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Is the LA Kings Key to Success Their Forward Depth?

September 6, 2016, 1:23 PM ET [12 Comments]
Jason Lewis
Los Angeles Kings Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT

Depth will make or break your squad. The deeper the team, the less likely you are to run into a line or player that is easily exposable, detrimental, or flat out not very good.

The Kings won two cups based on the idea of having solid depth in positions one through four, at center and wing. The Kings have developed a strong core of players, but also a strong group of consistent complementary players. Unlike some teams, like the Anaheim Ducks for example, the Kings have strayed away from funneling in "Complement" players. They have primarily stuck with the same internal, consistent group year after year. Yes, even down to their beloved fourth line forwards, the Kings have stuck with it for the most part.

The concern with the Kings is really not that of their core or top lines. Between Pearson, Gaborik, Kopitar, Carter, Toffoli, and maybe a surprise or two in the top 6 like Dowd or Purcell, they should be able to put up some pretty strong minutes and decent production. The concern, at least at the moment, has to be the trend of the team's bottom line skaters. But should it be so black and white between your top and bottom 6?

Over the years the Kings have trended for defensively responsible play. If you aren't scoring you better well be preventing chances and goals also. The numbers of King bottom six forwards reflect a group that can, for the most part, hang in the NHL in terms of giving you either good defensive play or simple straightforward "Kings" hockey. Someone like Jordan Nolan, who has the worst statistical value of the group, plays a game Darryl Sutter very much likes. Even Nolan, for all the grindy and sometimes touch and go quality he has, has shown a bit of speed and flash every once and a while that makes you wonder if there is more to come. However, it is starting to get to the point where the simple execution of said style is not enough. Results matter.

It is funny to look at things like expected goals or corsi with the Kings bottom lines, because as we've mentioned numerous times before Brown, Shore, Lewis, were actually really good. They, just like the other bottom six forwards not named Andreoff, just flat out didn't score. Which is a huge part of why we must question the depth of the Kings.

Dwight King, since 2012-13, has seen a peak in 2013-14, and then a fall in the following two seasons.

Easily visualized, like this.

Scoring chances, corsi, expected goals, goals for, everything has peaked and started to fall.

The struggles of Dustin Brown are also well documented in this regard. He has started to trend downward.

Kyle Clifford, who has been a somewhat stable analytics contributor, has had a SOMEWHAT similar trajectory but not identical. He peaked in the 2012-14 seasons, that much is clear. BUT, Clifford has seen his goal scoring consistently drop since 2013-14, much like King and Brown. In zone adjust numbers at 5v5 in 2012-13, Kyle Clifford's line while on the ice was scoring at a healthy 2.752 GF60 and a 52.8% Goals For percentage. In 2013-14, it was 60, in 2014-15 57.7, and finally last season it was 52.0. In analytics, Clifford has stayed relatively stable, around the 52-53% mark in possession. This is a pretty even trend across the board for the Kings bottom lines. They peaked, and now they are falling back a bit.

But the goals, oh the goals.

We pulled the seven regular players from the Kings bottom six this last season, Andreoff, Brown, King, Lewis, Nolan, Clifford, and Shore. Between the seven of them they scored 33 goals at even strength. That is 4.7 goals per skater. Not good.

The year prior to that we removed Andreoff who played just 18 games and added Jarret Stoll. The group scored 46 goals at even strength. Or 6.6 goals per skater. Almost a two goal difference per player across the board.

And finally, the year before that in 2013-14, there was a kind of jumbled mix of designated bottom line producers. You can't really single out one group aside from Colin Fraser, Nolan, Clifford, and maybe Mike Richards in his final days that stayed in a bottom six role. Dwight King jumped around the lineup. As did Justin Williams, who played third line for a while. Same could be said of Stoll and Brown. Even the youngsters Toffoli and Pearson mixed in on the bottom lines from time to time. Point being is there was variability in the top 9 as a whole. The divide between top line producers and bottom line producers was not really that clear. The Kings tried to regain that element to their roster this season with the acquisitions of Kris Versteeg and Vincent Lecavalier. The divide in scoring from the top 6 to the bottom 6 was pretty darn significant, and Lecavalier and Versteeg were perhaps meant as bridge players. We all know how it went down with those two, however Lecavalier did do one thing right when he was here and that was score. For the sake of the exercise, if you pooled the goals from the bottom lines you get somewhere around 45-50 from 2013-14 depending on how you designate bottom line players. Similar to the output of the 6.6 per player of the previous year. In short, it was better than last year. By a lot.

The concern for the Kings, looking over the roster as a whole, is that they have become much more reliant on top line production. This has reared its head at different times during the regular season, when slumps from players like Carter, Toffoli, or Kopitar will put a lot of pressure on the Kings offense in other places. However, they always seemed to manage just enough from other depth positions, and rely just enough on their defensive principles to make it by. Those days do seem to be hanging on by a thread. Fortunately for the Kings this year, Kopitar, Carter, Toffoli, Lucic, Pearson, and Drew Doughty all had really good years in terms of production. It was not all that difficult to stave off a slump from one or two. Also fortunate, none of them really endured too long a slump in scoring during the year (except for Toffoli's meager two goal late-January/February). They all stayed pretty productive and healthy throughout the year. You cannot always rely on that however.

One of the major questions this season, with the loss of Lucic, the age of Gaborik, the decline of Brown....

Where does the safety net scoring come from?

If Kopitar/Carter/Toffoli slump, what are the Kings looking at with a bottom six that had one of its most offensively stagnant years in recent memory?

You look at a team like Pittsburgh who had a pretty top heavy scoring group with Kessel, Crosby, Malkin, and Hornqvist, they also had a decent secondary group that came with Hagelin, Cullen, Bonino, Fehr, Kuhnhackl, Sheary, and Kunitz. Or the San Jose Sharks, always considered a top heavy team with Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, and Couture. They too received enough decent lower level scoring from Hertl, Ward, Donskoi, Karlsson, Nieto and Wingels to supplement. Granted, cherry picking the two finalists is not fair to a team that is not at that level. Teams can be good, but not balanced, and that might be what the Kings are running into at the moment. Anaheim has been one of the guiltiest parties in this regard, rarely placing a consistent home grown roster base around Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. We all seem to know what happens with the Ducks when it is playoff time, and good deep defensive teams negate Getzlaf and Perry. Just the same way the Kings were able to beat the Ducks on depth in 2013-14, the Sharks were able to beat the Kings on depth in 2015-16. You need nine good forwards, not six good offensive ones and six good defensive ones.

The further teams seem to drift into a top6/bottom6 mold, the more likely they are to have bouts of scoring woes. The Kings of the premier days ran, essentially, a top 9 forward group and a bottom line. As in 2013-14, the variability in who was playing on that third line ranged from Williams to Toffoli to Brown or to Dwight King. The Sharks, likewise, were running at times Marleau, Ward, or Hertl on their third line. Last season it was very much a clear designation of Kopitar and the Top 6 and then some bottom 6 guys. With Lucic out of the fold it will become increasingly difficult to find that variability. Despite the departure of Lucic being a good long term financial move for the Kings, it will have its clear ill effects. Depth is one of them.

While Nolan, Andreoff, Clifford, King, and Lewis all play that responsible Kings style of hockey, is that the ideal Top 9 complement you want? Especially with Nolan, Clifford, and King in a bit of an uncertain place trend wise. Likely not. So where does it come from?

As we start previewing the team more in the upcoming weeks leading to the regular season, we will ask certain questions that we can mull over until puck drop. Are the Kings going to attempt more of a Top 9 than a Top 6? Do they have the horses capable of doing so? That answer will likely rely on the performance of certain young players (Mersch, Dowd, Auger?) , but also the rebound year of someone like a Dustin Brown or Dwight King. Do the Kings take risks and make bold moves in involving these young players over more steady regulars who play "Kings hockey"? How big an impact are the Kings expecting from Michael Latta and Teddy Purcell? How you feel about these things is likely how you feel about the Kings as a whole. Kopitar, Carter, and Toffoli are very good forwards, and we believe that Pearson can take another step this year as well. BUT asking them to carry the team is quite the task. Depth is key but do the Kings have it? What is the 3rd line if you want to gear more towards a scoring balance versus a defensive balance?

It is one of the more uncertain rosters in recent memory, and it could be a very different feeling roster when things get under way in October. Funny to say the Kings success hinges on a third line, but finding production from some 5-8 players in the forward group could be the difference this year.

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