec Martinez, while shaky at times, has brought good energy and mobility on the third group.
Unfortunately, L.A.’s second pairing on the blue line has bordered on pathetic.
Willie Mitchell and Slava Voynov have struggled throughout the entire playoffs, coughing up pucks to the opposition at every turn. Voynov has also seemingly made it his mission to creep into the attack at completely inopportune moments, leading to counterattacks that catch his entire team by surprise:
Mitchell’s decline in quality is nothing new. He was poor throughout the year and clearly hasn’t been the same player since the knee injury that sidelined him for the entire 2013 campaign.
With Voynov, well, it’s hard to explain how things have gone so wrong over the past 100 games. He was great in the 2013 postseason and appeared primed for a breakout regular season. It never happened.
A hobbled Mitchell and erratic Voynov have combined to form one of the worst pairings in the entire playoffs.
This is far more serious than subpar overall play, too. These two have committed glaring, inexcusable mistakes that have directly caused goals against:
Moreover, Mitchell and Voynov are the only two rearguards on the team with a five-on-five Corsi percentage below 50 in the playoffs. No one on the team struggles to handle the puck like they do, frequently stalling zone exits and granting the opposition a bevy of unearned chances.
When Mitchell and Voynov are on the ice, L.A. is on its heels.
Sutter has to rectify this situation.
His job may actually take care of itself. LA Kings Insider's Jon Rosen reported in late May that Robyn Regehr is inching closer to a return from injury, and he may be ready to play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
The 34-year-old’s presence would likely push Mitchell to the third pair while somewhat steadying the second unit.
If he isn’t available, though, change is in order. Whether it’s rearranging the pairings or bringing Jeff Schultz back into the fold to take advantage of his size and reach, the current defensive setup should not remain intact by the start of the series.
Mitchell hasn’t been able to provide safe minutes, and Voynov has teetered on the verge of disaster on every shift.
There’s simply too much at stake for this pairing to persist.
Sharpen the Penalty Kill
In addition to icing a weaker defense, L.A. hasn’t been nearly strong enough on the penalty kill. The Kings are ninth on the PK at the moment, keeping the opposition at bay on only 81.2 percent of their short-handed situations in the postseason.
Chicago scored six power-play goals in seven games in the Western Conference Final.
The unsettling part of this picture is that the Kings didn’t seem to understand the Blackhawks’ tendencies. Joel Quenneville’s club can be kept quiet fairly easily on the man advantage when the points are covered.
Instead of focusing on that area, L.A. dropped a bit lower in the formation, allowing Chicago to generate the looks it wanted from the blue line.
Three of the Blackhawks’ six PP goals came precisely from this setup, as Nick Leddy (Game 1), Brent Seabrook (Game 5) and Patrick Sharp (Game 7) were afforded the time and space to load up a dangerous shot from the point.
Granted, the Leddy marker came off a turnover, but the other two should have been nipped in the bud with smarter positioning.
On Seabrook’s goal, Trevor Lewis is too eager to pursue Jonathan Toews, which leaves Seabrook open in the middle of the ice—a prime shooting location. Meanwhile, Jarret Stoll has sagged deeper than usual in an effort to mitigate the danger of both Seabrook at the point and Duncan Keith on the weak side:
In the end, he accomplishes nothing at all. Seabrook is free to let it rip, rocketing the puck by a screened Jonathan Quick.
On Sharp’s goal in Game 7, Tyler Toffoli appears mesmerized by the puck, drifting toward the middle when Jeff Carter has already claimed that as his ice.
Puck-carrier Brandon Saad lures Toffoli closer to him and then dishes to Sharp, who is alone at the point due to the rookie's poor angle. Muzzin is then faced with the impossible task of containing two Blackhawks in front of the net and blocking the incoming shot:
He fails, and Chicago regains the lead. Occurring late in the second period, Toffoli’s mistake on the go-ahead marker could well have stood as the series-winner.
Moving forward, Sutter has to deploy the right personnel (Stoll, Carter, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Dwight King, Dustin Brown). More importantly, he has to identify the opposition’s proclivities and communicate them to his penalty-killers as keys to victory.
New York’s man advantage is more reliant on seam passes, often using a forward in the middle of the ice to draw defensemen in and open up lanes. Also, the Rangers like to look for Martin St. Louis’ one-timer.
The forward in the middle, St. Louis’ one-timer and the seam pass can all be seen in the playoff goals below:
L.A.’s coaching staff must watch the film and take notes.
Now is the time to stay a little further off the point men, keeping a tighter box and closer eye on the cross-ice passes that lead to quick-strike opportunities.
Unlike against Chicago, the Kings should force New York's power-play action to unfold at the point.
Reconfigure the Forward Depth
While the Kings’ forwards were largely solid in the Western Conference Final, the bottom six really sputtered from Games 5 through 7.
On Sunday, the fourth line had become such a liability that Sutter resorted to reuniting fourth-line center Mike Richards with second-line sniper Jeff Carter.
Kings fans will know that was a considerable gamble—the former Philadelphia Flyers have been on the ice for the most five-on-five goals against among forwards on the team in consecutive regular seasons.
As natural centers whose skill sets don’t translate well to either wing, these pivots can’t be depended upon defensively.
Sutter went with the duo anyway in a winner-takes-all setting. That’s how awful the fourth line was performing.
Many will look at Richards’ hefty salary-cap hit and pin the blame for the fourth line’s play on him. That would be incorrect—he’s been stellar since Game 3 of the first round, creating chances nightly and playing sound two-way hockey.
The root of the problem is Trevor Lewis.
Typically a defense-oriented grinder, the 27-year-old suffered a bizarre, comprehensive meltdown against the Blackhawks. He was solely responsible for a number of goals against—including Michal Handzus’ gut-wrenching double-overtime goal in Game 5—and killed the unit’s rhythm in every zone with questionable decisions and positioning:
He simply wasn’t equipped to deal with Chicago’s world-class talent. Overall, he's been playing the worst hockey of his career.
In the past three games, Lewis registered zero points and a minus-five rating.
Richards? While spending half of his shifts with a millstone around his neck, he somehow managed two assists and an even rating.
In Games 6 and 7—which saw Richards placed with different wingers midway through the tilts—Lewis had the worst (38.5) and second-worst (20.0) five-on-five Corsi percentages on the team. By comparison, Richards’ possession numbers are astonishing, controlling 58.8 and 57.9 percent of shot attempts in those same contests.
In Game 2, when Sutter wisely paired Richards with Justin Williams and Dwight King, the trio owned the puck, producing respective five-on-five Corsi percentages of 70.6, 68.2 and 62.5 in addition to a crucial goal:
Lewis sat at the familiar 38.5 mark once again.
Anyone wondering why Richards’ basic stats (two goals, six assists, minus-five in 21 games) are so unsightly should look no further than the weak link on the fourth line.
On the whole, DobberHockey indicates that Richards and Lewis have lined up together for the vast majority of their even-strength time on ice in the playoffs, but not a single one of Richards’ eight points has come with Lewis around.
In terms of production, puck possession and plus/minus, Richards' with/without Lewis figures are staggering and should stand as clear indications that his abilities are being wasted at both ends of the ice.
Should Darryl Sutter alter the bottom six?
Slotting him next to Williams to combat a New York squad that scores by committee seems like a worthwhile move. No Ranger has produced more than 13 points this spring, but eight have at least 10 points.
The Kings’ best bet might be to bolster their third unit and limit the usage of their fourth, preventing the Rangers from exploiting any vulnerability up front.
Jarret Stoll and Lewis have history playing together—they won a Cup on the same line—which could help the latter find some semblance of a comfort zone, while Richards and Williams are both big-game performers who could join forces to improve L.A.’s puck possession and offensive balance.
Lewis may well right the ship on his current line, but there's no time to spare on question marks in a best-of-seven series.
Sutter has to put his team in the best position to succeed right now, and that means putting Richards alongside more capable players.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater.