Kings Just Say “No” to Run-and-Gun

by | Nov 1, 2022

For years, the LA Kings have been a team that has had spectacular goaltending. The thing is, they were also a team that didn’t need spectacular goaltending (if such a thing exists) because they’ve always played solid team defense. Now, suddenly, the goaltending is looking a bit suspicious, if you go purely by the numbers.

“I’ve been saying this for ten games . . . . We still don’t know how we want to play, and I would think the experiment of run-and-gun that we’re trying to play, how much more evidence do we need that that doesn’t work?” This was Todd McLellan at the end of last week. “Maybe we will become the run-and-gun team, but I don’t like our chances.”

It’s thus easy to throw the Kings’ early so-so performance back onto their relative lack of team defense so far this year. The story is bigger than that. For starters, they’ve been playing a more offensively focused blue line strategy. This in part because youngster Brandt Clarke, never shy to jump into the play, was feeling his oats. He’s played in eight games so far, sitting out a couple of the more recent ones.

Coach McLellan commented on his offensive focus after Tuesday’s game versus the Lightning. “The fact that we keep using him, putting him out in all different situations . . . down by a goal, up by a goal, obviously we believe in him or we wouldn’t be doing that. The organization needs to sit down and make decisions based on what’s right for him, for us, for the future, for now.” Saturday with the Leafs in town, Clarke was on the sidelines, scratched. And again, Monday in St. Louis, he was press-box-confined.

Was it the freewheeling but ultimately unsuccessful effort of the team versus Winnipeg (game 10), coming on the heels of a 4-2 win versus the Lightning at home in team game nine? Or the fact that he’s at eight games played and would have just one more before he would have to be retained for the year rather than going back to Junior in Barrie (the Colts)? More likely, and while you have him up, why not have him observe from way upstairs to see what he can learn off the ice?

McLellan commented as follows when IH asked him what accountability a player has when he’s sitting out. “Accountability afterwards is hard, because you just don’t always have the time to follow up. [Assistant Coach] Trent Yawney will follow up with him. I know that he sat with him, even when we were playing against Tampa Bay, for example, he, you know, [said] ‘Take a look at what Hedman’s doing. Take a look at what Doughty is doing.’ There’s some really good defensemen that I think he can learn from, and often when a player doesn’t stay in the lineup, he comes out, I think the thought process is he’s playing poorly or it’s punishment. For young players it’s not always that; sometimes it’s good to reset yourself, watch a game, especially from far. You get a chance to anticipate what may be happening, what may be open, and watch your teammates and the other team.”

He also commented on the fact that young players typically don’t have to play as much defense when they’re a star in Junior, for instance, and that there’s a learning process.

But back to the main point: despite a win Saturday versus the Leafs on the strength of two power play goals, the Kings are not yet on track to play the style they’ve come to identify as theirs over the past years, and certainly under Coach McLellan. This team that so prided itself on defense is leaking goals like crazy. Part of this is the matter of not being able to stay out of the penalty box.

Again, McLellan: “The penalties that we’re taking are unacceptable, you know, so there’s a lot of game management decisions that go into it.”

Entering the game versus the Leafs, the Kings were third in the league in minutes in the box, at 99. Seattle was at 100, and Dallas at 102. On the other end of the scale, St. Louis had accumulated only 32 minutes, and the Vegas Golden Knights were second-cleanest with 49. Versus Toronto, the Kings played a much cleaner game, while still registering eight minutes. The Leafs, by contrast, were back and forth to the penalty box, taking six minors. The Kings capitalized. They would do so again in St. Louis two nights later, going one for three on the power play and killing four Blues’ chances.

But back to the matter of the relatively mediocre work the Kings have done so far in going 5-5 in their first ten games, turning that into 6-5 with a win over the Blues. Might it be the goaltending that’s at fault? The numbers certainly do not favor Jonathan Quick, who played in seven of the first ten LA games and registered a 3.81 GAA and a save percentage of .878. His counterpart, Cal Petersen, came into Saturday having appeared in three games and with numbers that looked like this: GAA 4.97 and save percentage .842.

Versus the Leafs, Petersen looked good, though he didn’t have to be great. He was sharp on a late chance where the puck came in high, was deflected down low, and he just got down and closed the five-hole in time. He stopped 26 of 28 shots for a .929 save percentage on the night. That boosts his season’s save percentage to .865, and his GAA goes to 4.10. Still way below NHL numbers, but heading in the right direction, obviously. He looked mobile and confident, which is perhaps what gave the players around him a boost.

After the game, he also nodded to the identity question: “We’re to somewhat where we want to be. Two-one, three-two kind of hockey games.” Petersen credited a lot of blocked shots in the later going, especially the third period. “That’s what got us far last year, and that’s what’s going to get us far this year.” Personal question–had Petersen snatched the net for his own?

Come the away game against the Blues on Halloween, there Quick was again, between the pipes, this time making agile save after agile save on the way to a four-goal team LA outburst in period two and a 5-1 victory. Heck, he was even diving side to side in his net on a late St. Louis power play when there’s no way a tie would have been possible. He lost his stick, got it back, and made a beautiful stretched-out glove save to preserve the one-goal-against win.

After the game, Coach McLellan, who had just won his 100th game behind the LA bench, said, “We knew we were going to have our hands full. They [Blues] were obviously not very happy with their game, just as we were a few games ago.” But then he cited the start, the way his team stuck with things. “I think we checked our way to a few goals, and Quickie was good,” he pointed out. He said he was not aware of the milestone, but, “The next hundred are going to be a lot tougher than the first hundred, and I’m only worried about one-oh-one, which is tomorrow at Dallas.”

Have things finally started to come together? The team ended October with a 6-5 record, so at least on the positive side. They now stay on the road, where they’re 4-2-0 so far, for two more games. They had the best road record in the league last year. They move on to play Dallas in the second half of a back-to-back. Any guess as to who the goaltending duties will fall to?

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