With a dozen games remaining in their regular season, the Los Angeles Kings sit on the Western Conference’s playoff bubble and need to string together wins soon.
Unfortunately, the only consistent trait this team has displayed in 2014-15 is inconsistency. The club’s top forward, Anze Kopitar, has carried the flag in this respect, continually alternating between quiet, messy and stellar showings.
If he can’t find his two-way groove in a hurry, L.A. will lose ground in the race for a postseason berth.
On paper, the basic stats would suggest a decent offensive season for Kopitar. He's on pace for 61 points after managing 70 last year.
A deeper look at the numbers, however, reveals that he hasn't contributed as positively in 2014-15.
At his best, the Slovenian center utterly dominates the opposition in even-strength situations. That hasn't been the case this year, as he’s grown even more reluctant to shoot the puck than usual, which has in turn hurt his and the team’s attacking prowess:
|Kopitar's Drop in Offensive Production (5-on-5)|
Moreover, his play on the road has been deplorable, registering 18 points and a minus-10 rating in 30 contests away from Staples Center.
Asking him to suddenly become an assertive, potent force on offense—essentially a brand-new player—isn’t reasonable.
However, his current shot rate is unacceptable. Restoring it closer to his career average would open up the ice for his linemates—especially a sniper like Marian Gaborik, who is often tightly covered and could use some additional room to operate.
Moreover, the 6’3”, 224-pound center must take it upon himself to crash the net when he isn’t in control of the puck. His build is ideal for parking in the dirty areas, and when paired with a soft set of hands, he’s a nightmare to handle.
Force defenders to, well, defend you. He needs to challenge the opposition’s back end instead of limiting action to the perimeter.
Puck possession is great, and he really is great in that department, but the Kings require more from their All-Star pivot than routine passes back to the point for low-percentage shots.
This isn't to suggest he should start flinging pucks on net indiscriminately either. There are certainly times when pulling up and using the points is a wise approach. But on the rare occasion when opponents do tender a window of opportunity, he has to seize it.
He has to leave a greater mark on the outcome of games.
Kopitar has always been prone to dips in offensive performance—perhaps not to this season’s extent, but the trend is in place.
The worrying part of the picture is his defensive slippage.
In 67 games, the former Selke Trophy finalist sits at minus-four on a team with a plus-13 goal differential. His on-ice goals-against average is higher than it’s been since 2011-12, and his goals-for percentage hasn’t sunk this low since 2008-09.
Whether or not one’s tempted to write this year off as an anomaly, 2014-15 has generated a noteworthy downturn in two-way effectiveness:
His positioning remains strong, which makes this predicament quite strange. He simply isn’t executing after putting himself in the right spot to do just that.
During Wednesday night's big Pacific Division contest against the Anaheim Ducks, he and forward Patrick Maroon squared off in the slot. Given his defensive acumen and imposing frame, one would expect Kopitar to blanket his man quite easily.
However, he failed to tie up Maroon's stick, granting his opponent an easy tap-in to even the score:
Frankly, that contest served as an apt microcosm for his entire season. He racked up a power-play assist but ended the night at minus-two.
L.A.’s defense relies heavily on its forwards, and its top three-zone center—particularly one of Kopitar's size—should be winning his one-on-one duels. He should be harder on the puck all over the ice and pushing opponents to the outside.
The hockey sense and discipline haven’t vanished. He just isn’t delivering the goods when it counts.
That is also magnified by his deployment, as head coach Darryl Sutter trusts him to face stiff competition. Teams need their top players to be their top players on a nightly basis, and Kopitar hasn’t earned that distinction with any regularity of late.
In 2014-15 alone, it feels as though he’s blown his assignment more frequently than in the previous three years combined. It’s an unfamiliar situation, and one he must rectify down the stretch in order to strengthen his team’s defense and playoff prospects.
The 27-year-old’s decline hasn’t screamed out for attention because his play never has. Highlight-reel sequences haven’t dried up, but the substance behind his game has unquestionably taken a hit.
He isn’t tilting the ice in his club’s favor as thoroughly as he did last season, when he was among the most effective five-on-five forwards in the NHL.
As a whole, the Kings are underperforming this year, so they need their engine at center to drive play, convert possessions into more scoring chances and tighten up the team’s defense.
L.A.’s bid to reach the playoffs—let alone repeat as champion—may well depend on it.