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.