Adrian Kempe

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How good are the red-hot Kings, really?

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The Los Angeles Kings play beyond a lot of people’s sleepy times, so many might have missed this, but they’re once again boiling-hot right now, what with their seven-game winning streak. While the St. Louis Blues are up there with them, the Kings came into Friday leading the Western Conference with 41 points in just 30 games played.

With all of that in mind, let’s ponder who and what might be driving the Kings, how this year’s team remains different from the Darryl Sutter days, and the hot streaks that might cool off.

GOATpitar

Giving long-time great players “lifetime achievement” awards via individual trophies is one part charming and two parts obnoxious, but if you must force such a sentiment, Anze Kopitar‘s making quite the argument for a hat-tip Hart Trophy.

For one thing, he’s in range of the Art Ross Trophy after years of being a guy who would top out around 70 points, leaving him strong but not strong enough to threaten for the lead. With 36 points in 30 games, Kopitar could eclipse his career-best 81 points from 2009-10, the only time he hit the 80-range. As of this writing, he’s ranked sixth overall in the NHL.

That’s impressive on its own, but consider that he’s been chained to Dustin Brown (who’s MYSTERIOUSLY enjoying a profound career revival) and Alex Iafallo, an undrafted forward who came into 2017-18 with nary a game of NHL experience under his belt. Hot take: the gap between Kopitar and Brown is larger than that between Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

Wherever you rank Kopitar among the elite, he’s reclaimed his place as one of the best forwards – nay, players – in the NHL. As it turns out, some of those “I feel healthy!” stories have some merit, after all.

The Kings’ triumvirate reigns

So far, Los Angeles has been propelled by its biggest names: Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick, three stars so revitalized, it’s kind of surprising that someone hasn’t flopped out some asinine “The Kings hated Darryl Sutter theory.”

(Oh no, I didn’t jinx it, did I? Sorry.)

Doughty currently has 24 points on the season, ranking third among Kings scorers. He could set career-highs, and even if he slows down, seems likely to at least generate the third 50+ point season of his career. Oh yeah, Doughty’s also gleefully acknowledging the buckets of money he’ll likely collect after his contract expires following the 2018-19 campaign. Seasons like these might not hurt his value, you might assume.

Finally, there’s Jonathan Quick …

Ridiculous goaltending

… Which brings us to at least one big, red flag.

With a career .916 save percentage, Quick might be playing over his head a bit with his current season, generating a splendid .929 mark.

Then again, maybe you could argue that the Kings are playing to his strengths more often system-wise, and/or getting him to tweak his techniques to best take advantage of his outstanding athleticism. Those are all plausible points, although it’s reasonable to wonder if he might, say, slip closer to a still-very-good .920 flat.

The overall goaltending is almost certain to slip, though, as Darcy Kuemper (career .912 save percentage) isn’t likely to maintain a shockingly efficient .941 save percentage.

Now, this doesn’t mean the Kings will go from sitting on the netminding throne to allowing goals like jesters, but one would expect at least some regression. It will be intriguing to find out how much they might slip.

No longer the puck hogs

For years, the Kings were far and away the most dominant team from a puck possession standpoint, while also often suffering from poor shooting and/or save percentages. Now, according to Natural Stat Trick and other sites, they’re a middle-of-the-pack possession team with blindingly outstanding shooting and saving numbers.

The truth is out there is likely somewhere in between with this team. The organizational push toward quality after years of quantity is modern-minded, so this is ultimately a good step, even if some of the results might be a touch misleading.

Road warriors

One trait the Kings share with many of the other NHL’s top teams is just how well their game has traveled so far. Right now, they’re a bit better on the road (10-3-1) than at home (9-5-2). Maybe that will dip a bit, but it’s nice to bank those tougher wins while you can. In many cases, winning those extra road games could mean, say, getting that playoff Game 7 at home a bit more often.

Interesting supporting cast

So, there are some intriguing things to consider about the Kings:

  • Iafallo ranks as one of a few solid new/new-ish players. Adrian Kempe‘s been great so far, while established-but-under-the-radar wingers Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli are contributing nicely. Just feast your eyes on this beauty of a goal.

And, heck, this one for good measure:

  • I feel the need to mention that Jake Muzzin‘s been quite effective, too, and continues to build a nice resume as one of the other guys on the Kings defense.
  • Some veteran scorers could influence this team’s ceiling.

On one hand, you have Jeff Carter, a forward who’s carried the Kings offense during significant stretches during recent seasons, sometimes being the main catalyst when Kopitar struggled. Can he get healthy? Is he finally hitting the regression wall with his 33rd birthday looming on New Year’s Day? (Aside: today is Doughty’s birthday, fittingly enough.)

On the other hand, Marian Gaborik has six points in eight games. This isn’t to say that Gabby will find the fountain of youth and regain his status as “that high-scoring guy when he’s able to play,” but if he can even flirt with the form he showed in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Kings suddenly have depth to go with what’s been a top-heavy group so far.

***

Overall, there are some clear signs that the Kings are probably playing over their heads.

A team that once was forced to grind through bad luck and low-percentage plays now seems to hit the lottery with percentages more than we’ve seen with L.A. in some time.

Still, it’s not all gloomy, especially if the Kings can beef up their supporting cast. Considering the age of their core players, they might just want to test their championship window and ponder a worthwhile “rental” or two.

A franchise that once seemed to be swirling down the sink now gets to swing for the fence one more time.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Gaborik scores twice, including his 400th NHL goal in win

Marian Gaborik has taken his talents coast to coast over his National Hockey League career, but he found most of his scoring success as a member of the Minnesota Wild.

So it was a tad fitting that Gaborik would reach the 400-goal milestone against his former club, scoring twice in a 5-2 win for the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday to extend L.A.’s winning streak to six games.

Gaborik initiated a four-goal third period for the Kings, who trailed 2-1 after two frames, scoring No. 399 to tie the game 2-2 in the first five minutes of the period. No. 400 came roughly 10 minutes later as Gaborik was the beneficiary of a Kings faceoff win and buried the milestone mark past Devan Dubnyk.

Neither team could find the back of the night on a combined 19 first-period shots, but the floodgates started to crack in the second.

The Wild grabbed the first goal, with Charlie Coyle getting his stick on a centring pass.

Jake Muzzin tied the game with a blistering slap shot after Drew Doughty found his defense partner in space at the top of the left circle.

Minnesota regained the lead just over a minute later, with Tyler Ennis whacking the puck past Jonathan Quick.

But it was Gaborik’s night, and he wouldn’t be denied in the third.

After he tied the game, Adrian Kempe‘s centering pass went off the skate of Jonas Brodin and behind Dubnyk for the Kings’ first lead of the game.

After Gaborik scored his 400th, Anze Kopitar potted his 15th of the season to extend his goal-scoring streak to three games. Kopitar also had two helpers in the game, giving him 500 in his NHL career.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

NHL on NBCSN: Rangers visit surging Penguins; Wild meet streaking Kings

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Tuesday night as the New York Rangers visit the Pittsburgh Penguins 7:30 p.m. ET and the Los Angeles Kings host the Minnesota Wild at 10 pm ET. You can stream the Rangers-Penguins game by clicking here and the Wild-Kings game here.

Remember when Sidney Crosby was struggling? You know, struggling by Crosby standards. One goal in 15 games a month ago has now turned into six goals and 13 points in Pittsburgh’s last six games.

“Throughout that, there were some games where you feel like you had a ton and could’ve had two or three,” he said via the Post-Gazette. “Then there were other games where there wasn’t much going on. The consistency part of the game is the biggest thing, and I think it’s been there for the last few weeks. As long as the chances are there, you know it’s going to go in.”

[Pittsburgh Penguins are rolling]

Crosby will look to keep his scoring surge going against a Rangers team that’s been better defensively, but probably still remembers a sluggish October game where they couldn’t put the Penguins away and ended up losing in overtime.

Out west, the Kings are riding a five-game winning streak and face a Wild team looking for consistency. Both have won six of their last 10 games, but it’s LA sitting comfortably in a playoff spot atop the Pacific Division while Minnesota tries to reverse a start that sees them just on the outside through 26 games.

[Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown have the Kings back on top]

The Kings are scoring, as Jon Rosen pointed out, and are up half a goal per game this season than they were a year ago. That’s impressive considering Jeff Carter has been out since the middle of October. As Adam Gretz noted yesterday, LA is a team full of bounce-back seasons. Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown are all playing great hockey. That’s being buoyed by youngsters stepping in and producing, like Adrian Kempe (9 goals, 16 points) and Alex Iafallo (9 points).

Minnesota allows 32.5 shots per game, so the Kings will get their opportunities — they’ll just have to find a way to beat Devan Dubnyk, who is coming off one of his best games of the season with a 41-save performance during a win over the St. Louis Blues.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Tyler Toffoli on Kings’ coaching change, celebrity encounters (PHT Q&A)

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There’s never any love lost when the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks meet. As we saw on Tuesday night, it doesn’t matter when those teams get together, the emotions will be incredibly high.

In what was probably the game of the young season, the Kings edged the Ducks 4-3 in overtime. It’s an easy game for the players to get up for, and it’s certainly one of the NHL’s most underrated rivalries.

“I read up on a couple things the day after the game and one of the fans was saying that if it was two Canadian teams it would be one of the most talked about rivalries going on,” Kings forward Tyler Toffoli told PHT on Friday. “It’s kind of funny, but I think for us as two teams, it’s definitely a game that we look forward to. It’s a big game, a conference game, division game, and we’re happy we got the win.”

The Kings and Ducks rivalry is also part of LA’s partnership with Delta Air Lines. Toffoli is one of the ambassadors involved with the Kings Class fan program, a season-long promotion that offers fans the opportunity to win experiences such as traveling to see the team take on the Washington Capitals in D.C. later this month.

Toffoli also appears in an ad with Kings mascot Bailey, though it’s brief and he didn’t get any lines.

“Well, Bailey stole the show and he did a good job of getting us through it. I did my part and I thought I did a really good job there,” Toffoli joked.

We spoke with Toffoli about the Kings’ off-season coaching change, appreciating winning, some of his celebrity encounters and more.

Enjoy.

Q. Going from Darryl Sutter to John Stevens, this is your first coaching change at the NHL level, was it a pretty seamless switch considering John’s been there for a number of years?

TOFFOLI: “Yeah, that definitely helped, but also in the summer Johnny did a good job of staying in touch with all the guys from last year and previous years — just seeing how summer was going, how training was going,  just talking about what he had planned for this season coming in. I think guys have done a really good job of not only training in the summer but buying in to what Johnny wanted to bring in early on in the season here.”

What’s different about John’s approached compared to Darryl’s?

“John’s just doing a good job of getting all the players involved. He’s doing a good job of bringing the right emotion in the games and just staying with us. I think everybody’s buying into the system and I think we’ve done a really good job of when we’ve been getting down in games, just staying together as a group — not just the players, but the coaches. We’re just really positive throughout games.”

Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown are having bounce-back seasons. What are you seeing in their games this season that’s contributing to a return to form?

“I think their chemistry together has been really good. I think Brownie’s done a great job of taking the leadership role of doing a really good job on the power play. He’s just been playing good hockey so far this season. Those two have done a good job and the rest of us have just been following along and just sticking together.”

Your first two years in the league you go to the conference final and then win a Stanley Cup. The last three years haven’t been so memorable. How much did the last three seasons show you just how difficult it is to win in the NHL?

“Definitely, I’ve learned a lot. I’ll never take for granted what those first two years brought for myself because some guys never get a chance to win — not only win, but make it that far in the playoffs. It’s one of those things where I miss and I want to do a really good job of helping our team make it that far again because it’s the best time, it’s the funnest time for all the guys, and winning is the best feeling.”

Regarding your line mates, we know about Tanner Pearson, but what about Adrian Kempe? How has he been able to jump in there and mesh so well?

“He’s done a really good job of stepping in for Jeff [Carter]. When he got hurt it was the next guy to step in and step up and do a job. And I think Adrian’s done a really good job of using his speed, just playing some really good hockey for us and it’s obviously one the big reasons why we’ve been successful so far this season.”

I want to go back to that crazy overtime goal versus the Bruins. You’re lining up there. There’s 0.9 seconds to go. You’ve got to be thinking there’s no way to beat the clock there, right? No matter how perfect the draw is?

“It was one of those things… We line up for that at the end of games, people do it all the time. Going in we just wanted to try and get a shot off as quick as possible, either Drew [Doughty] or myself. Kopi snapped it back so quickly and I got it off as fast as I could and it went in. It was one of those things. It was crazy and the emotions were definitely flowing at the time.”

I watch it and I’m surprised at Tuukka Rask’s position. You have a left-hand shot taking the draw on his off-side and then Tanner on the left wing. Can’t believe Rask wasn’t thinking of you as a possibility.

“I think it was just one of those things where he maybe didn’t think of anything because there wasn’t that much time left. But it happened so fast. I’m not going to complain about it. We’re not going to complain about getting that extra point in overtime. We’re just going to take it and run with it.”

Finally, having lived in LA for a few years what’s the coolest celebrity story you’ve got?

“My fiancee works for the Dodgers so when I go to some of those games I get to meet some pretty cool people. I’ve met Magic Johnson before. Tommy Lasorda is cool to talk to. He’s super intense and when I get to talk to him he’s very intimidating. There’s definitely a lot of people you see around. They just walk around like they’re normal people when they’re by the beach with us.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

L.A. Kings off to hot start

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In a sprawling interview with The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun (sub required), former Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi notes that he predicted a hot start for his old team.

Few others saw a 10-2-2 start coming for an aging roster that missed the playoffs in two of the last three seasons and hasn’t won a playoff round since their 2014 Stanley Cup run.

This post takes a look at 1) the factors playing into such a hot start and 2) what might continue versus what should change.

Stars reborn

Most obviously, Jonathan Quick has been healthy, and he’s been absolutely brilliant.

With a blistering .939 save percentage through 11 games, the American-born goalie is matching great numbers to his considerable athleticism in a way that he hasn’t always been able to manage during his polarizing career. (Mainstream types sometimes overrated Quick, while analytics-minded folks might have gone to excessive extremes to refute such praise over the years.)

With all that was going on for the Kings, it’s easy for some to forget that Quick only appeared in 17 games last season.

If healthy, Quick is a difference-maker, but he’s almost certain to slip from his lofty perch; his career save percentage is .916, and he’s come in that range for the past four seasons.

Much has already been made about the resurgence of Dustin Brown, as you can see here and here. Chances are, a lot of his success will be tied to whether or not he can stick with a revitalized Anze Kopitar on the Kings’ top line.

Expect some of the Kings’ top scorers to slip, at least to an extent, as Kopitar (18.9) and Brown (13.3) are shooting at a higher percentage than they have in some time. The drop-off may only be extreme for Adrian Kempe, though, as he’s connected on a third of his shots on goal so far.

The most fascinating transformation may be for Drew Doughty.

For years, Doughty’s all-around work has made him one of the go-to examples for a player who’s “better in reality than fantasy.” So far, Doughty has 10 points in 14 games, putting him in a position to match or exceed his career-high of 59 points. Doughty’s 6.8 shooting percentage is right in line with his career average of 6.3, so … maybe we’ll see him put up the box score numbers he’s often lacked?

The future

OK, so let’s consider team-wide elements of this Kings’ run.

Not your older brother’s Kings?

Looking at team-based possession stats from Natural Stat Trick, the Kings may not be the puck-dominant squad under John Stevens that they once were under Darryl Sutter. After leading the pack for years in stats like Corsi For Percentage – sometimes by significant margins – they’re currently in the middle of the pack.

It will be fascinating to see if this carries through 82 regular-season games, and if this ends up being “all by design” to increase high-danger chances at the expense of volume.

Some luck, no doubt

As you might expect with a team exceeding expectations, the Kings are getting a lot of bounces in their favor.

Their PDO (a team’s shooting percentage plus save percentage, which is a leading indicator of luck) is 102.3 at even-strength according to Natural Stat Trick, putting them high among the NHL’s ranks.

While their shooting percentage should come down, it’s the work of Quick & Co. in net that will be the toughest to keep going.

Not all negative

One bright spot for the Kings is that they’re on this roll with Jeff Carter either limited or out of the lineup altogether.

Carter is coming off a magnificent 32-goal, 66-point season, which marked a third consecutive year where he generated 60+ points for L.A. So far, he had three assists and zero goals in six games. With Carter turning 33 on New Year’s day, there’s some concern that he may finally be hitting the wall many snipers splat into.

Still, even if he might dip a bit, you could reasonably expect that Carter might help ease some of the regression if the bounces stop going the Kings’ way. Perhaps low-shooting-percentage guys like intriguing youngster Alex Iafallo and solid winger Tanner Pearson may heat up during times when things aren’t going so smoothly for Kopitar, too?

***

One thing people often forget is that, even in the best of times, the Sutter – Lombardi Kings rarely did things the easy way.

Putting Sutter on the bench saved the Kings’ season in 2011-12, and L.A. was ranked third in its division during both of his championship runs. This franchise hasn’t won a division since it was labeled Smythe.

The greatest value in starting 10-2-2 might be the simplest: those wins and standings points are already in the bank. Theoretically, the Kings could be run-of-the-mill for long stretches and still enjoy one of their best regular seasons in memory.

Such a stretch might allow the Kings to rest their aging core players like Kopitar, Brown, Quick, and Doughty if (in a rare event) they don’t need to scratch and claw just to clinch a playoff berth.

Actually, the real fun could also come during the trade deadline: will GM Rob Blake push the right buttons with a team whose ceiling is still difficult to measure?

Overall, the Kings are playing over their heads, but maybe not enough to soothe their haters.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.