The Los Angeles Kings have received much-needed reinforcements on both offense and defense recently.
Justin Williams and Mike Richards have supplied a nice dose of secondary scoring while captain Dustin Brown has stepped up in the past week to deliver his finest performances of the year.
On the blue line, newcomer Jamie McBain looks much more comfortable paired with veteran Robyn Regehr than he did with a fledgling Brayden McNabb.
Despite these promising signs, L.A. is faced with an unexpected problem: Two of its most reliable and trusted cogs have looked decidedly mediocre for long stretches this season.
Now 23 games into the 2014-15 campaign, there’s reason to worry about a couple of the Kings' lynchpins.
Prolonged slumps are nothing new for the big Slovenian, but they don’t usually occur this early. If he hits his annual bump in the road in January, 2014-15 could have the makings of an ugly year.
Kopitar has 10 points in 20 games—and Hockey-Reference.com indicates he is on pace for the worst offensive season of his career. He's pointless in his last four outings. Despite having quality linemates for the most part, he ranks seventh among Kings forwards in points per 60 five-on-five minutes.
The picture isn’t any prettier on the man advantage, as he sports the fifth-lowest points per 60 five-on-four minutes.
As has been the case during previous dry spells, Kopitar is shying away from the trenches, losing more board battles than usual and seldom attacking the middle of the ice to generate offense.
Most concerning of all is the fact that he finally has a legitimate sniper on his wing in Marian Gaborik, but instead of ramping up his production, he’s seen it dwindle.
Salt in the wound may have come on Tuesday night when the sharpshooter was paired with Richards and Jeff Carter. In just about his only game away from Kopitar, Gaborik potted two points and was threatening throughout the night.
He was a non-factor on Wednesday when reunited with Kopitar.
Obviously there’s more to the Selke Trophy candidate’s game than offense. His all-around contributions cannot be dismissed. But when examining the numbers, it’s clear he hasn’t been as proficient in that area either.
Furthermore, no penalty-killing forward has been scored on more frequently.
Beyond shaving off some of his short-handed minutes, head coach Darryl Sutter must find a way to get his three-zone mammoth back into the groove.
Gaborik, Williams, Brown, Carter, Richards, Jordan Nolan, Dwight King, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli and Trevor Lewis have been tried on Kopitar’s wing. Nothing has stuck.
Regardless of his partners, he's been uncharacteristically poor at driving play toward the opposition's zone:
|Zone Starts/Finishes for Kings Centers|
|5-on-5 TOI||Off Zone Start||Off Zone Finish|
|Behind the Net|
Shuffling the roster hasn't worked. This is a matter of Kopitar playing himself out of a rut.
While he’s surely aware of the problem, the coaching staff must emphasize the importance of attacking the opposing net whenever possible. He sits eighth among forwards in shots and has been responsible for the third-fewest Corsi events per 60 minutes.
Too often, an opportunity arises and Kopitar opts for the safer play. He won't even consider making an incisive pass or challenging his defender one-on-one.
Opponents are aware of this, which makes him startlingly easy to defend.
With his 6’3”, 224-pound frame, good wheels and soft hands, he should be imposing his will on opponents—not on every shift, but at least a few times per game to keep the other team honest and carve out space for his linemates.
Kopitar is simply too gifted to look like Brian Boyle on most nights.
These struggles may just boil down to the player’s workload.
L.A.’s defense has been ravaged by injuries and Slava Voynov’s indefinite suspension this season. Whether due to salary-cap constraints or the inexperience of McNabb and McBain, Doughty has been leaned on heavily thus far.
That’s far too much action.
Unlike Ryan Suter—the only NHL player getting more minutes at the moment—Doughty doesn’t tend to conserve his energy. He is as integral as it gets in all three phases of the game, taking on shutdown responsibilities, initiating the breakout and subsequently joining the attack.
The uptick in minutes has decreased his general effectiveness:
|Doughty's Performance Based on Ice Time|
|Over 27 Minutes||18||0.50||-1|
|Under 27 Minutes||5||0.80||+6|
When Doughty’s fresh, there may be no better rearguard in the world. His decisions are sound, his execution is crisp and he governs the flow of the game.
When the coaching staff demands more from him than he can handle, he gets a little loose on the ice. His puck management grows sloppier and he falls into bad habits—such as hogging the puck and launching solo missions rather than involving his teammates.
The spike in expended energy hasn’t significantly hurt his puck-possession numbers, but Doughty is more vulnerable in between those stretches of control.
In the first few contests of the season—with reasonable usage—he was borderline dominant.
Once Jake Muzzin returned from injury, other defensemen (Regehr, Alec Martinez) were sidelined and the Voynov situation cropped up. His time on ice increased, giveaways surfaced and Doughty’s defensive numbers took a hit.
At times, the turnovers have been grievous:
Frankly, correcting this issue may be as simple as reducing his ice time.
Doughty is more than capable of logging about 26-27 minutes per night and performing at a high level. Once he reaches the 30-minute threshold, though, his play begins to fluctuate dramatically.
Since L.A. depends on his presence to stabilize the back end, Sutter should put him in the best position to succeed and dial back his minutes.
The Kings live and die by their puck management. At the moment, their two biggest stars aren’t delivering the goods in this regard.
Kopitar isn’t as strong on the puck in all three zones, which is stifling offense and causing longer shifts in the defensive zone. Doughty, for his part, is committing more mistakes with more ice time.
As vital pieces to L.A.'s puzzle, these two must offer more encouraging displays going forward. They're the engines up front and on the blue line, so righting the ship starts with them.
The solution to one problem is straightforward enough: Ease up on Doughty's minutes.
Getting Kopitar back on the right track, however, is a tougher nut to crack. He may well just snap out of his funk, but history suggests another one could already be on the horizon.
If that’s the case, the Kings will require every bit of secondary scoring they can muster.
Thankfully, Kopitar has proved very consistent throughout his career. At least for the next few weeks, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Keep him fresher at even strength by limiting his penalty-killing duties, staple Gaborik on his wing and let him ride this out.