While the Los Angeles Kings are gradually finding their stride, the club must still remedy a few issues in order to extend its hot streak and clinch a playoff berth.
Most notably, L.A. needs to address its top defensive pairing. All-Star blueliner Drew Doughty has performed very well for most of the season, but he’s been hampered by a revolving door of partners on the left side.
Jake Muzzin and Robyn Regehr have struggled in different ways, and that simply won’t cut it in crunch time.
Where should the coaching staff turn?
When the Kings signed Muzzin to a five-year, $20 million extension in the offseason, the expectation was that he would patrol the top pairing’s left side for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, he’s been one of the team’s glaring underperformers this season.
Messy puck management and ill-advised risks have ravaged his game, relegating him to the third group next to Matt Greene on many nights. That has streamlined his approach, but in spot duty next to Doughty since then, his bugaboos have resurfaced.
It appears that he just can’t handle a high level of competition this season:
|Doughty and Muzzin in 2014-15 (5-on-5)|
|Doughty without Muzzin||1.42||69.6||55.0|
|Muzzin without Doughty||1.05||72.2||56.9|
Both Doughty and Muzzin’s numbers are much stronger when they’re apart. Frankly, Doughty's numbers away from Muzzin would warrant a Norris Trophy.
The lost chemistry between the two can nevertheless be found over the long term. Where this particular year is concerned, though, the Cup-winning duo isn’t playing up to snuff.
Doughty requires a steady defenseman he can trust in terms of decision-making and positioning.
Too often in 2014-15, Muzzin has gambled at inopportune moments and put his partner in a bind. Moreover, his passing has looked entirely careless.
Sure, his puck-possession stats are stellar, as usual, but the frequency of his mistakes resulting in goals against has risen dramatically. This has taken a serious toll on his goals-for percentage:
A Doughty-Muzzin connection may not be in the cards down this current stretch.
One has to admire the blue-collar physicality that Regehr brings to the table. L.A. is certainly a different beast when he’s in the lineup—a tougher, grittier, nastier bunch.
With that said, the 34-year-old has lost a step, which has affected his ability to put out the fires he starts with the puck on his stick.
He would have constituted a great partner for Doughty five years ago, but given his age and the league’s emphasis on speed, the fit isn’t great. These days, Regehr is a bruiser best suited for a bottom-pairing role:
If he’s forced into facing top-sixers on a regular basis, turnovers and blown coverages will crop up.
This isn’t meant as an indictment of his play. At this stage in his career—without upside on the horizon—what you see is what you get. He can still contribute in a positive fashion, and it’s up to the coaching staff to position him for success.
According to DobberHockey, Doughty spent roughly 75 percent of his even-strength shifts alongside Regehr in the 2013 postseason. Opponents were clearly intent on pounding the big-game player into oblivion, and when that eventually took its toll via injury, he didn’t have much support from Regehr to lean on.
He registered the worst playoff showing of his career, with only five points and a minus-seven rating in 18 games.
There is no room for foibles on a top pairing. In the Kings’ two championship seasons, Doughty had a healthy Rob Scuderi (2011-12) and an in-form Muzzin (2013-14) by his side.
Should L.A. stick with the Doughty-Regehr pairing, the aforementioned pattern would likely repeat itself.
Furthermore, Regehr is two years older than the version of himself who couldn’t keep up in 2013.
Finally, there’s the new guy.
Upon his arrival from Carolina, Sekera was paired with Regehr based on their time together in Buffalo over the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons.
|Sekera in 2014-15 (5-on-5)|
Sekera's metrics were significantly better on a significantly worse team because his new squad hasn't leveraged his skill set.
He manages the puck intelligently and makes a good first pass, but those strengths are nullified by a stone-handed blueliner who can hardly move the biscuit beyond the goal line:
We touched on why Sekera would complement Doughty last week, and his three contests in L.A. have only reinforced that notion.
Starved for the puck alongside Regehr, Sekera was visibly uncomfortable early in his Kings tenure. He was better with Brayden McNabb as his partner, but L.A. still wasn't receiving its money’s worth under this setup.
Sekera won’t lock anyone down, but if his pairmate can consistently send the puck his way, he’ll help the team out by driving play up the ice in a precise and controlled manner.
The back end is screaming out for a top pairing to eat minutes, govern traffic and limit gaffes. Meanwhile, Sekera needs a partner to get him the puck. Considering how much pressure opponents hurl in Doughty’s direction, this seems like a solid match.
With the Kings' latest acquisition also set to hit unrestricted free agency, they should be trying to extract every last ounce of value from his services while they own them.
Whether or not Sekera was brought in to replace the suspended Slava Voynov on the right side of the second pairing is irrelevant.
He can play on the right side, but that doesn’t mean he should.
The soundest defensive configuration would pair Sekera with Doughty, and letting the former's versatility stand in the way of an optimized blue line would amount to the sort of stubbornness that could sink the Kings during their postseason charge.
L.A. will need its back end to tighten up as upcoming games swell in importance, and that begins with the construction of a steady, tone-setting, possession-driving top pairing.