The Ongoing Conversation in LA

We’ve had this conversation for a while. The Kings need to score more. They can’t win 1-0. Shutouts, despite Jonathan Quick’s remarkable streak earlier this season, don’t pave the path to the Stanley Cup.

That the Kings need to score more is as plain as the ink it takes to print the stats. In the West, coming into Saturday night, they had the fewest goals amongst the top 12, excluding Minnesota. And their goal differential was a plus-one. The only other team with negative numbers in the top eight was Dallas, at minus-two. The next worst? The No.-12 team, Colorado, at minus-12.

Why aren’t they putting the puck past opposing goalies? Ah, if one had a nickel for every time that has been asked. Murray’s teams have a history of being high-scoring. At least some of his Philly squads did. So why is this LA group so goal-challenged?

One way to answer that is with a shrug and the statement, “Who knows, but it’s been this way since he’s been with the Kings.” In fact, the coach made a crucial confession to this effect after the game: “We’ve been talking about that for a couple of years. Clearly, there’s some critical situations in games that we’re passing up. We’ll get second and third chances with the puck lying around.”

But why? If they know the answer, why not just shoot?

The other answer is to point to the obvious, which is that the coach has instilled a defensively focused system, talked about “responsibility in our own end,” and even convinced Anze Kopitar, currently eighth in league scoring but with only three points in the last six games, that he should focus more on defense.

Murray commented after the Chicago game Saturday, “Holding them to two goals is good. They’re one of the elite scoring teams in the conference.” He added, “And we had some good looks here tonight. We ended up tying the game [at] one, and they won a faceoff to go ahead 2-1. After that we had tremendous looks, but we’re just having a tough time finding the back of the net right now.”

What happened? The Kings tried, as they have done many times before, to do what the coach has in the past labelled “to pass the puck into the net.” And as he’s said, that doesn’t work. In the first period, they did it, and it resulted in a turnover where Patrick Kane and Viktor Stalberg took off down to the Kings’ end two-on-zero. Kane passed it over, but Stalberg had it go off the heel of his stick, or it would have been in.

Someone asked Murray about this play. “Just shoot the puck on that. Jack [Johnson] just get it to the net. He’s a left-hand shot, that’s a one-timer for him. Now he throws it over to his partner, who’s also a left-hand shot, and uh, there’s no chance. The attitude is the only way you can score is getting pucks to the net. and we need to be much better in that.” They’re putting too fine a point on it. Why?

Murray again diagnosed the problem: “Extra passes are not a good thing for us right now. We want to get the puck to the net, and we might score some greasy, ugly goals. That might be the crack in the door that we can kick it open and feel more comfortable scoring goals.”

One remedy that they appear to be trying is having Drew Doughty rein in his high windup slapshot and instead, shoot medium to low wristers to the net, especially on the power play. The idea, naturally, is to look for loose pucks. It didn’t result in anything Saturday, but there were some close scrambles in front.

Another answer is to play a more physical game and count on intimidation to make things go your way. Post- game, the radio show guys said that one remedy for the Kings’ lack of scoring would be to let the fourth-line type of player come out hard, crashing and banging, and get some intimidation going which would create turnovers. It looks a lot like the Kings are already doing that, as the team outhit the Hawks 27-13. But it didn’t result in anything. The shots were in favor of neither, at 27 each.

The plan to crash and bang to create chances was blown because the team’s fourth line can’t do anything but fumble away their opportunities.

The LA team got a couple of their best offensive chances go to the sticks of the guys who aren’t as proficient in scoring. Witness Kyle Clifford, who got a puck off the end boards with the net open. He shot wide left with a gaping space to bury it in. Late in the third period, the fourth line was on again (Clifford, Trent Hunter, and Andrei Loktionov). Hunter had the puck with an open net, and missed it.

So if a new approach to the wrist shot doesn’t work, and neither does a gritty game, then what’s left? Turn guys loose. Let Kopitar, Stoll, Richards, and Williams play to put the puck in the net. Obviously, scoring is more fun than defense. And the team does have talent that can score. They just don’t get the chances. Why?

Since nobody on the Kings is likely to say that playing defense is killing their scoring abilities, I figured I’d ask Jonathan Toews, who had five points against Anaheim Friday and the winning goal against the Kings Saturday. The question was simple. How much does he think about defense?

He had just said about winning the faceoff which set up his goal, “You want to start every play with the puck,” and then he added to IH, “We got a lot of offensive-minded players, a lot of guys with skill and guys who want to play that offensive game.” He didn’t so much answer the question as jump at it. I had barely finished the sentence when he started. Why did he feel free to say this? Because it’s true, partly, and if the Kings’ top offensive players were similarly able to voice this idea, then back it up on the ice, things might be more like 4-2 against Chicago instead of 2-1 on the losing side.

Toews added “We know if we want to win, we have to be smart on our own side of the puck, and that’s a sacrifice guys are willing to make, so, um, coming off a smart defensive play, you’re going to get a lot of opportunities; that’s the way we look at it.” How to read that? As coach-speak. What he wants to do is score, because he knows that more goals wins more games.

Of the five teams in the league with more than 70 goals, all are in the top spots in their respective conferences. That’s Pittsburgh, Toronto, Philly, Boston, and Chicago. The only spoilers of the theory are Florida, in second in the East with just 63 goals, and Minnesota, first in the West coming into Saturday with 52 goals.

So the Kings need to score. Their depth players aren’t talented enough to do it. Their offensive players are stifled thinking about defense. What to do? Get out there and drive the net, shoot faster and without as much thought. Get into the seams where you can hide out and put the puck in the strings.

Sure, it sounds simple. Doing it is another thing, because it means Murray has to backpedal on his advice to Kopitar and perhaps others. But as one person was heard to comment after the game, “You can talk about not scoring for four years. The first three, you tell it to your players. The fourth, you say it to yourself, in your room, alone.”

Because you’re fired.

Notes
Brian’s new book, My Country Is Hockey, is available now. You are doing your Christmas shopping, aren’t you? Buy at www.lonepinepublishing.com http://lonepinepublishing.com/cat/9780986654619

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