Kings’ problems run far deeper than their coach

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The Los Angeles Kings put an end to the John Stevens era on Sunday afternoon, firing the coach just 13 games into his second season behind their bench. Given how horrendous they looked in their first-round playoff exit a year ago, and how much they have struggled this season, some sort of a change somewhere in the organization seemed inevitable. The coach is usually the first place teams look in a last-ditch effort to save a season that is teetering on the brink of falling apart.

Maybe Stevens wasn’t the right coach for the Kings.

Maybe the team needed a different voice and some new ideas and a new approach and a new system.

But even if all of that is true there should be no mistaking that the Kings’ decision on Sunday is nothing more than a short-term band-aid on what has become a run-of-the-mill franchise with a growing list of long-term problems.

[Related: Kings fire John Stevens]

Last February I argued that the Kings were one of the aging, veteran teams in the NHL that were in dire need of a top-to-bottom overhaul. They were short on high-end talent, short on youth, short on speed, and still trying to play a brand of hockey from an era that no longer exists.

Their solution over the summer: To bring a 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk back from Russia following a five year absence from the NHL.

And that was it.

And while Kovalchuk has been as good as the Kings could have possibly expected him to be (he actually leads the team in scoring with 11 points in 13 games), he alone was never going to be enough to fix a stagnant offense that looked like it was playing a completely different, and not to mention vastly inferior, game than the Vegas team that skated circles around them in the playoffs. An offense that has finished higher than 14th in goals scored once over the past decade. An offense that, more often than not, is in the bottom-five of the league.

Unless he brought a time machine back from Russia that could transport him back to 2009 he was not going to be able to make the Kings younger or faster, two of the biggest issues currently plaguing the current organization. He was just going to be another mid-30s player that is a fraction of his former dominant self on a team built around mid-30s players that are fractions of their once dominant selves.

Here is the current situation the Kings are facing on the day they fired their coach.

  • They are at the bottom of the Western Conference standings, already eight points out of a playoff spot, and facing a daunting mountain when it comes to making the postseason. This after missing the playoffs in two of the previous four seasons and not making it out of the first round since 2014.
  • They are the second oldest team in the NHL and still play at a glacial pace.
  • They have one of the biggest salary cap numbers in the league and do not have any big contracts coming off the books after this season.
  • They only have three players on the roster right now under the age of 25 that have appeared in more than eight games this season. Those three players — Austin Wagner, Michael Amadio, and Adrian Kempe — are all averaging less than 12 minutes of ice-time per game and have combined for three points this season.
  • They have seven players over the age of 31 signed for at least three more seasons.
  • The key players that are still in the prime of their careers, specifically Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, are simply … okay. They are decent middle-six players, but if either one of them ever gives you 50 points in a season it would be considered a huge success. They are not core players to build around.

Anything there that excites you?

Just about the best thing you could say about this Kings team right now to offer any sort of short-term hope is that Anze Kopitar has yet to play his best hockey this season, and that they are finally getting Dustin Brown back in the lineup after he missed the first month of the season.

But is Brown going to be able to repeat his 2017-18 performance, which is looking like a pretty significant outlier given where his career has gone over the past four years? Is Kopitar going to be able to provide enough offense to drag the rest of the team behind him again?

And that’s not even getting into the fact they are going to be playing backup goalies for the next few weeks as Jonathan Quick remains sidelined.

Whether it is John Stevens, or Willie Desjardins, or some yet-to-be-named coach that is sitting at home waiting for a phone call, it is going to be a huge ask to expect them to make something out of this current setup.

Even after firing the coach, the Kings are still a team in need of a rebuild.

It is a team that has been in need of a rebuild for maybe two years now.

Unfortunately for them no one in the organization seems to realize it yet.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Kings hold closed-door meeting after latest embarrassing loss

Associated Press
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This isn’t quite the start the Los Angeles Kings were hoping for.

A crummy record out the gate (2-5-1) was exacerbated further by an embarrassing 5-1 defeat at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres in their own backyard on Saturday — their fourth straight loss.

Seemingly a breaking point, the Kings held a 20-minute closed-door meeting after the game (general manager Rob Blake included) to try and get a handle on why they’ve been so lousy.

The problems in L.A.? Well, they run deep.

Ilya Kovalchuk‘s addition to the lineup over the summer and the return of Jeff Carter after missing most of last season hasn’t translated into higher numbers on the Kings’ side of the jumbotron so far.

L.A. sits 29th in the league in goals-for with 15, keeping company with fellow Pacific Division misfits in the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes, who sit below them.

Stopping pucks has been an issue, too. The Kings have allowed 28 goals in eight games so far, fourth-most in the league. Jonathan Quick‘s layoff due to injury didn’t help matters, but consider that the Kings allowed the fewest goals of any of the 31 NHL teams last season.

You can add in the fact that Los Angeles is in the bottom third in the league in terms of power play (10.7 percent) and penalty kill (71.4 percent).

It’s not good enough.

“We’ve accepted being OK and it’s not OK . It’s not working,” defenseman Jake Muzzin told the Los Angeles Times. “It would be a long year, and guys would be moved if this continues. It’s not what we want, so we’ve got to take a look in the mirror and turn this ship around.”

If the Kings were losing to top teams, that would be one thing (and they played the Toronto Maple Leafs and lost that game, so there’s that). But some of their losses have come against teams that were supposed to be disasters this season.

– 5-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators
– 7-2 loss to the New York Islanders
– 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres

That’s four goals in three games against opponents they should, at the very least, put up a fight against.

Add in the 4-1 loss against Toronto and they’ve been outscored 21-5 during their losing streak.

Kings head coach John Stevens doesn’t have the answers, either.

“I’ll be honest, I don’t have an answer at this second,” Stevens said after the game. “I thought after the way we played the other night we’d have come and ripped the doors off the hinges tonight. We have great fans here, and guys love playing at home because of the support we get at home here. I don’t have an answer right now.”

Where’s the fight back?

“It’s missing,” Stevens said.

Stevens might want to sort that out soon. His job could be on the line. But while he has a job to do, so do the guys on the ice.

Anze Kopitar had 92 points last season. He has two goals in seven games thus far.

Adrian Kempe has a single goal.

Tanner Pearson has an assist.

Quick has a .793 and .840 save percentage in his two games since returning from injury, respectively.

Score more, defend better and stop more pucks — the Kings simply need to be better.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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 Team Previews: Examining past, present, future

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Throughout the month of August we examined different aspects of all 31 NHL teams. We looked back at their 2017-18 season, took a dip in their prospect pool, pointed out a player/coach/executive under pressure, highlighted a player coming off a breakthrough season, and asked questions about the future.

Thanks for reading and for the feedback on each post. Below are links to every team day post from the last month to get you ready for the 2018-19 campaign. Training camps open in two weeks!

2017-18 REVIEW
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks 
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

UNDER PRESSURE
Jake Allen
Mike Babcock
Jim Benning
Bruce Boudreau
Scott Darling
Pierre Dorion
John Gibson
Connor Hellebuyck
Mike Hoffman

Carter Hutton
Jack Johnson
Evander Kane

Jarmo Kekalainen
Ilya Kovalchuk
Dylan Larkin
Robin Lehner
Nathan MacKinnon
Joel Quenneville
Carey Price
Antti Raanta
Tuukka Rask
Todd Reirden
Pekka Rinne
Cory Schneider
Tyler Seguin
Kevin Shattenkirk
Cam Talbot
Tomas Tatar
Brad Treliving
James van Riemsdyk
Steve Yzerman

Getty Images

BUILDING OFF A BREAKTHROUGH
Mathew Barzal
Brock Boeser
Pavel Buchnevich
Thomas Chabot
Kyle Connor
Evgenii Dadonov

Alex DeBrincat
Jake DeBrusk
Travis Dermott
Pierre-Luc Dubois
Matt Dumba

Vince Dunn
Radek Faksa
Kevin Fiala

Brendan Gallagher
Noah Hanifin
Nico Hischier
William Karlsson
Ondrej Kase
Clayton Keller
Adrian Kempe
Travis Konecny
Anthony Mantha
Timo Meier
Darnell Nurse
Jamie Oleksiak
Brayden Point
Mikko Rantanen
Sam Reinhart
Teuvo Teravainen
Tom Wilson

THREE QUESTIONS
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

MORE:
Where should Jonathan Toews rank among NHL’s top centers?
Q&A: Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar
Back issue makes Henrik Zetterberg’s future ‘real unknown’
Panthers do one thing about as well as anyone in the NHL
Expect huge year from Max Pacioretty no matter where he plays
Rangers could once again be active in trade market
Will Sidney Crosby win another scoring title in his career?
Sabres’ Eichel focuses on keeping fiery emotions in check
• Maple Leafs should be NHL’s best offensive team

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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.

Three questions facing Los Angeles Kings

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

Want more on the Kings? Check these posts out:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

 1. Can Jonathan Quick do it again?

After a tough 2016-17 campaign where he was limited to just 17 games played, Jonathan Quick produced a very nice 2017-18 season. It was one of the American netminder’s best in the NHL; while his 33-28-3 record didn’t blow anyone away, Quick generated a nice .921 save percentage.

Such work was especially notable because, after hogging the puck under Darryl Sutter, the Kings opened things up – by their standards – thus making life a little tougher on their goalies. They were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed (according to Natural Stat Trick), for instance. This isn’t to say that they turned into Swiss cheese, yet there was a give-and-take, and Quick handled the change well.

Can he do it again in 2018-19? And if he cannot – or if Quick gets hurt – will the Kings crumble?

For much of last season, the Kings enjoyed strong backup work from Darcy Kuemper, but the team traded him to Arizona before the deadline.

It’s plausible that there could be a bigger drop-off from Quick to everyone else, then.

If nothing else, though, the Kings have options behind him. Jack Campbell showed some of that first-round promise, albeit in a small sample size, so he might help here and there in a pinch. The Kings also brought back Peter Budaj. On one hand, the journeyman goalie is already 35. On the other, he’s not that far removed from success with Los Angeles, as he surprised with a .917 save percentage over 53 games in 2016-17.

2. Will veterans deliver or hit the wall?

Quick, 32, isn’t the only Kings player who’s accrued a lot of mileage, yet will be counted upon to carry them down the road in 2018-19.

Drew Doughty is still in his prime at 28, but any sign of decay would provide some concern with that eight-year, $88M extension not even kicking in until 2019-20.

Jeff Carter, Dion Phaneuf, and Dustin Brown are all 33. Anze Kopitar is 30, while we discussed the risk-reward scenario regarding 35-year-old addition Ilya Kovalchuk here. Alec Martinez is 31, and even Jake Muzzin could lose a step at 29.

The margin between victory and defeat can be pretty small in sports, so even moderate slippage can be a concern for the Kings.

3. More days of the new?

The Kings picked up the pace last season, and they also saw some young players emerge. Head coach John Stevens must continue to strive for the ideal balance between putting veterans in a position to continue to succeed, allowing young players to thrive, and adapting the team’s structure to be more modern than what was seen under Darryl Sutter.

(After all, it would be silly to throw out everything Sutter put in place, considering how effective the Kings previously were at hogging the puck.)

When it comes to seeing youthful talent ascend, some of that may come down to giving more ice time to someone like Adrian Kempe.

Training camp could also be crucial for the growth of Gabriel Vilardi, an intriguing forward who slipped – slightly – to the Kings at the 11th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

“Gabe, he’s got a big presence out there,” Kings front office member Mike O’Connell said, via NHL.com’s Dan Greenspan. “He sees the ice really well. He finds his teammates. He’s going to be a tough guy to stop. He still has work to do, as most players do when they first start, but it looks good. It’s a good foundation. I think he should fit right in.”

If the Kings can integrate Vilardi into the lineup, then they may finally get some supporting scoring to go with what has frequently been a top-heavy offensive approach. An injection of young talent could go from a nice luxury to a bare necessity if question 2 doesn’t work out so well for the Kings, too.

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Adrian Kempe

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

When people think of the Los Angeles Kings, they often think of an aging team.

That’s fair, but the Kings have been able to unearth some solid young talent, too. Adrian Kempe is one of those key players, and the hope is that the best is yet to come for the 21-year-old Swede.

[Looking back at 2017-18]

After going without a point in his first five games of 2017-18, Kempe exploded against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 18, generating his first NHL hat trick and adding an assist.

That began a run of nine points over five games, signaling to the NHL that Kempe was a player you’d need to game plan for, and not just because of his speed. As Curtis Zupke reported for the Los Angeles Times in November, Kings management was taking notice of his leap forward.

“He has the trust of the coaches, but we’re starting to see, to be honest with you, I can start to see some plays that we haven’t even seen,” Kings assistant general manager Mike Futa said. “It’s a testimony to how hard he’s working. … If we can start to mix in some North American muddy goals with that, that’s when your stats start to look different.”

Kempe brings things to the table that the Kings crave: youth, speed, and swagger.

Still, to tweak Futa’s phrase, the Kings would like to see certain stats look different.

Despite the considerable advantage of beginning 68.3 percent of his shifts in the attacking zone, Kempe’s possession stats were still pretty ugly. While analytics types will be disappointed in those numbers, old-school hockey people would be unhappy to see that he only won 38.5 percent of his draws.

So, yes, it’s promising that Kempe scored 16 goals and 37 points in 81 games last season, particularly since he only averaged 13:20 TOI. You can’t really blame a Kings fan for imagining the former first-rounder (29th overall in 2014) reaching even greater heights.

At minimum, Kempe could conceivably be given more reps on the power play. He averaged 1:07 PP TOI per game, far behind quite a few other Los Angeles forwards (injuries to Jeff Carter and Michael Cammalleri’s brief time in Los Angeles skew things a bit). Kempe rode some high percentages at times in 2017-18, yet getting more shifts on the man advantage could help him at least achieve similar stats, even if his luck levels out.

Of course, more ice time tends to come with better all-around play, so Kempe needs to clean up his two-way game if he hopes to see a significant increase in shifts. There also could be some challenges in getting those “offensive specialist” nods with the addition of Ilya Kovalchuk and possibly a healthier season for Carter.

Either way, Kempe’s a player to watch for the Kings, and possibly a crucial one when it comes to the team’s ability to remain viable as core players age.

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.