On Saturday night, the Los Angeles Kings’ forward corps underwent a sea change.
This represents a significant blow to a team in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race (20-14-10, third in the Pacific Division), but the Kings may also find a silver lining to these losses.
While L.A. will surely miss their contributions, shuffling the roster and demanding more from its veterans could right a ship that was skating by on a hot-and-cold power play.
Now is the time for the Kings to dig their heels in and reassert their gritty, fundamentally sound game.
There are no two ways about it: The Kings attack will be less creative without Toffoli and Pearson.
Both 22-year-olds add a dynamism to the offense that had largely been absent prior to their arrivals as full-time NHLers. Toffoli is a crafty winger with great finish, whereas Pearson backs off defenders with his sheer pace and nonstop motor.
In addition to the flair they bring to the table, they just produce, too:
|Kings Forwards at 5-on-5|
As a result of Saturday’s developments, the Kings have lost two of their most dangerous even-strength threats.
With that said, their offense shouldn’t suddenly run dry moving forward. Head coach Darryl Sutter is faced with tough decisions, though.
Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Jeff Carter are terrific offensive players who should maintain their levels of production on the top line, but the Kings are seemingly better off with Carter at center, where he can push the pace with more room to work with than on Kopitar's wing.
His position has swept him to the periphery lately, gliding along the outside as opposed to dictating play in the heart of the action.
Behind that trio, it might be time to give Mike Richards and Justin Williams a fair crack at forming a partnership built on savvy and net-front resolve.
Against the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night, the duo teamed up on the cycle and scrapped its way to a third-period goal that pulled L.A. within two scores:
The coaching staff should test these forwards' compatibility over a proper four- or five-game stretch, as they’ve posted a 53.6 Corsi percentage and 50.0 goals-for percentage together while playing off each other intelligently.
Jarret Stoll’s vigor could then complement Trevor Lewis and Dwight King’s responsible play—the three forwards played well as a unit during L.A.’s 2012 Stanley Cup run.
Regardless of the alignment, these are veterans who can get the job done.
They simply do it in a different fashion than Toffoli and Pearson.
This is about will over skill—winning puck battles to extend possessions, creating havoc in front of the opposition’s net, bearing down in the trenches and downright wanting it more than the next guy.
It’s not pretty, but it’s partly why the Kings became such a force to begin with:
Dominating puck possession in the dirty areas and establishing a relentless approach will be crucial down the stretch.
L.A. isn’t an opportunistic club that can capitalize on every chance it stumbles upon. General manager Dean Lombardi didn't build his squad to play like that. At its best, it comes in waves with a strong forecheck, support from defensemen and a tenacious attitude that wears foes down.
While dialing up the physicality would help, it isn't vital. The team is most effective when contesting pucks in all zones and breathing down the necks of opponents, which is a matter of drive over brawn.
Too often in 2014-15, it’s appeared as though the Kings have forgotten their recipe for success, relying on little other than their improved talent to coast on cruise control. A few offensive glimmers here and there have led to wins here and there.
They haven't been enough for the team to play well as a whole or pull away from the crowd.
In order to gain a firmer hold on a postseason berth, L.A. must renew acquaintances with sandpaper and grunt work. It must push harder than its opponent. To quote the ever-cryptic Sutter, “It’s not always whether you win or lose. It’s whether you’re winning or losing.”
It’s how you’re playing. The process. The little things.
Two championships in three years suggest the veterans on this team know what it takes. It's up to them to deliver the goods.
Emphasis on Defense
Sure, a 12th-ranked power play and some pond hockey have kept the Kings in the playoff hunt, but they’ve offered lackadaisical three-zone showings on most nights.
That won’t cut it after the All-Star break.
With Toffoli and Pearson sidelined, L.A. needs to find its defensive groove again.
The blueliners must grab the reins and tighten up the team’s overall look—shifting from a loose, bend-and-sometimes-break stance to a stiffer, more imposing posture.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Kings' ongoing defensive slide finds them sitting 11th in the league in goals-against average. Virtually across the board, the team's rearguards are allowing more goals and shot attempts than in 2013-14:
|Kings Defensemen at 5-on-5|
|2013-14 GA60||2014-15 GA60||2013-14 CA60||2014-15 CA60|
Restricting opponents to one-and-dones on the perimeter may be tougher to pull off without Slava Voynov (suspension), Robyn Regehr (injury) and Willie Mitchell (joined Florida in free agency), but the Kings have surrendered far too many scoring chances in high-percentage spots this season.
Force teams to earn their ice.
Against New Jersey, the Kings were visibly lacking in intensity around their own net, lagging behind the Devils in terms of tracking and reacting to the puck:
This doesn’t boil down to mediocre personnel. The players on the current roster are certainly capable of displaying more discipline and diligence.
Matt Greene, who has been sloppy for long stretches, must engage himself physically without sacrificing his positioning. Despite facing easy competition, he’s still committing numerous errors and quite a few infractions.
Drew Doughty must find a middle ground between taking charge and limiting his gaffes with the puck.
Jake Muzzin has reverted to his rookie-season performance, giving pucks away all over the ice and trying to accomplish too much on offense. He’s been more of a liability than a linchpin on the top pairing in 2014-15—Doughty's goals-for percentage skyrockets from 42.2 with Muzzin to 66.7 without him—which has caused a demotion to the third group.
Up front, the veterans have hurt the cause.
Kopitar’s on-ice goals-against average is higher than it’s been in years. For the first time in his career, his teammates boast a higher goals-for percentage than he does—at 57.4 to 44.7, it's not close either. Though he’s been involved in more odd-man rushes than ever in the past 25 games, he’s also governed the neutral zone much less thoroughly and lost his share of battles in the slot.
Dustin Brown’s physicality remains, but he has to keep a tighter gap on opposing point men and watch his turnovers.
Carter can’t cheat on defense in hopes of launching a counterattack, as he did in overtime against the Nashville Predators:
Stoll has to stay on the right side of the puck instead of lunging at opponents. King needs to make the subtle breakout passes along the boards that he managed last season. Richards must not lose his focus in coverage.
Above all else, the team has to, well, play like a team again. A well-oiled machine.
Tighten the gaps in the neutral zone, don’t get caught pinching, make clean line changes, offer passing outlets in every situation and exit the defensive zone as a group rather than standing around waiting for a pass up the ice.
This is fairly rudimentary stuff, yet excelling in these areas vaulted the Kings from dark horses to perennial contenders not too long ago.
Winning starts with defense.
By cutting down on the space afforded to opponents and curtailing time spent in the defensive zone, they can tilt the ice and odds in their favor.
When they’re playing in sync and to their strengths, the Kings have proved unstoppable in recent years.
This season, they’ve looked disjointed from the get-go, depending on a mercurial offense to mask serious all-around deficiencies. As the playoffs loom larger and the competition grows fiercer, these blemishes will only swell in kind.
It seems odd to suggest given this team’s reputation, but without Toffoli and Pearson's flashes of offensive potency to bail it out, L.A. must rediscover its identity and put its collective nose to the grindstone.
The Kings won't rope-a-dope their way to another title. They could use a spark, but they need their leaders to act as torchbearers, setting the right tone and sticking to it for a full 60 minutes.
In order to forge a clearer path to the postseason, the Kings must rekindle their three-zone fire.