Los Angeles Kings' Defense Shaping Up Just in Time for Playoff Push

Vinh CaoContributor IIIFebruary 26, 2015

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 14: Drew Doughty #8 of the Los Angeles Kings skates after the puck during a game against the Washington Capitals at STAPLES Center on February 14, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Aaron Poole/NHLI via Getty Images)
Aaron Poole/Getty Images

For most of the 2014-15 season, the Los Angeles Kings resembled last year’s high-octane, Stanley Cup-winning squad...without the postseason intensity.

In other words, they lacked the fire to offset their sloppiness.

That’s changed, though. Riding superb individual showings until their collective game rounded into form, the Kings have reeled off eight straight wins. Lately, those victories have come on the strength of stellar team defense.

General manager Dean Lombardi further bolstered the back end on Wednesday by bringing in a major piece ahead of the trade deadline.

Because defense wins championships after all, the Kings are reasserting their emphasis on stifling opponents instead of trying to outgun them. More importantly, they're accomplishing this just as they enter the homestretch.

New Face

RALEIGH, NC - FEBRUARY 24: Andrej Sekera #4 of the Carolina Hurricanes looks for passing options before releasing the puck during an NHL game against the Philadelphia Flyers on February 24, 2015 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Gregg Fo
Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images

As reported by ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun, L.A. offered a steep return to acquire Andrej Sekera’s services. However, a club in win-now mode needs to pony up if it wishes to, well, keep winning.

Sekera should help that cause.

In fact, the 28-year-old may well be granted a chance to play on the first pairing alongside one of the league’s elite defensemen in Drew Doughty.

This chart, which matches Sekera's numbers in various metrics with performance tiers, provides a glimpse into his skill set:

Credit: Ownthepuck.blogspot.ca

His puck possession is solid and he produces plenty of shot attempts. Carolina’s offense was markedly stronger with him on the ice. In terms of goals-for percentage, many of Sekera’s most frequent on-ice teammates have fared better with him around, too.

It’s worth noting that he accomplished this while facing stiff competition that would rank second on the Kings’ blue line. That augurs well for a playoff push in the stacked Western Conference.

Sekera isn’t particularly effective at limiting shots, but then again, Doughty already has that covered:

Credit: Ownthepuck.blogspot.ca

What L.A. needs as a left-shooting complement on the top unit is a sound decision-maker who can minimize time spent in the defensive zone and maximize time spent on offense. As proven in 2013, Robyn Regehr does not meet those criteria.

Sekera checks off those boxes.

Though he isn’t a true shutdown rearguard, he does boast an active stick and smart positioning. Once possession is regained, he moves the puck in a crisp and safe manner.

There isn’t much sizzle to Sekera’s game, but that fits the bill almost perfectly. Doughty can take a game over by himself. However, he does occasionally gamble to create offense and thus requires a reliable partner rather than a fellow maverick.

With all the attention opponents pay to Doughty, the Kings were on the hunt for a team player who can handle big minutes and make the right, simple choices.

With Sekera, L.A. has brought in the grounded presence to stabilize a pairing that looked more like a high-wire act with Jake Muzzin in the fold.

Even if he only hangs around for a couple of months—Spotrac indicates that he's a pending unrestricted free agentthis trade could pay sweeping dividends.

Balance

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 21:  Jake Muzzin #6 of the Los Angeles Kings handles the puck away from Tommy Wingels #57 of the San Jose Sharks during the second period of the 2015 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game at Levi's Stadium on February 21, 2015 in
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

In addition to his ability on the ice, Sekera's arrival will make waves on the depth chart.

If he is indeed trusted as Doughty's partner moving forward, the remaining two pairings will instantly benefit from improved depth.

Head coach Darryl Sutter could maintain his preference for shooting sideslefties on the left, righties on the right—while blending defensive acumen with offensive potential on every unit:

Kings' Ideal Pairings
Andrej SekeraDrew Doughty
Jake MuzzinMatt Greene
Robyn RegehrJamie McBain
Source: Bleacher Report

That's a nice blue-line stable, and it's still missing Alec Martinez (concussion-like symptoms) to boot.

Muzzin, who has floundered for much of 2014-15 next to Doughty, has found his bearings alongside Greene of late. He's simplified his shifts and let the game come to him, which sounds modest but is significant given how he had played for the previous 40 games.

His on-ice goals-against average has dipped from 2.65 with Doughty to 0.97 with Greene. Granted, that's against lower competition, but whatever nudges him into his groove is a worthwhile endeavor.

When the Kings are firing on all cylinders, Muzzin is spending only seconds in his end before launching shot after shot at the opposition's cage.

McBain has occupied a similar role on the bottom pairing, as his knack for passing the puck and shooting through traffic has revitalized the power play while making L.A. tougher to defend from the point at even strength.

Pairing him with a rugged veteran like Regehr could provide quality—albeit shelteredminutes.

With that said, the defense's resurgence has stemmed from a team-wide effort. The forwards have ramped up their forecheck, which is curtailing time wasted in the defensive zone. When they are forced into their end, they're holding tight gaps, recovering the puck quickly and breaking out as a close-knit team.

L.A. is contesting every single inch of ice.

In January, Jonathan Quick's GAA was 3.18. In February, that's shrunk to 2.00. He hasn't been standing on his head and stealing games, either.

The Kings' overall game is trending upward. Now they boast the depth to sustain it well into spring.

Outlook

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Pavel Datsyuk #13 of the Detroit Red Wings battles for the puck against Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings at STAPLES Center on February 24, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Though a first-round draft pick and former second-rounder (Roland McKeown) represent a hefty package to deal away for such a quiet defenseman, Lombardi understood that he had to fortify his roster.

Sekera's play won't necessarily make headlines, but he could assume a critical role next to Doughty in L.A.'s bid to repeat as champion.

Adding him to a blue line that has recently turned the tide could recreate the stingy, relentless, three-pairing-deep back end that made the Kings such a nightmarish matchup to begin with in 2012—a team that suffocates the opposition and imposes its will.

Defense is the key to defending their title, and slowly but surely, the Kings are rediscovering their identity.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics courtesy of Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, Behind the Net and NHL.com.

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