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Breaking Down the Los Angeles Kings' Complicated Relationship with Analytics

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistSeptember 5, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 03:  Dean Lombardi, President and General Manager of the Los Angeles Kings, speaks during Media Day for the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center on June 3, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Kings are, somewhat famously, a team that loves and is loved by analytics.

Way back in 2006, general manager Dean Lombardi was quoted by the Kings blog Surly & Scribe as saying:

I was thinking about a lot of this [analytics] stuff even before ‘Moneyball’ came out. It requires almost a cultural change, to get your staff thinking a certain way, and that’s what we’re working toward. ... This is one of those things where we’re going to end up going down paths that don’t work. But we’re going to find the right one, and we’re not going to get frustrated along the way.

Most would agree that L.A. has largely done things correctly. NHL.com’s Corey Masisak describes the team as “the best example of why analytics matter in the NHL.” James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail concurs. CBS Sports’ Adam Gretz wrote a piece a year ago entitled “How the Los Angeles Kings Corsi'd their way to the NHL's elite.”

There is a good deal of truth to these analyses. The Kings have made no secret about their love for a puck-possession game, and they excel at it to a degree which few teams in recent history can match.

But it’s important to remember that things aren’t just that simple. Lombardi’s team frequently makes decisions that mainstream analytical thinking frowns upon.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 09:  Matt Greene #2 of the Los Angeles Kings skates ahead of Derek Dorsett #15 of the New York Rangers during Game Three of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Madison Square Garden on June 9, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Levy/
Scott Levy/Getty Images

Particularly notable this summer was the decision to sign Matt Greene. Greene has generally done fairly well over his career in terms of analytics, but he’s slipped a little over the last few seasons and in 2013-14, Darryl Sutter decided to stop giving him a pile of defensive zone starts. That’s a troublesome development, particularly for a primarily defensive defenceman, but it’s secondary to a pair of related concerns: age and injury.

Greene is 31 years old, an age which even the most relaxed models peg as the beginning of a decline. He’s suffered through injury over the last two seasons, playing only 43 of a possible 130 regular-season games. Some of that time was spent as a healthy scratch as his role on the team waned along with his on-ice results.

The Kings didn’t just sign him this summer; they signed him to a four-year extension worth $2.5 million per season. There simply isn’t an analytics argument that can possibly support that kind of expenditure on this particular player.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 04:  Mike Richards #10 of the Los Angeles Kings looks on while taking o the New York Rangers during Game One of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Staples Center on June 4, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennet
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Another interesting decision is Los Angeles’ choice not to buy out Mike Richards during this summer’s compliance window. Richards has six years remaining on his current contract at a $5.75 million cap hit, and his game has fallen off dramatically over the last few years, particularly over his time since being dealt to the Kings by Philadelphia:

5-on-5 numbers for Mike Richards, 2010-14
SeasonTeamGPPTS/60Rel. CorsiQC Rk. (F)Zone Start
2010-11Philadelphia812.071.1146.8
2011-12Los Angeles741.55-15.4550.2
2012-13Los Angeles481.58-6.6555.8
2013-14Los Angeles821.41-4.1658.0
BehindtheNet.ca

There was a time not all that long ago where Richards was worth every penny; he was a scoring forward whose line outperformed the opposition even when facing top players and starting a pile of shifts in the defensive zone. Over time, his responsibilities have eased, with Richards facing lesser opponents and getting more offensive opportunities, but it hasn’t solved the problem; his line underperforms compared to the rest of the team, and his scoring has fallen off significantly.

L.A. could have erased six years at a hefty price tag for a player who at this point is a significant question mark. They chose not to act.   

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 13:  Darryl Sutter of the Los Angeles Kings looks on from the bench against the New York Rangers in the second period of Game Five of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center on June 13, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Pho
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

There could be any number of reasons the Kings made the decisions they did this summer, but what seems clear is that it wasn’t analytics informing those choices. It likely wasn’t any kind of performance metric; after all, it was Sutter who during the playoffs at times preferred waiver-wire fodder like Jeff Schultz to Greene and Sutter who demoted Richards to the fourth line.

Lombardi’s comments on the Richards decision in particular are worth scrutinizing. He explained to the Los Angeles Times’ Lisa Dillman that the centre needed to make changes in the way he prepared in the offseason and that he’d had positive discussions with the player on that front. In the end, it all came down to a judgment of character.

“As long as he looked me in the eye and made that promise that he would make the commitment in the offseason,” Lombardi said. “Essentially, I have to trust him. Once that [compliance buyout] deadline goes, we’re locked in.”

It’s easy and probably accurate to ascribe the Greene extension to a similar motivation; the defender has long had a reputation as a stellar character player, and at the end of the 2013-14 regular season he was recognized by his teammates as the club’s most inspirational player.

In this way, the Kings are like every other team in the league, making decisions based not just on hard data or objective analysis, but also on the basis of character assessments by the general manager. So far, it’s an approach that’s worked well for the team. It’s going to be interesting to see if that trend continues with Richards and Greene.

But whichever way it works out, it’s worth remembering that the Kings are a team that is willing to go 180 degrees against the analytics if it feels there is a compelling reason to do so. For even the fondest booster of the NHL’s statistical revolution, that means the credit for the Kings’ successes can’t go entirely toward their analytic bent, nor can blame for their failures.

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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