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Los Angeles Kings' 3rd Line Requires Immediate Makeover

Vinh CaoContributor IIIMarch 12, 2015

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 04:  Justin Williams #14 and Jarret Stoll #28 of the Los Angeles Kings talk during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on December 4, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona. The Kings defeated the Coyotes 4-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Kings picked up a vital win on Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche, moving them within striking distance in the Pacific Division and wild-card races.

Moreover, they caught a glimpse of an effective third line—a rare sight in recent weeks.

Up-and-coming center Nick Shore replaced Jarret Stoll on the unit, and the youngster buzzed in the offensive zone alongside Justin Williams and Kyle Clifford.

Since depth is so critical to L.A.’s success, the team may have uncovered a key adjustment to the forward ranks as it hits 2014-15’s home stretch. Whether the coaching staff sticks to it, however, is anyone’s guess.

Jarret Stoll

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 07: Jarret Stoll #28 of the Los Angeles Kings skates on ice during a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at STAPLES Center on March 07, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The 32-year-old has mustered one point and a minus-six rating in the past 20 games.

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Though that's actually kind of impressive in the worst way, it doesn’t come as a shock. He’s performed dismally for most of the season, and the numbers are starting to catch up to his play again. 

Williams is the reason he's managed to stay afloat, as the winger's terrific puck possession has funneled action toward the opposition's end and thus prevented Stoll from being exposed:

Jarret Stoll in 2014-15 (5-on-5)
GF60GF%CF%
With Justin Williams2.0158.653.9
Without Justin Williams1.9047.645.0
Source: Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com

At 33, however, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner is no spring chicken himself. He has also struggled with a decline, and without a strong center presence to lean on, his shortcomings—turnovers, defensive lapses—have come into sharper focus. 

Even in his prime, Stoll wouldn’t constitute the ideal fit next to Williams. At this stage, he represents an outright hindrance.

Plays regularly die on his stick, and it’s awfully difficult to establish a consistent cycle when one must avoid a specific forward in order to keep possession alive. As a result, Hockey-Reference.com indicates that Stoll is on pace for the lowest points-per-game percentage of his entire career.

This wouldn’t present so much of an issue if he were still excelling in other areas. He's not.

In 2014-15, he’s dropped to third among team centers in faceoff percentage, his penalty-killing numbers are horrendous and his defensive coverage slips further into the gutter with every passing game.

A defense-first pivot is now lost in his end as well. So just what does he offer?

Credit: OwnthePuck.blogspot.ca

He once suppressed shot attempts quite effectively. This season? He ranks last among the club’s regular centers in that category, while also sitting last in attempts for.

With all that in mind, is it wise to pair him with a difference-maker in Williams?

The answer seems obvious, but then again, head coach Darryl Sutter has demonstrated an alarming loyalty to Stoll over the past two years. According to LA Kings Insider's Jon Rosen, he took line rushes with Williams and Dustin Brown on Thursday.

Nick Shore

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 28: Nick Shore #37 of the Los Angeles Kings handles the puck against Andrew Shaw #65 of the Chicago Blackhawks at STAPLES Center on January 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Prior to Tuesday night’s contest, Williams had posted two points and a minus-five rating over the past 10 games. Those all came with Stoll as his center.

He racked up three assists and a plus-three rating away from Stoll against the Avs.

Naturally, sample size should be considered here, but this serves as only another sign that Stoll has held Williams’ offense back this season:

Justin Williams in 2014-15 (5-on-5)
GF60Pts/60CF%
With Jarret Stoll2.011.3053.9
With Anze Kopitar2.640.8856.2
With Mike Richards2.962.3753.8
With Nick Shore4.214.2158.5
Source: Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com

Since L.A. ranks 19th in the league in win percentage when trailing first in a game, opening the scoring is crucial. As such, the coaching staff should look to maximize the forward corps’ potential—especially since top-six cogs Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter are so streaky.

Shore isn’t exactly a dynamo. With that said, he isn’t a black hole where offense goes to die either.

Williams dogs the puck so feverishly that the center’s job on his line is to merely extend shifts on attack and crash the net. It’s a simple fit, and Shore plays a simple game.

Beyond the offensive benefits, the 22-year-old has also surpassed Stoll in L.A.’s zone. Instead of lunging into opponents and throwing himself out of position, Shore relies on smart positioning, as he’s seldom found on the wrong side of the puck.

It’s nothing spectacular, but it doesn’t need to be.

Williams represents the heart of the third line’s offense. He gains and maintains possession with the best of them, and his ability to fend off defenders and make plays in tight quarters is a boon to a bottom six that often appears devoid of ideas.

Unfortunately, Stoll has stood in his path on many nights. Shore, on the other hand, facilitates the journey.

It’s too early to tell if the youngster can become the team’s third-line pivot of the future, but he’s without question the superior option right now. Rearranging the third unit accordingly could go a long way toward finding consistency up front.

Considering L.A.’s place in the standings, this is a pressing matter.

Outlook

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 05: Justin Williams #14 converses with Trevor Lewis #22 of the Los Angeles Kings before a game against the Montreal Canadiens at STAPLES Center on March 05, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI via Ge
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

In an interesting turn, Rosen reported on Wednesday that demoted center Mike Richards has been training at the Kings’ practice facility this week.

Based on previous chemistry, production and big-game experience, he represents the strongest complement to Williams. Until he’s recalled from the AHL, however, he’s not a viable alternative.

Therefore, Shore should be next in line.

His fundamentals and puck-handling ability trump Stoll’s and certainly seemed to revitalize the third line against Colorado on Tuesday. At the very least, the coaching staff should give the new configuration a few games to assess whether this was a flash in the pan.

Sutter finally held Stoll accountable for his play. If he stands by that decision and rewards those who deserve it, he’ll position his squad for another playoff run.

Advanced statistics courtesy of Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.

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