The LA Kings need more skill on the blueline
As the LA Kings turn their attention to the 2023-24 NHL season, an area that needs a tweak is the defense corps. Already one of the better defensive groups in the league, it’s time the team branched out and started to add some mobility and puck movers to their back end, and they could likely solve that problem from within.
Los Angeles currently has five defensemen signed for next season that were NHL regulars this past season (Drew Doughty, Mikey Anderson, Matt Roy, Sean Durzi, and Sean Walker). The Unrestricted Free Agents are Vladislav Gavrikov and Alexander Edler. While the latter is likely to move on, perhaps to retirement, the former is one that many in the fan base and within the team would like to see return. But with very little cap space to work with, bringing back Gavrikov could be tricky.
Suppose Rob Blake is unable to move Cal Petersen’s albatross of a contract, and there’s an unwillingness to part with the likes of Alex Iafallo and Viktor Arvidsson. In that case, there just isn’t enough money for a Gavrikov return or an impact defenseman to be acquired via free agency or trade. Even so, I don’t think the Kings are actually any worse for the wear, and a case could be made that they’d still improve.
Consider that before the acquisition of Gavrikov (and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo), the Kings were already a top ten (or better) team in shot suppression, shot attempts allowed, expected goals allowed, and high danger chances allowed (data via Natural Stat Trick)
|Los Angeles Kings||26.6||54.7||2.5||11.3|
|New Jersey Devils||27.3||54.5||2.4||10.4|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||27.7||54.2||2.4||11.5|
|New York Rangers||28.2||53.7||2.6||12.1|
|Vegas Golden Knights||29.2||58.7||2.4||10.2|
Gavrikov helped to strengthen a strength, but he didn’t add a new dimension to the team or put them over the top.
We don’t know yet if the Kings can afford the big Russian for next season. If they do, presumably, he’d slot in again with Matt Roy and anchor what could be one of the better shut-down pairs in the NHL.
Whether they do or do not retain Gavrikov isn’t really important for this discussion because whether he’s back or whether he’s not, the Kings have two defensemen that can add an entirely new dimension to the blueline and something we just haven’t seen from an LA defense corps in recent years.
Let’s look at some data from All Three Zones to show where the Kings could improve the blueline.
First, with zone exits. LA is a team that likes to chip pucks into the neutral zone rather than make clean, tape-to-tape breakout passes. Part of this is because of the team’s style of wingers; the other is they simply don’t have the defensive personnel to play this way.
Unsurprisingly, Brandt Clarke (more on him later) graded out the best in his very small sample of games this season in terms of clears and exits with possession per 60. Only Drew Doughty and Sean Walker were above average.
As a team, the Kings were barely average in terms of defensive zone retrievals and were actually below average in terms of botched retrievals per 60:
And once again, we have Doughty and Walker, who grade pretty well in terms of retrievals and exits, Clarke is above average in terms of zone exits, and the rest of the bunch is pretty much below average in both categories:
This is how the LA Kings are built. They have strong, defensive defensemen with very little in terms of mobility and puck distribution. The 1-3-1 neutral zone defense can make things challenging for opponents to get into the zone clean, but once they’re in, the Kings could be better in terms of getting pucks out of their zone. It’s one of the things I harped on in the playoffs; you cannot play in your own zone against Edmonton. Having the personnel to help get you out of that zone is important.
Brandt Clarke & Jordan Spence
Enter two young defensemen, Brandt Clarke and Jordan Spence.
Clarke is coming off an incredible season in the OHL, scoring 61 points in 31 games. He started his season in Los Angeles, playing in nine NHL games, registering two assists, and graded out reasonably well in the All Three Zones tracking above. What is exciting about Clarke is as much his skill but also his confidence to be willing to make plays.
There are a couple of subtle plays he made while with LA that stick out to me as a player who isn’t just looking to make the safe play but to make a play that could lead to offense.
In this first clip, Clarke gets the puck in the neutral zone and has an opponent closing in on him. Something we see most defensemen do, especially young ones, is get the red line and dump the puck in. Not Clarke. He has his head up the whole time and makes a nice play to Adrian Kempe, which allows the Kings to enter the offensive zone with possession and have extended zone time:
In this second clip, Clarke does something that we did see a lot of Kings defensemen do more of as the season went along, and that’s jump into the play. That said, Clarke’s skillset certainly makes him more of a threat entering the zone than most others, but what sticks out to me is the then19-year-old not hesitating to do so:
Lastly, I really like this sequence from Clarke. He gets the puck after some time in his own zone, and rather than go off the glass and out of the zone to alleviate pressure, he picks his head up and makes a play to Kaliyev, who is there in support. He then has the instinct to jump into the play and help create a scoring chance:
The Kings are a little more familiar with what Spence can bring as he’s played 30 NHL games dating back to last season, in addition to three playoff games in the 2021-22 season. A dynamic, offensive threat, Spence finished fourth among AHL defensemen in assists in each of the past two seasons. His impressive 2021-22 AHL campaign earned him First Team AHL All-Star honors and made the All-Rookie Team.
Spence is instrumental on the power play, finishing second in the AHL among defensemen in power play assists.
Something Spence is more than willing to do is, like Clarke, be very active in the offensive zone:
As a team, the Kings do not have a defense group that creates a lot of high-danger chances in the offensive zone:
Enter, again, Jordan Spence:
All of this is to say the Kings need an injection of skill, mobility, and puck movement into their group of defensemen, and they don’t have to look outside the organization to do it.
If LA is unable to re-sign Gavrikov and their limited cap space makes them unable to make any significant acquisition, the Kings could run with the following defense pairs, and I’m not sure it’s the worst thing in the world:
Anderson – Doughty
Durzi – Roy
Clarke – Spence
Do I think Rob Blake and Todd McLellan do this? No, this is way too high risk. Though, as a reminder, Durzi and Roy spent significant time together this season, and it wasn’t bad:
|Sean Durzi||Matt Roy||72||865.3||51.7||52.3||52.1||52.8|
With Clarke and Spence making less than $900,000, it’s a bottom pair that would not only be cheap but likely improve what the LA Kings had in 2022-23.
(Video clips via InStat)
(Main Photo Credit: Ashley Landis, AP Photo)
6 thoughts on “The LA Kings need more skill on the blueline”
Would love to see those two up with the big club but an undersized d corp just gets smaller.
Thanks Joe for a very interesting article! I think that Clarke may not be too good on the left side; isn’t he a RHD? I would like to see Spence or Clarke in the top 3 pairs. Due to preserve some players from waivers, I expect Clarke to start in AHL being waiver exempt at beginning of season. Fairly good chance Durzi traded so that will open up a spot & if Walker traded too, then perhaps enough cap space to re-sign Gavrikov? Either Bjornfot or Movarare need to improve enough to play LHD effectively. How about your next article to be about the Kings goalie situation, Joe! TIA
When They lose Gavrikov and Edler retires (as he should)
That leaves “ONE” NHL Caliber Left handed defenseman and Bjornfot as a LD3 maybe…
Then the Kings Need to promote
Clarke RD2 and Spence RD3.
Putting Defenseman on their weak side is absolutely insane. There are maybe 3 or 4 Defenseman in the entire NHL that are decent weak-side defenseman and the Kings don’t have any of those guys. Durzi sucks defensively from both sides equally.
Offload Durzi, Walker, Grans and keep Roy as a solid Utility RD. 3 Dynamic Puck movers in Doughty, Clarke, Spence and Bjornfot in LD3 leaves one hoke at LD2. Get a sold, cheap LEFT HADED journeyman like Rosen from the Blues (or similar) and watch you D zone Clearing and escape numbers improve dramatically.
It’s not rocket science.
Lefties on Left and Righties on Right.
weak side D should only be used on the powerplay as a last resort. Otherwise
NO WEAK-SIDE DEFENSEMAN!!
Trade.dump:Arvi, Lizzo, Grunstrom, Durzi and Walker
Extend :Gav, Korpi, Roy
QB- Kopi – Kempe
Iafallo – Danault – Moore
Fiala – Vilardi – Kaliyev
JAD – Kupari = McEwe
MA – DD
Gav – Roy
Bjornfot _ Spence
Clarke starts in AHL
He could come up, Blake makes adjustments as needed by trade deadline
Another solid article with good data to support your points.
I wonder how good our PP1 could be with Clarke or Spence in place of DD? But i would guess it’s unlikely that happens. Durzi was a big part of why our DD2 was effective, an element that PP1 was lacking.
It’s unfortunate that Clarke and Spence are both RHD, would love to see both get a run with the team and see what they add. Breaking up DD and Mikey (given both are shutdown D first) would be great if we had the offensive D to complement them. Blake has some work to do back there.
Thank you! Blake has a few different ways he could take the D corps. Whichever he decides I think they’ll be above average to very good defensively. How much the back end contributes to the offense we’ll see.