LA Kings @ Calgary Flames (11-9-1)
6:30 PST, RSW (Regehr Sucks Wang?)
Record: 8-8-3 (49 Goals For, 49 Goals Against)
Special Teams: 16.7 PP% (19th), 84.1 PK% (10th)
Top Scorer: Anze Kopitar, 15 points
Best Forward: Dustin Brown?
Best Defenseman: Drew Doughty
Biggest Surprise: Drew Doughty/Erik Ersberg
Biggest Disappointment: Anze Kopitar
(It's only 19 games in, but tomorrow's Lubo Day so I'm doing this now.)
All coaches search for a balance between top-line talent and depth with their forward lines. At the beginning of the season, the Kings were running 3 lines that were of relatively equal strength, with Brownitar on the top line, Frolov/Handzus on line 2, and O'Sullivan/Stoll on the 3rd. These lines helped spread out the Kings' talent but probably did so a little too much and the Kings had trouble hanging with the top-level talent on other teams. Then Terry Murray apparently had a stroke and screwed with the lines for about 4 or 5 games, banishing O'Sullivan to the 4th line while promoting Kyle Calder to the top line. This gave the Kings the worst of both worlds: it hampered their top players while also neutering their depth.* Finally, the Kings moved Patrick O'Sullivan up with Brownitar to form the fearsome Maxi-PAD Line; since their reuniting, the three sleepy musketeers have tallied 7 points in 2 games. (Is that a lot? I don't know.)
*Of course, the Kings won a bunch of games while this was going on. Hockey is weird.
The reuniting of the Maxi-PAD solves one problem (it forms a top line that instills fear into the hearts of Los Angeles' opponents), but it also creates a depth issue that the Kings are ill-equipped to handle right now. Murray has apparently solved this problem by creating two dynamic scoring lines, a pretty good defensive line, and then (sound of toilet flushing here). Alex Frolov, Jarret Stoll and Oscar Moller have generally been getting assigned the other team's top scoring line and have been doing an admirable job of keeping them off the score sheet. Jarret Stoll should have about 15 goals by now but should start rounding into shape as he and Frolov build some chemistry. Michal Handzus has done a pretty great job of shutting down whatever line Murray sees fit to line him up against, but he desperately needs speed on his wings and Kyle Calder isn't cutting it. Wayne Simmonds looks good in spurts but I still think he could use a little time in the minors. 2 points in 20 games isn't good for him. Basically, the Kings are trying to create a overall mismatch with their top line; stop the other team's top offensive line with their 2nd line; and then prevent any line mismatch with their secondary stopper line. So far, so good.
The bottom line has been the source of much of my ire, and I really think the Kings are missing an opportunity to pile up cheap goals. As it stands now, the Kings' 4th line is pretty much worthless because there's no real reason to put them out on the ice. They aren't going to score, they're not going to control possession and wear down the opposition; the only thing they're going to do is take a penalty. The Kings would be wise to use someone with a modicum of offensive talent and get them involved in the game instead of using John Fucking Zeiler.* A line like Armstrong-Boyle-Richardson would actually help the Kings win a game, which is much more than I can say for Ivanans and Zeiler.
*If you buy into the premise that Ivanans prevents injuries to Kings' players, don't you have to believe that Zeiler is likely to get a King injured because he pisses off the other team and causes them to seek retribution? I don't get why that's not the case.
Overall, the Kings seem to have adapted into a system that relies heavily on their top two lines, both offensively and defensively. This has worked pretty well the past few games, although it remains to be seen how well Michal Handzus can be worked into the game without quality linemates. I keep expecting the Kings to start scoring goals any time now, but we're 20 games in and they haven't really shown signs that they're going to break out. Hopefully it comes soon, because I'd rather hit myself in the head with a hammer than root for the Blue Jackets.
Defensively, the Kings have been outstanding so far this season. I know, right? Strange. Even crazier: Drew Doughty is leading the team in ice time per game and is third (behind Kopitar and Brown) in power play time per game. The 18 year-old wunderkind is insanely poised for being so young; he looks like he's playing the game at a slower speed than everyone else. He's 5th among defenseman in penalty kill time per game, but that's more because he needs to get rest some time than because he's not good at it. The Kings' 2nd best defenseman? Kyle Quincey, who was waived by the Red Wings earlier in the season and is now leading all Kings' defenseman in points. Third best? Why, that'd be Sean O'Donnell, the wizened greybeard that was forced out of Anaheim due to cap constraints. He's leading Kings' defenseman in both even strength and penalty kill minutes, all while schooling Doughty in the finer aspects of the game. Plus, he kind of looks like Hellboy, so that's cool. 4th best is Matt Greene, who was acquired this last off-season along with Jarret Stoll for Lubomir Visnovsky. Basically, Dean Lombardi rebuilt the entire defense this off-season with one high-profile draft pick and a series of castoffs and renegades. The Kings' blueline looks like the offensive line from The Replacements; no word on whether Denis Gauthier eats a bucket full of eggs before every game. (Although his play makes me feel like I have! Oh snap!)
The first 10 games of the season, Jason Labarbera posted a 3.01 GAA and a .884 SV%. The problem wasn't that he was bad in every game, it was that he had a handful of stinkers that crippled the Kings. Since then, Erik Ersberg has started every game and has posted an admirable 2.05 GAA and a .907 SV%. His stats are inflated by the Kings' incredible shot prevention so far this season, kind of like Nabokov's last year, but the point is that Ersberg has been consistent. The Kings know what to expect from Ersberg and thus don't have to overcompensate. His lowest individual save percentage has been .867 and his highest has been .963; everything else has been in the low .900's. Compare that to Labarbera, who had a shutout but also had games like this and this, and you can see why the Kings have stuck with their little cherubic Swede. Of course, teams may start saying, "Hey, why don't we shoot high?" and then Ersberg is doomed, but I'll ride this little wave while it lasts.
Overall, the Kings have been... pretty good. They're limiting shots from their opponents and seem to be building an identity around tough team defense. While I would like them to score more, the reality of the Kings' roster situation makes it hard for them to bring up additional help. If the biggest complaint I can muster is that I'd like to see Brad Richardson play more, than I guess they're doing OK. Now they need to build on their relative success so far this season and make a push towards respectability.
Last season the Calgary Flames were the first team to exploit the defensive liabilites of the Maxi-PAD line by teaming up Craig Conroy (who shadowed Kopitar) and Jarome Iginla, who neutralized the Kings' best line by keeping the puck in LA's zone. The game's in Calgary today and the Flames will have the last change, so I expect that strategy to continue. However, that line is much improved defensively and Dustin Brown has actually been shouldering more responsibility carrying the puck, so we'll see how that little strategy looks this time around.
Anyone want to see a Boyle/Phaneuf scrap tonight?
Prediction: Kings win, 4-3. Goals by Moller, Doughty, Calder and... O'Donnell??? Sure why not.
Monday, November 24, 2008
LA Kings @ Calgary Flames (11-9-1)