LA Kings: What to watch during the final stretch
We’re past the trade deadline and into the final stretch of regular season games for the LA Kings and the rest of the NHL. With LA all but certain to be heading to the postseason, some newcomers in the fold, and a relatively easy schedule ahead, head coach Todd McLellan has the opportunity to tinker with a few things and find what he likes best before Game 1 of the playoffs rolls around.
Five things I’ll be watching during the final stretch
1. The defensive pairings
Acquiring Vladislav Gavrikov from the Columbus Blue Jackets days before the deadline made all the sense in the world for the LA Kings. They were in desperate need of an upgrade on the left side of the blueline. The question that remains, however, is where he ends up playing in the lineup.
The overall assumption is that Vladislav will stay on the second pairing alongside Matt Roy where he’s been the last two games, which pushes Sean Durzi to the right side with Alex Edler as his partner. But even with back-to-back impressive showings from the pair of Gavrikov and Roy, McLellan left open the possibility of change soon during Monday night’s post-game availability.
Vladislav Gavrikov nets his first goal in a LA uniform.#GoKingsGo pic.twitter.com/AqGedkm6fH
— Russell Morgan (@NHLRussell) March 7, 2023
“It’s not just about two players it’s about the group as a whole. We’re going to need all seven defensemen fresh and ready to play as the season goes on. So (Walker) has to get back in, and when Walks gets back in we may flip some guys around again. We’ll just take our time and see how everything evolves. But those two are playing well together.”
This is why an easier remaining strength of schedule for the Kings will come in handy. There will be plenty of chances for McLellan to figure out what he likes best. So look for a few different combinations on the back end during the final stretch of the regular season.
2. Where Kevin Fiala lines up
It’s been an exciting first season in LA for their big off-season acquisition Kevin Fiala. But it hasn’t been without its frustration. Fiala is a unicorn in the Kings’ organization. For a team so ingrained into its systems and cohesiveness, acclimating the dynamic forward has come with a learning process.
Throughout the season Fiala has played at least 70 minutes of 5-on-5 time among four different line combinations, according to evolving-hockey.com. And all have experienced their ups and downs. Currently, he is lined up alongside Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson, and the trio has also undergone turbulence.
The last few games, however, have been much improved for the trio of Fiala-Danault-Arvidsson, but there feels like a lack of balance with the implementation of 22 on that second line. Many have called for the breakout star Gabriel Vilardi to play with 24 & 33 to get Kevin back with Blake Lizotte. With Trevor Moore soon to return, maybe we see the ‘Nice Line’ reunion which would slide Fiala down to the third line where he’s had more success.
3. The goalie share
While Vladislav Gavrikov was the more notable name in the Columbus deal, the trade-off of goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Joonas Korpisalo was perhaps more impactful. It’s no secret across the league that goaltending was the biggest area of concern for the LA Kings, and Rob Blake addressed those issues with that switch.
To start the year, Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen were supposed to carry the Kings in net. But that was far from the case as the two struggled mightily during the early stretches. After a surprising, but necessary waiver placement for Petersen, Pheonix Copley was recalled from the AHL to steer the ship in the right direction. And he’s saved the season. If not for Copley’s mind-blowing 20-4-2 record, we might be talking lottery odds in LA instead of playoff seeding.
Pheonix Copley becomes the fastest goalie to hit the 20 win mark in a season in franchise history (29 games).#GoKingsGo
— Russell Morgan (@NHLRussell) March 7, 2023
With Korpisalo now in the fold, he can alleviate some of the burden placed on Copley. The question that’s now presented though, is who will be the Game 1 starter for the LA Kings as we get closer to the playoffs. Joonas has the experience and has fared well in the postseason, but Pheonix has carried the team all year. It comes down to who has the hot hand after the final buzzer of game 82. But how McLellan divvies up the starts until then will be something to watch.
4. The power play
One of the bigger concerns for the LA Kings as they entered the playoff series against Edmonton last year, was the power play. While we’ve seen a dramatic improvement with the addition of mastermind assistant coach Jim Hiller, the Kings now exhibit a top-five power-play unit in the NHL sitting at 24.7%. But recently it’s started to show some cracks.
In their last eight games, LA is 3/24 with the man advantage. Whether that’s a lack of chances or lazy penalties that negate power play time remains to be seen, but they’ll need that side of special teams to regain some steam before the postseason begins.
5. Fourth-line center
When Rob Blake addressed the media after the big trade with Columbus, one thing seemed clear, he was still in search of depth. Come trade deadline day, he made a flurry of minor moves including trading Brendan Lemieux and a 5th-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for enforcer Zack MacEwen. While he did address the need for a left defenseman, more experience in the bottom six forward group could’ve helped as well. But with no other moves, Rasmus Kupari becomes an important piece for the Kings.
With Quinton Byfield thriving on the first line, Blake Lizotte moved up to be LA’s third-line center, which left the center-ice position open on the fourth line–enter Kupari. It’s been a roller coaster start to Rasmus’ career with the Kings. He’s shown flashes of his speed and is now a steady presence on the LA penalty kill, but consistency is the issue. Now with the team solidified, Kupari will have to maintain quality play on the fourth line.
Featured Image Credit: (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
1 thought on “LA Kings: What to watch during the final stretch”
Fantastic article, Russell; highlights important factors of how successful Kings will be. I want Korpi to get at least 50% of the starts until one of them separates from the other. TMac needs to not be too loyal to Copley as he has been to Walker, but to be objective and play the best players.