Jeff Carter

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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.

The Buzzer: Backhander compliments

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Arena/expansion fun

Another positive step for an NHL team in Seattle.

Hurricanes on the way to being sold, but not moved (and more).

Notable Nights

There were a handful of strong player of the night candidates, so let’s rattle them off. Before you get angry that your guy was left out, please note that this is a lightning round, not a comprehensive list.

  • Jakub Voracek is really starting to heat up, collecting three assists in the Flyers’ 4-1 win against the Canucks, Philly’s third consecutive win. This is the second time in three games that Voracek’s managed a three-assist night, with one assist sandwiched in between for seven points in three contests.

Instead of allowing mediocre shooting luck to be his downfall (seven goals on 108 SOG for just 6.5 percent success rate), Voracek is piling up points; he now has a whopping 37 points in 29 games. You could argue that he’s the greatest catalyst for a fantastic trio with Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier.

  • Two guys with two-goal nights make the list because of context. David Backes managed two tallies despite the reasonable argument that he shouldn’t be playing so soon after having part of his colon removed. Sean Monahan, meanwhile, is starting to earn the nickname Mr. Overtime.

  • Joe Thornton‘s three-point night helped the Sharks manage an impressive comeback against the Hurricanes, culminating in a 5-4 OT win. They had been down 4-2 late in the contest.

Stealing that ’70s Show

Jeff Carter‘s sadly on the shelf, but two other key cast members of “That ’70s Line” combined for a beauty. Tyler Toffoli did most of the work in befuddling the Senators – including Erik Karlsson – while Tanner Pearson scored the goal:

Backhanders: not dead yet

Boy, it seemed like there were some especially nice backhand goals tonight. Gabriel Landeskog and Steven Stamkos dueled with backhand goals in the time you’d reheat leftovers in the microwave (with Stamkos’ tally being my favorite of the two, style-wise):

Christian Dvorak broke a personal slump with one of the best goals of the night. The turnover he forced really sold it.

More Factoids

Vladislav Namestnikov and Steven Stamkos both were back to business in scoring one goal and two assists apiece, and the Lightning are just on another level. So consider those two as additional player of the night.

And one more Jumbo Joe note, because beating Jaromir Jagr in a stat is almost always a feat worth gloating about:

The Kings now lead the West with 41 standings points after rattling off their seventh win in a row on Thursday night. Impressive stuff.

Scary Moment

Along with Sidney Crosby‘s injury scare, there was this moment for the Coyotes. Yikes:

Rieder returned soon after, but like with Crosby, it’s wise to monitor the situation.

Scores

Bruins 6, Coyotes 1
Penguins 4, Islanders 3 (OT)
Flames 3, Canadiens 2 (OT)
Lightning 5, Avalanche 2
Panthers 6, Jets 4
Blues 3, Stars 0
Flyers 4, Canucks 1
Kings 4, Senators 3 (OT)
Sharks 5, Hurricanes 4 (OT)

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.

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.

————

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.

Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown have the Kings back on top

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After missing the playoffs in two of the past three seasons and getting bounced in the first round in the one year they did make the playoffs it seemed as if the Los Angeles Kings’ run as one of the NHL’s elite teams was coming to an end.

They were still posting consistently great possession numbers and were a strong defensive team, but the offense was a mess and the roster seemed to lack any sort of quality depth. Even worse, the talented players that were on the roster were starting to get older and had shown signs of slowing down.

Dustin Brown‘s career had seen him produce like a third-liner, while Anze Kopitar, one of the best two-way players in the NHL and the foundation of two Stanley Cup winning teams in Los Angeles, was coming off  worst offensive season of his career. It was hard to envision (at least for me) a scenario where the Kings could bounce back in a meaningful way without making any significant changes to a roster that seemed to be losing its luster and seemed to be short on talent outside of a very select group of players.

It turns out the scenario that could spark a change was pretty simple: Kopitar and Brown returning to being elite offensive players.

That is exactly what has happened so far for the Kings this season.

Entering play on Monday Kopitar is averaging more than a point-per game (31 points in 28 games), is in the top-10 in scoring, and is still playing a dominant two-way game in all situations. His 22 minutes of ice-time per game are second among all forwards (trailing only Aleksander Barkov).

In hindsight, we should have seen his bounce back season coming.

A lot of his decline last season can be attributed to the fact that he was absolutely crushed by percentages last season.

His shooting percentage dropped all the way down to 8 percent, not only a career low but also the first time in his career he shot below 10 percent in a single season.

Had he shot at his career average of 12 percent it would have been an additional six or seven goals to his total, and that doesn’t even take into account the six games he missed. With just slightly better shooting luck he could have easily been a 20-goal scorer. When an elite player like Kopitar goes through a season where they are hurt almost entirely by percentages they are usually a great candidate for a bounce back the following year.

Players that have that sort of track record don’t just suddenly lose their ability to score. Hockey can be a cruel game sometimes in that no matter what a player does or how well they play the puck sometimes just doesn’t go in the net.

This season Kopitar has experienced the percentage bounce back and it has him back to being the player he’s always been.

The far bigger surprise has been Brown’s return to glory.

For the past four years he had the look of a player that was, quite simply, finished as a top-six offensive player in the NHL. He was entering his age 33 season and had not topped 36 points in any of the previous four years. Only once during that stretch did he record more than 28 points.

So far this season he has already scored as many goals in 28 games (11) as he did in three of his previous four seasons and has already had a hand in 23 Kings goals.

He has probably been a little fortunate from a shooting percentage standpoint (14 percent this season after being under eight percent in the previous four years … and sometimes around five percent) but you can not take away what he has already done. And right now he and Kopitar are driving the Kings’ offense in a huge way, especially as Jeff Carter remains sidelined.

The interesting thing about this season for the Kings is that this is a team that has finished higher than 20th in goals scored just twice in the past six years, and only once higher than 14th.

As of Monday they are eighth in the NHL, and while Kopitar and Brown have seen a significant jump in their personal shooting percentages, the Kings as a team aren’t really benefitting from an unsustainable shooting percentage. As a team they are right in the middle of the pack across the league.

It is worth asking how much of an impact the coaching change from Darryl Sutter to John Stevens has had on the offense.

Under Sutter the Kings were a defense-first team built around suffocating and suppressing offense. So much so that it took away from their own offense. Almost immediately after the team named Stevens the new coach the message was about improving the team’s offense. Over the summer Stevens and general manager Rob Blake talked about how the Kings were near the bottom of the league in controlled zone entries and getting shots from the middle of the ice and how they wanted to improve all of those areas.

Given how little the roster has changed and how much the results have changed from one year to the next it seems at least possible that the Kings have succeeded in a lot of those areas.

It seems to have helped two of their top players return to form, which has helped the team start to look like a contender again.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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.