In a sprawling interview with The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun (sub required), former Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi notes that he predicted a hot start for his old team.
Few others saw a 10-2-2 start coming for an aging roster that missed the playoffs in two of the last three seasons and hasn’t won a playoff round since their 2014 Stanley Cup run.
This post takes a look at 1) the factors playing into such a hot start and 2) what might continue versus what should change.
Most obviously, Jonathan Quick has been healthy, and he’s been absolutely brilliant.
With a blistering .939 save percentage through 11 games, the American-born goalie is matching great numbers to his considerable athleticism in a way that he hasn’t always been able to manage during his polarizing career. (Mainstream types sometimes overrated Quick, while analytics-minded folks might have gone to excessive extremes to refute such praise over the years.)
With all that was going on for the Kings, it’s easy for some to forget that Quick only appeared in 17 games last season.
If healthy, Quick is a difference-maker, but he’s almost certain to slip from his lofty perch; his career save percentage is .916, and he’s come in that range for the past four seasons.
Much has already been made about the resurgence of Dustin Brown, as you can see here and here. Chances are, a lot of his success will be tied to whether or not he can stick with a revitalized Anze Kopitar on the Kings’ top line.
Expect some of the Kings’ top scorers to slip, at least to an extent, as Kopitar (18.9) and Brown (13.3) are shooting at a higher percentage than they have in some time. The drop-off may only be extreme for Adrian Kempe, though, as he’s connected on a third of his shots on goal so far.
The most fascinating transformation may be for Drew Doughty.
For years, Doughty’s all-around work has made him one of the go-to examples for a player who’s “better in reality than fantasy.” So far, Doughty has 10 points in 14 games, putting him in a position to match or exceed his career-high of 59 points. Doughty’s 6.8 shooting percentage is right in line with his career average of 6.3, so ... maybe we’ll see him put up the box score numbers he’s often lacked?
OK, so let’s consider team-wide elements of this Kings’ run.
Not your older brother’s Kings?
Looking at team-based possession stats from Natural Stat Trick, the Kings may not be the puck-dominant squad under John Stevens that they once were under Darryl Sutter. After leading the pack for years in stats like Corsi For Percentage - sometimes by significant margins - they’re currently in the middle of the pack.
It will be fascinating to see if this carries through 82 regular-season games, and if this ends up being “all by design” to increase high-danger chances at the expense of volume.
Some luck, no doubt
As you might expect with a team exceeding expectations, the Kings are getting a lot of bounces in their favor.
Their PDO (a team’s shooting percentage plus save percentage, which is a leading indicator of luck) is 102.3 at even-strength according to Natural Stat Trick, putting them high among the NHL’s ranks.
While their shooting percentage should come down, it’s the work of Quick & Co. in net that will be the toughest to keep going.
Not all negative
One bright spot for the Kings is that they’re on this roll with Jeff Carter either limited or out of the lineup altogether.
Carter is coming off a magnificent 32-goal, 66-point season, which marked a third consecutive year where he generated 60+ points for L.A. So far, he had three assists and zero goals in six games. With Carter turning 33 on New Year’s day, there’s some concern that he may finally be hitting the wall many snipers splat into.
Still, even if he might dip a bit, you could reasonably expect that Carter might help ease some of the regression if the bounces stop going the Kings’ way. Perhaps low-shooting-percentage guys like intriguing youngster Alex Iafallo and solid winger Tanner Pearson may heat up during times when things aren’t going so smoothly for Kopitar, too?
One thing people often forget is that, even in the best of times, the Sutter - Lombardi Kings rarely did things the easy way.
Putting Sutter on the bench saved the Kings’ season in 2011-12, and L.A. was ranked third in its division during both of his championship runs. This franchise hasn’t won a division since it was labeled Smythe.
The greatest value in starting 10-2-2 might be the simplest: those wins and standings points are already in the bank. Theoretically, the Kings could be run-of-the-mill for long stretches and still enjoy one of their best regular seasons in memory.
Such a stretch might allow the Kings to rest their aging core players like Kopitar, Brown, Quick, and Doughty if (in a rare event) they don’t need to scratch and claw just to clinch a playoff berth.
Actually, the real fun could also come during the trade deadline: will GM Rob Blake push the right buttons with a team whose ceiling is still difficult to measure?
Overall, the Kings are playing over their heads, but maybe not enough to soothe their haters.