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Los Angeles Kings' 2nd Defensive Pairing Could Become Headache in 2014-15

Vinh CaoContributor IIIOctober 2, 2014

Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick (32) stops a shot by Buffalo Sabres right wing Corey Tropp, left, as defenseman Slava Voynov, center of Russia, watches along with defenseman Robyn Regehr, of Brazil, during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

While the Los Angeles Kings’ preseason showings have by and large been promising to this point, they have also revealed the potential for a serious issue.

The team’s second defensive pairing hasn’t been sorted out, and that’s because the candidates for the job alongside Slava Voynov (Brayden McNabb, Robyn Regehr, Jeff Schultz) haven't impressed in the exhibition games.

Since Regehr is running on fumes and coming off his first Stanley Cup, it’s not surprising that he isn’t up to speed. The other two, however, have more to prove yet have disappointed in their battle for minutes.

If one of these three blueliners cannot step up to steady the left side of the unit, L.A.’s defense as a whole could suffer.

Instability

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 22:  Brayden McNabb #43 of the Los Angeles Kings attempts to control the puck ahead of Max Domi #16 of the Arizona Coyotes  during the first period of the preseason NHL game at Gila River Arena on September 22, 2014 in Glendale, A
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As discussed earlier in the offseason, Voynov is hoping to atone for a dreadful 2013-14. His task would become that much taller if McNabb, Regehr and Schultz failed to offer him the defensive insulation he requires.

There’s a shakiness to Voynov’s game that must be mitigated by a positionally sound, stay-at-home complement.

At the moment, none of the three options has looked the part.

McNabb was brought in at last season’s trade deadline to hopefully replace Willie Mitchellnow with the Florida Pantherson the second pair long term.

General manager Dean Lombardi suggested as much on a conference call after the deal for the 23-year-old was completed:

So that fills a huge hole for us hopefully down the road. The other thing, too, is...he’s already paid some dues in the minors. He showed he’s a top player in the minors and he’s had his cups of coffee in the NHL. He’s closer to being ready than if I had to do a deal and go after a kid that was still in junior hockey to make this deal. We’re really excited to have him. It’s nice to see...this could be taken care of now, that’s a potential big hole for us. 

So far in the preseason, he’s looked like more Keaton Ellerby than a viable Mitchell successor.

The toolsmobility, size, physicalityare there, but his decision-making has been sketchy, and he hasn’t flashed the defensive upside that made him such an enticing commodity in the first place.

Granted, developing blueliners takes patience. Even if McNabb isn’t ready this season, he could eventually grow into the role.

The problem for the Kings lies in the fact that the insurance policies who were supposed to provide the coaching staff with spot duty haven’t inspired confidence.

Frankly, Regehr has lagged a step behind the competition for most of his time with the Kings. Over his two-year stint in L.A., the 34-year-old ranks dead last in Corsi (50.1) and goals-for percentage (44.7) among blueliners.

In both cases, it’s not even close.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 30:  Robyn Regehr #44 of the Los Angeles Kings throws the check against James Sheppard #15 of the San Jose Sharks at Staples Center on October 30, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

He could still prove useful against tougher squads, but his standing as an everyday defenseman is on thin ice.

Schultz might represent the safest option. His ceiling with the Kings is lower than the aforementioned candidates, but his floor is higher. He’s calmer than McNabb and quicker than Regehr, and his 6’6” stature affords him tremendous reach.

In the second round of the 2013-14 playoffs, he held his own on the second pairing against a potent Anaheim Ducks squad.

With that said, his puck management isn’t consistently strong and his defensethough passablefalls short of the bar needed to bolster Voynov. That was exposed by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final, as a couple of blunders in Game 1 pushed Schultz to the press box:

He didn’t play another minute in the postseason.

Between McNabb, Regehr and Schultz, none have staked a claim to the job. If the competition were coming down to the wire because it's brought out the best in each of the defensemen, that'd be fine.

Unfortunately, the winner at present may well emerge as the smallest liability rather than the greatest asset.

Ripple Effect

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Alec Martinez #27 of the Los Angeles Kings skates against the Anaheim Ducks at Staples Center on September 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The consequences of lackluster performances on the second pairing wouldn’t be limited to that unit.

Assuming this situation remains dire a couple of weeks into the regular season, head coach Darryl Sutter would inevitably shuffle the lineup. Given the bench boss’ history, he may not even wait that long.

This could derail a number of players without fixing the issue in question.

Alec Martinez and Matt Greene offer a nice blend of speed, puck possession, nastiness and rock-solid defense. They have played together fairly consistently and developed a strong enough rapport to perhaps constitute the best third pair in the league.

Last season, Martinez blossomed into a stellar blueliner, harnessing his raw skill to produce career highs in goals (11) and points (22) without ignoring his three-zone responsibilities. He posted a 56.3 Corsi percentage and the highest points per 60 five-on-five minutes among rearguards.

Every time he wound up for a shot, it felt as though a positive outcome was on the way.

Trying to shoehorn him into a different slotand next to another puck-mover in Voynovcould set him back, harming another pairing while failing to remedy the second group.

After all, Martinez isn’t a shutdown defenseman. He can focus his energy on driving play toward the opposition’s net precisely because he has a weathered veteran behind him to operate as a safety valve.

A Martinez-Voynov pairing would lack the traits that both players require to thrive.

Merely promoting Martinez-Greene would not necessarily work either.

Greene’s health is a major question mark, as he’s only participated in 43 of the team’s last 130 regular-season games. Asking the 31-year-old to take on heavy minutes against the Western Conference’s top-sixers would be a significant gamble.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 11:  Matt Greene #2 of the Los Angeles Kings checks Mats Zuccarello #36 of the New York Rangers during the first period of Game Four of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Madison Square Garden on June 11, 2014 in New York, New York.  (P
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Besides, Martinez isn’t exactly proven against top competition.

This duo succeeds because of a comfort level in terms of chemistry and deployment. Tinkering with that is risky business.

Taking over the second pairing outright—shifting from roughly 16 to 22 minutes per night while raising the quality of competitionwould equate to venturing headlong into uncharted waters. A closer split between the pairings would be shrewd, but it might not compensate for the deficiencies of a second unit that's worse off than anticipated.

As such, it’s vital that McNabb, Regehr or Schultz seize their opportunity.

Seeing as Sutter prefers to partner left-handed shots with righties, these threealong with Martinezare the only legitimate pro-level candidates to play alongside Voynov.

For the sake of covering all bases, Jake Muzzin isn’t a viable alternative. The Kings have worked so hard to progress his game that plucking him away from Drew Doughty on the first pairing to fill a hole lower on the depth chart would amount to pure folly.

Regardless of which front-runner ultimately lands the job, L.A. must preserve the carefully crafted balance on its blue line.

Outlook

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 10: (R-L) Jonathan Quick #32, Matt Greene #2, Slava Voynov #26 and Jeff Schultz #55 of the Los Angeles Kings look on during the last minute in a 2-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in Game Four of the Second Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley C
Harry How/Getty Images

From top to bottom, this Kings squad is as deep and versatile as it gets. However, no team is perfect, and L.A. is presently short one assured blueliner on the left side.

Consequently, the second pairing could announce itself as a real bugaboo in the next few weeks. If the up-and-comer (McNabb) and the experienced stopgaps (Regehr and Schultz) aren’t reliable enough, how do the Kings proceed?

Shuffling the deck on the back end would not be wise on Sutter’s part.

Muzzin-Doughty and Martinez-Greene are terrific pairings that fit seamlessly into the club’s possession-based system. Why disrupt them when neither Muzzin nor Martinez are the answer to this problem?

As touched on earlier, the third pairing may not be capable of maintaining its track record against higher-caliber opponents either.

There’s nowhere else to turn but to oneor allof McNabb, Regehr and Schultz.

Unless Voynov can right the ship in a hurry or Lombardi can work some magic on the trade market, the Kings had better hope there’s strength in numbers.

Advanced statistics courtesy of Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com and Behind the Net.

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