Can LA Kings still contend for the Stanley Cup? (Trending Topics)

A few weeks ago some guy sent me a tweet from, I think, 2011. He basically asked, “If Corsi is so good at predicting outcomes, why did the Los Angeles Kings miss the playoffs?”

It’s an interesting question, but not for the reason he thinks.

This was always an issue certain people grappled with — or pretended to grapple with for the sake of disingenuousness. Not specifically related to shot attempts in general, but in particular with shot attempts as it relates to the Los Angeles Kings under Darryl Sutter.

If you look at the entire Sutter era in Los Angeles, now understandably over, a clear pattern emerges. The Kings attempted the most shots in the league at 5-on-5 and their unblocked attempts were also the highest in the league. Moreover, their Corsi and Fenwick percentages were both the highest in the league by considerable margins.

Yet over that span, their shooting percentage at 5-on-5 was dead last. In all situations, it was ahead of only Buffalo and Carolina, and it’s fair to call those teams two of the lowest-skilled of the era.

So for a long time, everyone just kind of accepted, “Well, that’s Sutter hockey.” You take the tradeoff of reliably low shooting percentages — the working theory is obviously that whatever his systems “do” to generate so many shot attempts, it also asks the players to be a little less discriminatory about where they shoot from — in favor of the sheer volume of shots created. Over Sutter’s 425 games in LA, you could count on the Kings to dramatically outshoot the opposition most nights, and that was enough to power them to big enough goal margins that the low shooting percentage didn’t matter.

Unless it did.

The Kings missed the playoffs two of the last three years, and lost in five games the time they did make it. The coach had to go even if the CF% remained high over that time. Sometimes a thing works for a while, then it doesn’t any more, and that’s just how it goes. They got the two Cups out of the deal regardless, but one wonders if new Kings coach John Stevens can get things back on track.

The numbers from last season aren’t particularly pretty. They had the lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league, and the 11th-lowest of any team since 2007-08. It’s easy to see why:

They were once again an elite attempt-generation team and pretty close to that level in putting shots on goal, but were sorta-kinda middle-of-the-pack when it came to turning those attempts into mildly dangerous chances.

Let’s not put the Kings’ dominance entirely down to Darryl Sutter’s genius. He’s a great coach, but he also had a lot of very talented players in the primes of their careers or shortly thereafter. Doughty, Kopitar, Carter, Williams, Voynov, Muzzin, Toffoli. The relationship here was mutually beneficial, because it’s rare for good coaches to have success without good players and vice versa.

Some of the Kings’ problems last year absolutely boiled down to the kind of thing the original question-asker here hates to hear: There was bad luck involved. Anze Kopitar only had 12 goals, shooting just eight percent, versus a career average more than 50 percent higher than that. Marian Gaborik, who is clearly slowing down at his age, shot 8.1 percent. Tyler Toffoli had an off year shooting the puck. You can go on like this.

Only two Kings cleared 20 goals last season: Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson. Both shot right around their career numbers (though Carter exceeded his somewhat).

Again, you don’t expect the Kings to shoot the lights out, so fair enough. But the other thing you have to think about when considering if a new coach, with a system that engenders higher shooting percentages overall, is where this team is headed overall.

Kopitar is 29. Carter’s 32. Even Doughty and Muzzin are past their primes at 27, but only just. Then you look at the rest of this roster. Alec Martinez was the fifth-highest scorer on the team last year (and by the way he’s 29) in part because this is a team with little to no offensive talent after the first line comes off the ice.

Moreover, their big offseason pickup was… Mike Cammalleri?

I think that’s a decent add and everything, but he’s not the needle-mover you really need if you want to kickstart the offense. He got bought out for a reason, and it wasn’t that he scored too many goals.

Let’s put it this way: After they traded for Jarome Iginla at the deadline, he got the fourth-most ice time of any forward on the team. That doesn’t seem like it should be possible, right? Part of that is a coaching bias thing — one assumes Stevens wouldn’t make the same mistake as Sutter, who was happy to be reunited with his old buddy — but like, the fact that there weren’t five or six other forwards on a team that won a Stanley Cup three seasons prior to make Sutter think about not-giving Iginla second-line minutes is telling.

This is a roster that’s been managed into the ground, and problematically the core of this team, such as it is, is locked up long-term; that Dustin Brown contract goes until 2022, for example (or would be, except it’ll be a compliance buyout when the next lockout arrives). They already have more than $53.3 million committed to only 11 players in 2019-20! And that doesn’t include Drew Doughty, whose current deal is up the previous summer.

Stevens has a tough job ahead of him. You can blame the playoff miss on Sutter’s system, bad luck, and probably also the Jonathan Quick injury (though Peter Budaj did better than anyone could have reasonably expected). Stevens has to devise a system that works to this roster’s strengths — the league’s new buzzword, “speed,” is among these strengths — but also keeps the CF% high enough that they’re not letting too many shots get in on a mediocre, aging, coming-off-injury goaltender.

The good news for the Kings is their division is a weird one. How many playoff locks are there in the Pacific? Edmonton, maybe Calgary if they get the goaltending, probably San Jose if the depth holds up. After that, it feels pretty wide-open. A couple things go your way and you’re right there.

It’s a high-wire act, to be sure: You’re probably going to give up shot volume and hope you can trade it for that shot quality you lacked before, and hopefully get this older, expensive roster back into the playoffs where people seem to think it belongs. And like any high-wire act, it’s not going to be easy.

But again, this is an older team that hasn’t improved much if at all this summer. If Sutter, weird system and all, couldn’t wring regular playoff appearances out of these guys the past few years, Stevens might need a miracle.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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