Winger Adrian Kempe is on track to have a career year for the LA Kings. Should we expect this to continue this season and beyond?
Oh, but we wouldn’t be fans if we weren’t to immediately jump to the next question: is this for real? Boy, if that isn’t the million (or four or five or six million) dollar question for the pending RFA.
For starters, let’s take a look at how Kempe is performing this season in terms of raw production. His 12 goals are a team-high (no one else on the Kings has more than nine). He has 17 points which are good for third on the team behind only Anze Kopitar and Alex Iafallo.
But let’s be honest, it’s the goal-scoring that has garnered much of the attention, and rightfully so. His career-high is 16, a number that he’s going to eclipse before the midway point of this season. Then again, if we’re being fair, he would have broken that 16-goal mark last season. If we recall, he had 14 goals in 56 games last season. Something that he credited his improving the “accuracy and release” of his shot.
The common theme between this season and last? The center he’s spent the most ice time with (at 5-on-5) is Kopitar.
Contrast that from 2017-18 to 2019-20, his top centers in terms of ice time (per Natural Stat Trick):
More on his centers a little bit later.
Historically, Kempe has been a relatively streaky scorer, but so far this season has been a bit more consistent. In saying that, he has had stretches where he’s gone cold. He started the season without a goal in his first six games. Since then, he’s gone three games in a row without a goal three times and his game-winning goal in Washington on Sunday broke a four-game goal drought.
So how are we to know if Kempe is truly the 30-goal threat he is showing to be this year or if this just happens to be a hot first 30 games of the season?
I want to take a look at how Kempe is generating his scoring chances and how that compares with the rest of the Kings.
As a team, LA is one of the top teams at controlled zone entries (Data per Corey Sznajder via allthreezones.com):
The good news for Kempe is that controlled zone entries and creating chances off the rush, with possession through the neutral zone is exactly how he likes to create his chances. As I had hinted at earlier, this held true last season as well as the below two charts are from 2020-21 and 2021-22 respectively (Data per Corey Sznajder via allthreezones.com):
So from a style-of-play perspective, things seem to be lining up for Kempe. He’s less of a forechecking/cycling forward than he is speedy, north/south forward. The Kings had talked in preseason about being aggressive and playing with more pace. This certainly suits Kempe.
Next, I’ll take a look at his shooting percentage (data is All-Strengths per Natural Stat Trick):
Coming into this season, Kempe had a career-average 10.1% shooting percentage. So far in 2021-22, he is at 13.8%. While this is higher, it’s not an indication to me that he’s riding some unsustainable shooting luck. That’s a number that can stick throughout the season. For a little context, among players that have played at least 300 minutes in 2021-22, Kempe’s 13.8% is good for 103rd in the NHL. This is sustainable.
I also have a theory as to, potentially, why Kempe is showing a little bit more offense this season. I will do my best to illustrate that here.
Throughout his career, the Swedish winger has been a pretty responsible and reliable two-way forward:
While his even-strength offense and finishing left a lot to be desired for someone with top-six aspirations, his even-strength defense and penalty killing were stronger parts of his game.
Now let’s take a look at how this has changed:
(It should be noted that this table above lumps 2020-22 all into one for purposes of this current season. The EV Defensive drop is even more dramatic if the left column were to include years before 2020)
His offense and his finishing have improved and his even-strength defense has plummeted. Is Adrian Kempe all of a sudden a “bad” defensive player? No, I don’t think so. But what I do wonder is with the chance to play with two of the NHL’s best defensive centers in Kopitar and Phillip Danault (not to mention playing with Iafallo earlier in the season), if he’s been given the leash to take some more chances and get himself into more offensive opportunities.
Let’s take a look at some of his 5-on-5 metrics from 20017-2020 (per Evolving Hockey):
This is in line with what we’ve seen above. Struggles with generating offense at 5-on-5, but is above average to strong on the defensive side of things.
It’s only been 30 games, but, let’s see how that compares to the 2021-22 season so far:
I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a pretty drastic shift there.
At the least, it is interesting to see this difference laid out like that and is part of the reason why I wonder if he’s being given a bit more freedom to think offense-first.
Recently, head coach Todd McLellan praised Kempe’s two-way game and referenced his back-checking ability. This is true. My take on that is if anyone can “cheat” (for lack of a better term) to the offensive side of things but still be able to get back and help on a backcheck, it’s Kempe due to his speed. This is why I don’t think he’s all of a sudden a bad or irresponsible defensive player, he’s still very capable of being a factor on the backcheck.
In contrast, I’d like to harken back to October 2019 when a very to-the-point McLellan had this to say about Kempe:
“Quite frankly, he’s got to be way more productive than he’s been.”
He was even a healthy scratch in a game in November of 2019.
It’s taken a few years and several different line combinations, but after being given an extended run with two elite defensive centers, McLellan may have found the magic elixir to Kempe’s offensive production. Not to short-sell Kopitar and Danault as it’s not just that they are excellent defensively, they’re two strong play drivers as well of course.
To help illustrate how his possession numbers look with these two centers, here is how his CF% and FF% look on the two lines he’s been with the most this season (per Natural Stat Trick 5-on-5):
|Adrian Kempe||Anze Kopitar||Dustin Brown||30||167.48||54.6||53.9|
|Alex Iafallo||Phillip Danault||Adrian Kempe||29||95.17||62.6||62.4|
In looking at Kempe’s Expected Goals per 60-minutes (courtesy of Moneypuck.com), again, we’re seeing a difference from prior years:
No matter how you slice it, Kempe’s offensive numbers are improving – both in the production numbers and under the hood.
Lastly, from a possession standpoint, he’s always been strong (All-Strengths via Natural Stat Trick):
The difference this season is his strong CF% and xG% are being driven by his offense, whereas in past years it was driven by his defense.
So back to the question: is this for real?
Well, let’s take a look at the things that I considered:
- Style of play – the Kings are a team that controls the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, looking to create chances off the rush, which fits Kempe’s style.
- His centers – it isn’t just that he is playing with two offensive, playmaking centers. I’d argue the fact that both are elite defensive centers is also aiding Kempe’s offensive game.
- Sustainable shooting percentage – there’s nothing out-of-left-field about a 13.8% shooting percentage. When I consider the other factors as well, I am more inclined to buy-in. Or, at the least, I can buy an increase from his previous 10.1% career average.
- I’ll also include him mentioning back in March during last season about how he had put work in to improve his shot release and shot accuracy. That is a tangible change to consider.
To answer the question, yes, given those factors above I have to be a believer in what Kempe is showing. I feel very confident this production can continue the rest of this season.
The question the Kings have to answer is can this be a player that flirts with 30-plus goals in future years? The 25-year-old is well on his way to doing that this year and oh, by the way, he is going to need a new contract as an RFA at the end of this season. Prior to the start of the season, I suggested could be a valuable trade piece. Today, I am much more on the side of the Kings giving him a new contract.
Yo, Adrian. You’ve won me over.