Last night's 2-0 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs was about as perfect an execution defensively as you could get from an L.A. Kings perspective.
While the Maple Leafs played an excellent road game with plenty of chances and puck possession against a high puck possession team, LA was able to get down to business in their own end.
And by that I mean steer almost every shot to the outside, keep the center lane closed down, and limit chances from high scoring areas. It was textbook. Every time the Maple Leafs came down for an end zone run of possession, it was steered to the halfwalls and down low behind the net. Toronto was constantly looking for the play out front and in the slot to no avail. Hardly any point shots were mustered, and there was very little traffic in front. Martin Jones still had to make several key saves, but for the most part it was a complete defensive effort from Los Angeles.
Those types of performances have been hit and miss this season.
Thanks to War-on-Ice.com
, we can get a solid look at where teams are generating chances from and scoring from. Before we get to that, let's establish the Kings defense at even strength. Mind you none of this analysis applies to special teams or penalty kill as that is a different beast entirely.
Home plate. Ingrained in the Kings defensive structure since the days of Terry Murray, the Kings have always shut down the high scoring areas. The Kings play as a tight unit in the defensive zone, forcing plays to the point, the halfwalls, and down low behind the net. They attempt to keep the center lane clear, the front of the net clear, and use active sticks to break up plays coming into the center.
This in turn is why the Kings make some of the personnel choices they make. Robyn Regehr, Matt Greene, Jeff Schultz, Rob Scuderi, Willie Mitchell, etc. etc. Big players with long reach who can establish positions down low and punish players who try to get inside position. When you look at the Kings shot rates and percentages against from the last five years, it becomes quite clear that this is their bread and butter.
In this graph here you can see the shot rates against the Kings compared to league average from 2010-11 to 2013-14.
In the same time span, here are the opposing shooting percentages.
As you can see, the Kings have been a disciplined team that protects the high scoring areas quite well. They are below league average (represented by 1.00) by quite a bit in the slot and down low. While they are above league average by just a hair in actual shooting percentages from the slot, you expect a higher number there given the quality of chances that would come if allowed.
Compare that to a team that has struggled defensively in the same time frame, like Edmonton. Here you can see the league average shooting rate versus Edmonton from 2010-2014. Not a recipe for success.
The Kings, on the other hand, are a team that steers play heavily to the outside. They play what you would consider a hybrid low-zone collapse in hockey system terms.
There is, however, a weakness to this set up. Every deployment has a counter, and the Kings have been susceptible to point shots and speed. If you can get the big bodied defenders and the high "F3" of the Kings moving you can expose lanes. We have seen it a number of times this season when the Kings play faster offensive zone teams like Nashville and the Rangers. The game gets stretched and the play opens up.
It's all about playing games on your own terms. While last night was an admirable performance by the Maple Leafs, they basically played into the hands of the Kings by trying to play from low to high/center. While this may see success against teams out East, it can be a difficult beast to conquer when you come out to a more disciplined Western Conference.
Point shots have also had their impact on the Kings, especially when you get traffic in front.
The Kings do not block shots. They are not a shot blocking team. They have consistently been in the bottom of the league for the last several years in blocked shots, and they became even less of a shot blocking team with the departure of Willie Mitchell.
They simply attempt to box out and allow their goaltenders to see shots all the way.
League shooting percentages tend to be very high against the Kings when it comes to tips and deflections. If you can get inside and get a stick on a point shot, that's probably the best chance you'll have against the Kings.
League shooting percentages on deflected shots against LA from 2010-14:
In recent memory we have seen a lot of teams attempt to execute the high tip against the Kings. Vancouver in particular was an excellent team at this for several years from 2010-2013 against L.A. The Sedins tended to work that high tip to much success when playing L.A. With the active play of Jonathan Quick, the high tip was a way to get him moving far off his angle before the redirect. With deflections like that and traffic in front it can be hard to blame a goaltender.
The Kings are not as consistent defensively this year as they have been in the past.
Their goals against and shots allowed are still top 10 in the league though, and they remain a top flight possession team.
However, when you look at the shot rates you can see just a slight bit more penetration into the high scoring areas than past years. In particular, the slot.
Here are the shot rates relative to league average (1.00)
and here are the percentages
The conclusion you can draw comparing the charts from this year versus the past four seasons is that the Kings are allowing way more shots in the slot than they have been in recent years.
Because of that we are seeing slightly more goals from teams from the point and from the slot. The down low part of the ice still is a fortress, but the area just outside the outer curtain is slightly exposed this year.
This can mean several things if we are talking defensive zone breakdowns.
With the low-zone collapse you are steering play to the outside, and clogging up the center. You rely heavily on your defenders to do one thing: Keep the center clear. You rely on your forwards to do one major thing: Press the play outside.
With the Kings this season I think you could go out on a limb and say that scenario number two has been exposed more often this year than number one.
The Kings have had their defensive personnel woes, there is no arguing that. However, they have done an admirable job continuing to keep the play steered to relatively harmless areas of the ice, as you can see with the low shot rates down low.
What has seemingly happened this year versus other years is the King forwards are getting caught either A) leaving their designated spots too early, or B) getting caught puck watching/sucked in too low.
We have seen it a number of times this season already, and we will recall two recent examples from when the Kings lost to the Edmonton Oilers back on December 30th.
In this play, Mike Richards gets sucked in too low, leaving the slot open for exploitation.
In this play, Jeff Carter loses a board battle and fails in getting back to his coverage before the Oilers score.
These plays have been more common occurrences this season versus last, and that would explain the jump in goals against from 2.05 last year to 2.48 this year.
The Kings defensive system is one of extreme discipline, and when it is executed well it can render teams impotent in the offensive zone. You cannot be a floating, free-wheeling forward when it comes to Los Angeles. With that insight, the acquisitions of Dean Lombardi become much more clear, and it also explains why certain players like Andrei Loktionov struggled to make the cut in this system. It takes a very low-flash, disciplined player to cut it in the Kings system.
Putting this into perspective, that is why the Kings defensive game last night was so exceptional and so "LA Kings". Everything was to the outside, there was no penetration, no center lane drives, and few high quality scoring chances for a Leafs team that played well. The forwards broke up plays, the defenseman were physical and directed forwards well. When the chances did come Martin Jones was there to make the stop. LA Kings hockey at its finest.
Will those performances become more common in the second half?
Again, big thanks to War-on-Ice.com
for providing these excellent tools.
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