As one of the Los Angeles Kings’ brightest offensive sparks, Tyler Toffoli brings a welcome dimension to a team that often lacks a cutting edge in the regular season. In order to join the club’s leading lights on a permanent basis, however, the 22-year-old must round out his skill set.
There’s no doubt that L.A.’s potency skyrockets with him in the lineup, but he’ll have to fully win over head coach Darryl Sutter to lock up a spot in the top six.
The Kings bench boss didn't pare back Toffoli’s minutes in crunch time on a whim. He wasn't quite hard enough on the puck or responsible enough away from it to warrant a regular shift with the season on the line. During stretches of the Stanley Cup Final, Sutter promoted Mike Richards in his stead.
Toffoli’s ability—and willingness—to shore up the holes in his game will determine his short- and long-term standing within L.A.’s forward corps.
With the Puck
The 22-year-old can produce. With limited ice time, he's amassed 34 points in 72 career regular-season games (0.47 PPG) and 20 points in 38 playoff contests (0.53 PPG).
Those are impressive numbers.
His shot is tremendous as well—accurate and heavy—sitting behind maybe only Jeff Carter’s as the best release on the club. Yes, that's including sniper Marian Gaborik.
In the clip below, he tries his luck from a poor angle yet picks a corner and whistles his bid by San Jose Sharks netminder Antti Niemi nonetheless:
With that said, he hasn't yet found a way to maximize his touches.
When he isn't in a decent shooting location or on a rush, he fails to leave much of an imprint. The bulk of L.A.’s time in the offensive zone is focused on board play, and Toffoli has to enhance his presence in the trenches to secure his top-six status. Too often, the third-year pro is leaned on by defenders and forced to surrender control of the puck.
He isn't ever going to impose his will on the opposition, but a bit more craftiness in the dirty areas would pay sweeping dividends.
The league’s reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner would be a sterling example to follow in this regard. Though Justin Williams is by no means a punishing forward, he thrives along the wall because of his ability to swivel off checks and create separation.
Watching how Williams deals with pressure in tight spots would do wonders for his performance and that of his unit, creating longer shifts on attack and thus more opportunities for a Kings team that typically struggles to generate offense in the regular season.
L.A. ranked 26th in the league in 2013-14 with 2.42 goals per game.
Moreover, given Toffoli’s stellar 60.4 Corsi percentage during the year, he has to take greater care of the puck to further tilt the ice in his squad's favor.
Soft plays through the middle, such as the one below, are unacceptable on a team that slowly, but surely, grinds its opponents into the ice:
Puck management is just as crucial as puck possession. Dominating shot attempts only to gift-wrap a goal for the other team is really deflating—especially since the Kings system lies closer to a measured simmer than firewagon hockey.
As a second-liner, Toffoli will face stiffer foes next season, so he has to add to his arsenal while limiting risk with the puck on his stick.
Without the Puck
From an offensive standpoint, Toffoli’s instincts without the puck are terrific. He always positions himself in areas where he can receive passes and fire on goal.
Sharpshooters usually possess a knack for finding soft spots in coverage, and he certainly does.
In Game 2 of the Western Conference Final, he pots the deciding marker by quietly gliding into the slot and finishing Tanner Pearson's pass before the Chicago Blackhawks can even react:
But when his line isn't in control of the biscuit, his performance isn't convincing. His reads are subpar on defense, he doesn't close out space quickly enough and his stick isn't particularly active.
Expecting an offense-first dynamo to evolve into a three-zone winger isn't fair, but he can mitigate his current issues by committing to his assignment and bearing down when it counts.
Look at his effort on Patrick Kane’s game-winner in Game 6 of the series against Chicago:
All that’s required of him here is to impede Kane’s shot to some degree—he doesn't have to block it altogether, but allowing it to reach L.A.’s net with pace is a categorical failure. The wrister eludes Jonathan Quick, and Chicago lives to fight another day.
Another facet of Toffoli's play that must improve is the breakout.
Among Kings defensemen, only Drew Doughty and Alec Martinez are true puck-carriers. Therefore, the team’s forwards must contribute to zone exits by offering smart outlets and clearing the puck when possible.
Carter is likely the worst pivot on the club in this respect, while Pearson and Toffoli couldn't be depended upon to consistently get the job done last season.
There were too many lost battles and failed clearances near the blue line, leading to scrambles and desperation in the defensive end. It wasn’t egregious during the year, but when the level of competition rose in the playoffs, “That 70s Line” was a true boom-or-bust proposition.
Toffoli saw his goals-for percentage sink from 71.4 in the regular season to 53.6 in the playoffs.
Sutter trimmed his minutes in the Stanley Cup Final for this very reason. Every possession had become vital, and there was just no room for sloppy play in the neutral and defensive zones.
In order to receive a steadier and heavier workload, Toffoli will need to make life tougher on the opposition and easier on his teammates.
The Western Conference’s top dogs have brought in reinforcements up front, and the second line—as it is presently constituted—merely surviving against them won’t cut it.
After all, Sutter is not averse to shuffling his lines, routinely throwing them into a blender at the first sign of trouble. Richards and Williams are probably already chomping at the bit to climb up the depth chart.
If Toffoli is intent on solidifying his top-six role, he’ll need to prove as diligent as he is clinical, facilitating the team’s breakout and extending shifts on offense to curtail any time spent in his end. When he is forced to defend, smarter angles and stick positioning would go a long way toward persuading his coach that he can be deployed in high-stakes situations.
Otherwise, he will remain a specialty player who must be sheltered.
The process of earning more minutes begins with earning Sutter’s trust, and that begins with the introduction of a more reliable and complete game.