One of the big surprises in the Western Conference is the daylight the Los Angeles Kings are already putting between them and all potential challengers in the Pacific Division.
At the time of this writing, the Kings were in possession of a ten-point lead over second-place Arizona – a team that few, if any, figured to be in the playoff discussion three months into the season.
There are at least two things driving this pronounced gap. The first is that this once infamous gauntlet of competition has weakened at the foundation. Vancouver and San Jose, two teams as terrifying as any for years, have been victimized by the sharp aging curve. Anaheim, who I still figure to be Los Angeles’ biggest divisional threat, has looked rather sloppy for most of the year. I’m still pretty bullish on Bruce Boudreau’s team and think a lot of their struggles were just unbelievably poor puck luck, but either way, I think it’s fair to say even this Ducks team is showing less teeth than the one we saw about eight months ago.
The other part of this equation is that Los Angeles is playing truly great hockey.
I concede that watching the Kings – an objectively great team at this juncture of the season – is not like watching some of the league’s other elite squads. This team is very much of the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ variety. Most of their possessions are indiscernible. It starts with control through the neutral zone, followed by a dump-in to the offensive zone. The Kings will hammer opposing defencemen along the boards and try to win the puck back, the goal to set up a cycle and generate sustained offensive zone pressure.
Sometimes, they never win the puck back from the initial dump-in and that’s fine for Darryl Sutter. The Kings quickly regroup and aggressively defend the neutral zone, forcing puck-carriers into tight spaces along the boards while looking for potential takeaway opportunities.
At times, it can be maddening to watch. But let’s be clear: it works. Emphatically well at times.
Once again, the Kings have become the league’s preeminent team at controlling shot differentials at 5-on-5, and it’s through success at both ends of the ice. The Kings actually generate more shots per-60 than the Stars at even strength, good for best in the entire NHL. Only the Devils suppress less shots per-60 in the defensive zone. Combined, it’s a team that controls about 57 per cent of the play – a number historically only carried by the best of the best hockey teams, and almost four points better than their nearest competition.
You can visualize their dominance by looking at what they’re doing at both ends of the ice, and how they compare league-wide. For my money, they’re the most dominant even strength team in the league.
You can see that Los Angeles is in the same statistical quadrant that almost all Stanley Cup winners eventually emerge from. Again though, this isn’t uncharted territory for the Kings. They have been 5-on-5 dominant in the past, parlaying some of their best runs into championships.
The thing to remember about this Los Angeles teams (and the teams who have exhibited this kind of dominance before them) is what underpins their success. It’s a combination of excellent high-end talent (I don’t think anyone’s arguing that the likes of Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty fail to qualify here) and competent backend depth that can also pummel the opposition.
With truly premier teams, this aspect is lost on a lot of people. It’s one of the big reasons that some analysts were cool on the Pittsburgh Penguins in years past. Having two generational talents in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is a huge bonus, but they are only playing a portion of the game. Your team still needs to get the job done when they come off of the ice. For years in Pittsburgh, the depth is what ultimately killed them.
That’s not the case in Los Angeles. On a player-by-player basis, we can look at how regular Kings’ skaters have performed by shot differential (per-60). Would you be surprised to know that even the team’s fourth-line and third-pairings are beating back their competition into the offensive zone?
Almost every single skater across the board – regardless of deployment, quality of teammates, quality of competition, etc. – is winning the shot share in a reasonably large way. There are essentially only three players whose numbers (Andreoff, Clifford, and Nolan) don’t blow you away, and all of these guys (a) qualify as depth talent; and (b) are still treading above water, trading chances in an environment where most players around the league are getting caved in.
That’s damn impressive, and a testament to the buy-in Darryl Sutter gets from his players.
No one’s handing the crown to the Kings just yet, but this team looks an awful lot like the one that’s sent a pair of Stanley Cup banners to the Staples Center rafters in recent years. Combine their dominance year-to-date with a generally weakened Pacific Division, and you have a very favourable opportunity for this team to emerge from the Western Conference.