When you watch the Los Angeles Kings on a given night you are watching two different teams in the same uniform.
One team is a massive, physical and suffocating defensive team. One that is backed by strong goaltending regardless of whether it is Jonathan Quick or Martin Jones standing in the crease. A team that absolutely sucks the life out of opposing offenses.
The other team has a collection of skilled forwards that includes a criminally underrated star (Anze Kopitar), one of the best goal-scorers in the league (Jeff Carter), a smooth-skating perennial Norris Trophy contender that can jump into the play at any time and provide a spark offensively (Drew Doughty), and enough talent in their top-six that should be able to score at a pretty reasonable level.
Instead, they tend suck the life out of themselves.
Following the Kings' 3-0 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday (their 13th loss in 18 games and the second time in three games that they were completely held off the score sheet) the Kings are 26th in the NHL in goal-scoring at 2.31 goals per game. Even worse, over the aforementioned 18-game stretch the Kings have scored just 28 goals. For the season the only teams below them are the Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames and Buffalo Sabres.
Not exactly the type of company you want to be keeping in the NHL, no matter what the context is.
This should not be the case. None of it.
On paper, the Kings are one of the best teams in the league and the results have been there over the past couple of years. They are just one year removed from winning the Stanley Cup. They followed that up by going to the Western Conference Finals last season, and for all of their recent struggles they are still sitting pretty comfortably in a playoff spot this season.
But why can't this team score?
The Luck Factor
The NHL season is a grind full of peaks and valleys. Over 82 games, a lot of crazy things happen in short-term bursts. Good teams lose a lot of games, bad teams string together wins, and at the root of those hot and cold streaks you can usually point to some percentages that drive teams in different directions. Sometimes, no matter what you do, the puck doesn't go into the net. Sometimes you can't keep it out.
One thing the Kings have going in their favor is that they own the puck, are one of the best possession teams in the league, and for all of their problems scoring, still generate a lot of shots on goal.
They just don't score on many of them, and lately, pucks have been going into the opponents' nets at an even slower rate.
Much has been made of the Kings' recent struggles on the power play (rock bottom against Vancouver, when they spent nearly the first 10 minutes of the game on the man-advantage and failed to score) but their 5-on-5 goal-scoring has been just as big of an issue. Over the past 18 games, the Kings have managed to score on just 15 of their 422 shots during 5-on-5 play. That's a shooting percentage of just 3.5 percent, which cannot last unless the Kings have suddenly become the worst shooting team (by a wide margin) in recent NHL history. The Kings are shooting 6.3 percent during 5-on-5 play during the season so far. Every team usually falls somewhere between the 6.5 and 9 percent range over the course of a full season.
Since 2007-08, only one team (the 2012-13 Florida Panthers at 5.94 percent) has finished a season with a percentage lower than 6 percent. This is important, since it shows that this is the type of slump that happens to every team and player every year. While unsustainably high percentages come falling back down at some point, the exact opposite happens to teams that can't seem to buy a goal for long stretches of time. This is why the number of shots a team generates is so important. Over the past 18 games, if the Kings had shot at their season average (which is still only 29th in the league) that would have resulted in an additional 11-12 goals. Considering the Kings have lost seven of those games by one goal you might be looking at an additional one or two wins over that stretch.
That still isn't their best hockey, but it doesn't look anywhere near as bad as their current run.
The percentages are working against them and they are down on their luck a little bit offensively, but that may not be the only problem.
Style of Play and Player Usage
For as talented as the Kings are in their top-six (and with Kopitar, Carter, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams and Mike Richards residing there, they most certainly are talented, even if Brown is having a down year), they're not getting much from their bottom-six. It might also be in their best interest to find out a little more about Tyler Toffoli, who has split time this season in the NHL and the AHL's Manchester Monarchs.
After recording eight points in his first seven games following his call up from Manchester in November, Toffoli's production cratered despite consistently-strong possession numbers. That drop in point production has seemingly glued him to the bench, and over the past two games Toffoli has received just 19 minutes of ice time and the Kings have only scored one goal. Just for comparisons sake, that's the same number of minutes Colin Fraser -- a player that has scored six goals in three years -- has received over the same stretch.
For a team that's struggling to score you would think there would be room for a skilled 21-year-old that has 17 points in 35 games to get more ice-time than Colin Fraser.
But again, there is more.
For a team that is as dominating in terms of puck possession as the Kings are, they are somewhat of an anomaly in that sense. Most teams that control the play like the Kings do it by entering the offensive zone with control of the puck (Chicago for example, or the Detroit teams from a few years ago).
Teams that do this, as opposed to playing a dump-and-chase brand of hockey, are able to generate significantly more offense. The Kings still seem content to gain the blue line, dump the puck in, and then use their size and physicality to crash in on the forecheck and win puck battles.
Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. When it doesn't, you get a lot of one-and-done attempts in the offensive zone. That doesn't exactly lend itself to scoring goals. It's worth wondering what this team would look like if they didn't have such a reliance on giving up the puck to enter the zone, and then fighting to win it back.
Even with that style of play, the Kings still generate more shots than the average NHL team, but doesn't it seem like they should be capable of more? You only have so many years of guys like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty in their prime. Do you really want to utilize their talents by asking them to dump the puck into the zone and then fight for it in the corner when they already had possession of it?
While hockey folks love to pound their firsts about how defense wins championships, the fact of the matter is teams that win the Stanley Cup also score a lot of goals to go with that defense. Since 1990, Stanley Cup winners have averaged a top-six finish in the league in goals scored, while only three (the 2002-03 Devils, 1994-95 Devils, and 2011-12 Kings) have finished outside of the top-10.
The '11-12 Kings were the only team out of that group that finished lower than 14th (they were 29th).
The Kings aren't as bad as their recent goal-scoring drought would indicate. But even when they're scoring at their best they're still probably not as great as they could be, which should be a scary thought for the Western Conference if they can ever get it going offensively.