The Kings are no longer the possession kings

The Kings will have to change their game if they hope to contend this season. (Tony Avelar/AP)

After winning their second Stanley Cup in three years, and starting the 2014-15 season with a bang, the Los Angeles Kings are off track.

The season began with the Kings playing seven of their first eight games at home. They convincingly won six straight at the Staples Center before hitting the road with a 6-1-1 record. But they lost four straight to start the trip, before winning the final game. Heading back to L.A. didn’t improve things and, despite playing four of five on home ice, the Kings sported a 3-4-3 record over the past 10 heading into their game Tuesday night (they beat Florida 5-2). They just aren’t striking fear into the hearts of opponents like they once did.

While the Kings have appeared dominant the past few years, they haven’t raced out to amazing early win-loss records. Superficially, it appears there is nothing to worry about, as the Kings are traditionally slow starters and strong finishers. (The past two seasons they had 22 and 23 points through 18 games.) Unfortunately for the Kings, that isn’t quite how this story goes. Score Adjusted Corsi tells us more about what to expect than the number of points the Kings have accumulated.

Score Adjusted Corsi is currently one of the best predictors we have for future team performance. We know goal scoring varies greatly over the course of a season—teams and players go hot and cold for extended periods, which makes predicting outcomes very difficult. Unlike goals, shot attempts are far more common and shot generation and suppression are identifiable as fairly repeatable abilities. Shot attempts also correlate highly to the results we are most concerned with—goal scoring (most goals require a shot attempt), and thus wins.

You need to have 20-25 games’ worth of data to predict game outcomes on the basis of shot-attempt metrics such as Corsi and Fenwick. We can improve the predictive power of these metrics (which are typically described at 5v5 or Even Strength to limit man-advantage impacts) by adjusting for the score of the game in order to compensate for score effects. That means Score Adjusted Corsi and Fenwick are the best of the crude set of tools we have for predicting future team performance.

At the start of the 2011-12 season, the Kings weren’t the insanely good possession team that hoisted the Stanley Cup in June. Remember, that was the year they added Jeff Carter at the trade deadline from Columbus in exchange for Jack Johnson. Carter is a very good possession player; Johnson is a very bad possession player. Through the first 18 games in 2011-12, L.A. ranked 12th with a Score Adjusted Corsi For Percentage (Total Shot Attempts) of 51.4%. Detroit was first at 58.9%. At the 60-game mark, immediately prior to the Carter-for-Johnson trade, the Kings had improved to seventh at 52.9%.

Then the trade happened, and everything fell into place. The Kings dominated the rest of the league and posted a Score Adjusted CF% of 59.0%. Pittsburgh, No. 2 over that stretch, came in at 54.7%. The Kings basically steamrolled their way to the Cup as a dominant possession team with a hot goalie.

In the abbreviated 2012-13 campaign, the Kings’ 22 points in 18 games masked a league-leading Score Adjusted CF% at 58.4%. They weren’t getting the outcomes they deserved. But they did eventually. They finished the season tops in the league at 56.7% and lost in the West final to the eventual Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Those trends continued last season: 23 points through 18 games with a season-ending Score Adjusted CF% of 57.1% to lead the league, and another Cup win.

Following the Carter-for-Johnson trade, the Kings dominated possession for 152 regular-season games. They led the NHL in Score Adjusted CF% over 2-plus years at 57.4%, manhandling their opposition with a punishing 2-1-2 forecheck and relentless puck pressure in the neutral zone. Their size and speed made them the most restrictive defensive group in the league, while also sitting near the top of the NHL in generating shot attempts. Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter were cemented as stars. Role players like Justin Williams and Dustin Brown were given credit for their exemplary possession contributions, and up-and-comers like Jake Muzzin, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson were hailed as the next wave of dominating Kings.

But—despite the same points in the standings—L.A. has sputtered out of the gate this year with a record that is largely smoke and mirrors—a byproduct of some hot shooting early on from “That 70’s Line” and some insane goaltending from Jonathan Quick. Unfortunately for the Kings, neither of those factors is likely to last for a full season. After 18 games, the Kings are sitting 12th in Score Adjusted CF% at 51.3%, while the other dynastic team from the West—the Blackhawks—sits in first at 57.5%.

The Kings’ possession numbers have been hampered due to the early Muzzin injury and Slava Voynov’s legal issues. Those pushed Alec Martinez, Matt Greene, Robyn Regehr, Brayden McNabb and even Jamie McBain further up the blueline depth chart. Regehr has continued to decline, while Martinez and Greene are not posting good numbers to date. Getting Muzzin back and healthy has helped some, but they are still only a 52.7% Score Adjusted CF% team with him in the lineup.

The most significant drops in possession have come from Dustin Brown and Jarret Stoll, who have played the second- and third-most minutes of any Kings forward. Brown is 30 and Stoll is now 32—ages when many players start to see declines in production—and the two have put a lot of miles on the past few years: the longest playoff run in NHL history in 2014 and Brown and Stoll have played the seventh- and 26th-most minutes among forwards the past 3 years, 3,646 and 3,297 respectively. The results are not good enough so far for the two physical forwards.

The most obvious way to track who is and isn’t driving the possession results we are seeing from the Kings this season is via dCorsi—the difference between an individual skater’s Expected Corsi accounting for the context of their usage, and the Corsi we actually observe with them on the ice. If the chart below is anything to go by, the Kings need to adjust their ice time distribution in order to compensate for players who aren’t living up to expectations.

kings

As the season moves forward, we’ll be able to track if those adjustments actually happen and see if the Kings improve. At the moment it looks like if they have visions of competing for another Stanley Cup they have a lot of work to do.