The L.A. Kings are back
Hello, Los Angeles?
It’s been a while since the Kings were sawing off opponents in the Western Conference, harkening back to the Darryl Sutter days and the pair of Stanley Cups the team hoisted in the 2010s.
Los Angeles – unlike their Californian counterparts in San Jose and Anaheim – opted to retool an aging roster, rather than ignite a full-blown rebuild. And for a few years, Pacific Division rivals like the Edmonton Oilers and Vegas Golden were the beneficiaries.
But the Kings appear to be back. Very back.
Los Angeles is off to a blistering start under the watchful eye of head coach Todd McLellan, posting a 13-3-3 record (29 points) over the first two months of the regular season. By way of point percentage, only the New York Rangers have had more success to start the year in the standings, and, owing to struggles this season from both Alberta teams, it has paved the way for the Kings to push for another division title.
But it’s not just that this Kings team is racking up wins. They are doing so in rather stunning fashion, with some of the best underlying numbers you will find across the National Hockey League.
As you know, I’m a big proponent in focusing on goal differentials in lieu of wins and losses this early in the season. The good news here is the on-ice dominance isn’t just in the win column – the Kings have outscored opponents by 29 goals this year, best in the league on a per-game basis, and a far cry from recent years:
Los Angeles already has nine players with double-digit point totals, but much of the firepower has come from three attackers.
It won’t surprise anyone to hear that veteran leader Anze Kopitar is off to another blistering start, with 10 goals and nine assists in his first 19 games. Winger Adrian Kempe continues to show the past two seasons (delivering a combined 76 goals) were no fluke, leading the team in scoring again this year. And the Kings have received a breakout performance from two-way forward Trevor Moore. His 11 goals are already good enough for his second best offensive season ever, and it seems certain he will clear his high-water mark in 2021-22 (17).
The resilient offence is a key reason why the Kings have distanced themselves from most of the Western Conference pack, but it’s worth acknowledging they are getting production throughout the lineup.
It’s a bit ironic considering the last great Kings team was similarly puck-dominant under Sutter’s watch, but look at the type of advantages they are creating throughout the lineup this year:
If you believe a team is generally as good as its weakest link, well, good luck finding it so far in Los Angeles. Every single regular skater for the Kings has a positive shot differential this season, and not surprisingly, that has correlated with a significant goal advantage.
Only one player – winger Kevin Fiala – has a negative goal differential at even strength this year (-2), and that’s largely because Kings goaltenders have been abysmal (84.5 stop rate) with Fiala on the ice.
Speaking of goaltending: If the Kings are going to be slowed in any capacity this year, it may come by way of some regression in the crease. The team has been running a platoon of Cam Talbot and Pheonix Copley, and so far, so good. But it remains to be seen if this turnaround from Talbot in particular – he’s stopping a ridiculous 93.1 per cent of shots, nearly nine goals better than expected – can be sustained, considering his struggles in recent years with the Minnesota Wild and Ottawa Senators.
It may still be early in the regular season, but it’s not too early to proclaim that the Kings are back. What this team’s ceiling is remains to be seen, but their year-over-year improvement is going to come at the cost of other Pacific Division contenders.
If you are an Oilers, Flames, or Canucks fan, it’s time to take an old foe seriously once more.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference