Over the past year, one of the LA Kings‘ biggest questions has been the defensive core. With the early-season injuries to Sean Walker and Drew Doughty, the biggest question was where the offense would come from on the blueline?
One question that was undoubtedly answered was the strength of the organization’s depth. Sean Durzi and Jordan Spence were among the defensemen called up from the Ontario Reign, filling in as well as could be expected for Doughty and Walker. You could almost say that those injuries that the LA Kings dealt with were a blessing in disguise since Durzi and Spence had such successful rookie campaigns.
As we began zeroing in on the NHL trade deadline, another question mark arose. That question mark was the possibility of a trade involving Jakob Chychrun. It was believed that the Kings were the frontrunners for the young two-way defenseman. Bringing in a high-scoring, defensively responsible left-shot defender was something that the LA Kings needed, and it could have been a momentum changer as it would’ve put LA into another tier.
That was until Chychrun got hurt just over a week before the deadline.
With Chychrun being sidelined until the end of the 2021-22 NHL season, he was no longer a trade option for any NHL team looking to improve themselves immediately. It was later announced that Chychrun would stay a Coyote until the end of the season, and the LA Kings went on to be reticent at the trade deadline. Their only move was trading away their 2022 7th-round pick to the Detroit Red Wings for defenseman Troy Stecher. Stecher would go on to play half the remaining regular season and only a few playoff games before signing with the Arizona Coyotes as a free agent this offseason.
The offseason began early in Southern California. The Chychrun talks were relatively quiet, but there was still some chatter. Alex DeBrincat’s name floated around the LA Kings for quite sometime before Rob Blake shook the NHL two weeks before the NHL draft when he acquired Kevin Fiala from the Minnesota Wild.
The acquisition did help the Kings with finding a first-line scorer, but the worries that the defensive core wasn’t addressed started perking up again. Having Doughty fully healthy will be a massive boost for the Kings, but the defensive core remains unchanged from last year.
Just like last season, there are still so many question marks that have yet to be answered about the back end going into next season. The abundance of right-handed defencemen is one of them. The youth is another. Will Sean Durzi get better offensively to quarterback the power play? Will Alex Edler still be able to put up impressive offensive numbers at 36? It’s a gamble, but you’d be surprised to know that there isn’t much to worry about on the defensive side of things for the LA Kings in 2022-23.
To crack the code of the enigmatic defensive core, we must look back at last season. Far too many avoidable goals were scored last season, and the theme with the defensive core was they seemed to be “getting beat to the net.” Notably, the issue that the Kings struggled with the most was that the large majority of shots against that the Kings dealt with were closer to the crease.
For the most part, the Kings were a strong defensive team, ranking 8th in the NHL in goals against and 11th in xGA.
Scoring and powerplay were issues. That has been addressed this year with the hiring of assistant coach Jim Hiller to work with the powerplay and the addition of Fiala. We can also expect the younger players such as Quinton Byfield and Arthur Kaliyev to play a more prominent role in the offense.
So if the forwards improve, what can we expect from the defensive side of things?
Well, what we can hope for is better luck. It was no surprise that the Kings’ blueline struggled offensively with the losses to Doughty and Walker.
Let’s not forget that Alex Edler had missed half of the season. Edler had notably mastered breaking up odd-man rushes and found his scoring touch, which had been missing for some time. He tallied three goals in 41 games this year, whereas he had only five in his last two seasons in Vancouver (111 games). In a full year, Edler was on pace to hit six goals.
Could the LA Kings achieve two-way dominance with a fully healthy team, improved scoring from the offense, and well-structured defense? Some would argue that the Kings are far from those levels, yet the potential could grow in the next few years. But believe it or not, the Kings looked the part last season.
Credit: Jfresh Hockey
Performing well in xGF and xGA, the LA Kings showed more two-way dynamic preeminence than teams such as the Vegas Golden Knights, Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues, and the New York Rangers.
On a larger scale, it’s understandable that the LA Kings are prepared to have a great season. But what about the intangibles? Can the little things that make good teams good help the Kings stay just as reputably defensively, if not better?
For this, we have micro-analytics.
The chart below shows that the Kings had a very good defensive season. Let’s dig into the standouts.
We can see that the Kings had done a great job suppressing shots. Ranking 3rd in the league in shots on goal against, 7th in shots off high-danger passes (meaning that dangerous scoring chances are broken up), 4th in one-timer shots against, and 9th in rush shots against.
As for transitions and passes against, the Kings broke up passes and stopped opponents from having top-end scoring chances. Limiting high-danger plays is a huge key in hockey, and the LA Kings have done a fantastic job at doing just that.
Now that we fully understand the depths of the Kings’ defensive core, let’s finally finish with a little bit of fun to see how the defense projects to look like going into the 2022-23 NHL season.
We used Jfresh’s roster builder to see how the defensive core would hold up. The biggest key to this chart would be wins above replacement (WAR). Using a scale of offensive and defensive WAR, each pair will get its own value and a total value of the entire back end.
Before we try it out, it’s important to note that we’ll try three different lineups. The top four do not see any changes throughout. The only differences we will see will be the LD on the third pairing. Since the Kings have so many players battling for that spot, we will give three players a look. Also, in this case, both Anderson and Durzi have been re-signed. They will appear on the projection.
The first option is with Jacob Moverare in the lineup. It also assumes that Sean Walker gets traded to open up some cap space for the Kings’ four RFAs. The top four, which were the same as last year, will remain the same throughout the lineup. The first defensive pair has a WAR of 1.6, with an offensive value of 0.1 and a defensive value of 1.1.
The second pairing has a value of 2.4 WAR– which is an elite-level defensive pair – with an offensive value of 1.4 and a defensive one of 0.9. Finally, with Moverare in, we have a third pairing worth 0.2 as a whole, 0.2 offensively, and 0.0 defensively. This lineup has a projected defensive WAR of 4.3.
Our next grouping assumes that Sean Walker does stay with the LA Kings and that he takes on the role as the third pair LD. As he gets paired with Durzi, the line’s WAR would be 0.0 with an offensive value of 0.5 and a defensive value of -0.2. This core would have a projected value of 4.1, which would be the weakest of all three lineups we have prepared.
Finally, we assume Sean Walker again departs, and this time it’s Jordan Spence who lands a full-time role as the LD3. Even though some would suggest that Spence and Durzi should play with older defensemen, this pair could be a real danger to opponents. This duo would project to have a 0.3 WAR, with an offensive value of 0.4 (with lots of room to grow) and a defensive value of -0.2. If this were the lineup that the Kings set out, the value of the defensive roster would be a 4.4, which happens to be the best of the three options.
While people may be concerned about the defensive core heading into the 2022-23 season, there really isn’t anything to worry about. The LA Kings have done a tremendous job holding on to their current defensive roster, and thanks to their excellent prospect pipeline, we can expect Los Angeles’ defense to be among the best in the NHL for years to come.