You’d be forgiven if you’ve lost track of the Los Angeles Kings for a while. We’re coming up on 10 years since their last Stanley Cup. They haven’t won a round in the playoffs since, with four pretty inglorious dirt naps in the first round in the interim. They threw up (maybe literally) some pretty awful teams that definitely were not worth staying up late to watch for inhabitants east of the Rockies.
Even making the playoffs the last two seasons didn’t really build much momentum of attention or anticipation, as they were merely part of Connor McDavid’s and the Oilers’ Sisyphian fable that echoes much more loudly through hockey halls.
This time around, the Kings are looking like they’re a lot more than someone else’s plot device.They’ve got the best points-percentage in the West, third-best in the NHL and their metrics suggest they’re even better than that. Certainly there is something brewing on Figueroa St.
The first thing to know about the Kings is they very well may have the best center-depth in the NHL. While giving up as much as they did for a No. 3 center, as they did for Pierre-Luc Dubois and what he’s become so far this season in silver and black (which should still be purple and gold), it’s a tall task to find any team that can match up with Anze Kopitar-Phillip Danault-Dubois down the middle. That’s a good start for a lot of good things.
Yes, Anze Kopitar is still doing everything you remember. Maybe he’s not quite the 200-foot ass-kicker he used to be, but he’s also very much not just an offensive weapon as others he was compared to became late in their careers. Kopitar still starts most of his shifts outside the offensive zone and he still ends most of them in it. He’s been flanked by usual running buddy Adrian Kempe, who has scored 76 of the quietest goals the past two seasons, and they’ve helped turn former No. 2 pick Quinton Byfield into an absolute terror on the other wing. Byfield is 6-5 with baby’s-ass-soft hands, and in short order is going to be a real problem for anyone.
Kopitar doesn’t have to do the amount of work we might remember from 2012 or 2014 thanks to his mini-me in Danault, one of the league’s best checking centers, who also can chip in heavily offensively (pardon me while I go kick a mailbox over the Hawks punting this guy overboard to appease Joel Quenneville for Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann, two players he didn’t even use). Danault takes even more dungeon shifts than Kopitar and flips the ice even more. Kevin Fiala is on that line and he’s tied with Kempe for the team lead in points. The Kings are sporting a top six that can do anything at any time.
Joining Kopitar in the Leftover Lunch crew is Drew Doughty, who is playing like his Norris days again (which might engineer a Canucks fan-like amount of wailing about how their West coast start times is keeping Doughty from another Norris. They’ve done it before). Doughty is taking harder shifts than you’d think a defenseman who’s been in the league for 84 years or whatever it is (he’s somehow still only 33), starting only 35 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. But it hasn’t stopped him and usual partner Mikey Anderson from pushing the play. Second-pairing Matt Roy and Vladislav Gavrikov, freed from playing meaningless hockey in Columbus, get the cherry spots thanks to Doughty’s and Anderson’s work.
In net, it’s something of another revival act from Cam Talbot, who has a .919 save-percentage and the fourth best goals-saved-above-expected mark in the league. It’s not totally out of left field for Talbot, who was quite good in Edmonton years ago, but crumbled under the insane workload the Oilers put him through. Talbot put up useful seasons as a backup or 1B in both Calgary and Minnesota in recent seasons, though maybe not quite this. Do to Pheonix Copley’s struggles as backup, though, Talbot may be looking at the amount of starts that turned him into a puddle in Edmonton. One of the problems the Kings may need to solve.
Overall, the Kings have the best expected-goals percentage and second-best Corsi-percentage, trailing only the Hurricanes, who gas their numbers up thanks to their shoot-from-Mars policies that inflate their totals (and tend to do them in in May). The Kings are riding the wave of the league’s best penalty kill as well, where Talbot is rocking a .917 save-percentage. That probably will come down at some point, but the Kings stellar even-strength play will keep that from deflating them too much.
There’s a little air in the Kings performance so far. Kopitar isn’t going to double his career shooting-percentage all season and Talbot isn’t going to be Patrick Roy on the kill all year, either. But the Pacific sucks beyond them and the Knights, whom the Kings have pinched three points out of four off of so far. Trevor Moore isn’t a point-per-game player. But one more winger added before the deadline maybe, and something to shore up the crease either alongside Talbot or ahead of him (less likely the more Talbot plays like this), and suddenly the Kings look like a real power. And coach Todd McClellan has been a member of the Non-Morons Club for a decade and a half now. His high-pressure system assures that the Kings will keep running into more chances than their opponents.
Which sadly for the rest of us probably means we’ll be hearing a lot of Cartman screaming from the scoreboard come the spring. Oh, joy.
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