Now that the 2013-14 NHL season is officially in the books, there are a few loose ends to wrap up here at Puck Prediction. One part of this involves a last look back at the seasons of the four Conference Finalists. In recognition of their achievement in being the last team standing this season, I’m going out of order; today, I’ll be writing about the 2014 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
The week or so after the Cup is awarded is typically the time when we see lots of articles describing how the winner serves as a model for building future champions. In 2009, the key to winning the Cup was depth at center; in 2011, it was size and toughness. This year, fresh off of correctly predicting the Toronto Maple Leafs’ collapse, many hockey analysts are pointing to the Kings’ league-best Fenwick differential and positing a strong possession game as the reason for a parade in Los Angeles. One statistic I’m seeing bandied about a lot is that, of the five teams with a regular-season Score-Adjusted Fenwick over 56% since 2007-08, four (this year’s Kings, the 2007-08 Red Wings, and the 2009-10 and 2012-13 Blackhawks) won the Cup, while the fifth (the 2008-09 Red Wings) came within a game of doing so. This sounds impressive until you remember that drawing broad conclusions based on five teams and one statistic usually isn’t a good idea. If we lower that SAF threshold to 55%, we’re still focused on outstanding possession teams, and I can’t be convinced that a 56% team is meaningfully better in possession than a 55% team. But this gives us a sample of 17 squads, and a much murkier picture. This set of 17 includes the five teams mentioned above, but it also includes the 2008-09 and 2013-14 Blackhawks (lost in the Western Conference Final), the 2012-13 Kings (WCF loss), the 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2013-14 Sharks (2nd-round, 1st-round and 1st-round losses, respectively), the 2007-08 and 2008-09 Capitals (1st-round and 2nd-round losses), the 2007-08 Rangers (2nd-round loss), the 2011-12 Penguins (1st-round loss), the 2011-12 Red Wings (1st-round loss), and the 2012-13 Devils (failed to make the playoffs). Even if we discount 55% teams eliminated by teams with better possession numbers, two of every three teams with a SAF of 55% or higher has failed to win a Cup. Lower the threshold to 54% and the picture gets even worse. The point being that it helps to be a good team if you want to win the Stanley Cup, but in any year there are plenty of excellent teams in the NHL, only one of whom (maybe) wins it all.
Rather than being a magical key explaining their postseason success, LA’s superb possession game had its biggest impact in the regular season: by consistently pushing the math of goals-for and goals-against in their favor, puck control enabled the Kings to withstand some extended spells of very cold shooting, as well as the variability in goaltender play that every team experiences. Their possession game was remarkably consistent throughout the regular season: in 82 games, LA controlled less than 50% of close-score Fenwick events just 18 times. A month into the season, their Fenwick Close sat at 56.7%, and would stay there pretty much the rest of the way. And through the first part of the campaign, their results reflected this consistency. From Opening Night until Christmas, the Kings won 25 of their first 38 games, and lost consecutive regulation contests only once. They achieved much of this success despite an injury that cost starting goalie Jonathan Quick almost seven weeks between November and January. Partly, this is due to the trememdous work of Ben Scrivens (0.942 Sv% at even strength before his trade to Edmonton) and rookie Martin Jones (0.947). Indeed, as of December 21, the Kings enjoyed a 0.947 team Sv% and a 1.022 PDO, which explains a lot about how difficult they were to beat. But partly it was due to the team’s tremendous effectiveness in limited chances against; LA’s 25 shots and 46.6 Corsi attempts against per 60 5-on-5 minutes were tops in the Western Conference, and second league-wide only to New Jersey and their narcoleptic home scorer.
Nevertheless, from December 23 until the Olympic break, the Kings hit a rough patch that saw them win just six times in 22 contests. Their goaltending during this stretch was a very healthy 0.936 at evens, but their shooting luck utterly vanished: in these games, LA scored on just 3.3% of their 5-on-5 shots. Combined with a lackluster power play, this extended spell of cold shooting ended their chances of challenging for the Pacific Division title. Upon returning from Sochi, their luck began turning around, and with the deadline addition of Marian Gaborik, the Kings shot over 8% and won 15 times to finish out the campaign. Nevertheless, only Buffalo finished 2013-14 with a lower even-strength Sh% than LA’s 6.6%, and only four teams (none of whom made the postseason) scored fewer than the Kings’ 198 goals.
All of which makes their run to the Cup, and the manner in which it occurred, look even more unlikely; if anything, LA’s 2014 championship should serve as a reminder of how unpredictable hockey can be in short series. Facing another strong puck-control team in round one, and without the benefit of home-ice advantage, the Kings’ possession numbers didn’t help them against San Jose. By Fenwick or Corsi differential, possession in the series was essentially a draw; by 2-period SF%, the Sharks controlled almost 53% of the possession (obviously, the numbers are noisy in such small samples, so none of them is necessarily “correct”). Of course, we all know the real story of that series: behind 15.3% shooting and 0.921 goaltending, San Jose leapt out to a 3-0 lead before the PDO tables abruptly turned. In the final four games of the series, LA shot 10.1% and got 0.957 play from Quick, and a historic comeback was completed. A somewhat similar story played out in the next round, where the Kings faced the Anaheim Ducks for the first time in a postseason series. As expected, LA controlled the bulk of the possession; more surprising, however, is that they got the better of the PDO battle against the NHL’s highest-scoring team in 2013-14. The Kings were very fortunate to take Games 1 and 2 in Anaheim, tying the series opener late in regulation on a fluky goal from Gaborik before winning in overtime, and taking the second contest despite being outshot 37-17. Interestingly, most of LA’s possession advantage in the series came from their play in Games 3-5. All of which they lost. Their possession advantage in their two elimination games against the Ducks was far more modest, but a team that was snakebitten all throughout the regular season scored on 15% of 5-on-5 shots, and got 0.938 play from Quick. With that burst of PDO, the Kings were through to the Conference Finals, and a rematch with the team that eliminated them in 2013. To call the Hawks-Kings series a classic is, if anything, an understatement, but unlike their 2013 meeting, puck luck didn’t desert LA this time around. As in round one, the Kings played to a draw in puck possession over seven games with Chicago. Quick was inconsistent throughout the series, and was a big reason that a 3-1 advantage turned into a Game 7 overtime for LA. The difference, once again was shooting luck. Keeping in mind, again, that LA had the second-worst Sh% in the league this season, the Kings shot 10.4% against the Blackhawks; in a tightly-matched series, that was the difference. After three seven-game series in the West playoffs, a five-game series against the Rangers probably felt like a relief. The Cup Final offered a few more unlikely surprises, such as Quick outdueling Henrik Lundqvist. Similar to the Anaheim series, the Kings’ overall possession advantage was driven to some extent by their play in the game they lost (Game 4 was a 2-1 New York win despite LA’s 41-19 shot advantage). Three of the Kings’ victories against the Rangers required 14 periods of hockey to sort out; in the fourth, they were outshot 32-15. Nevertheless, they played excellent hockey throughout the Final, and got goals when they needed them.
As far as the immediate future, the Kings are a cap team, which means that they’ll have decisions to make this offseason. Their two highest scorers, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, are under contract for a while; unfortunately, so are Dustin Brown and Mike Richards, who combined for just 68 points in fairly easy minutes, and will each make almost $6M a year for a long time. Richards, who was demoted to fourth-line duty late in the year, could be the target of a compliance buyout. Despite his reputation as a shutdown center, Jarret Stoll was unremarkable (Corsi Rel -1.2%) against weak competition, and will make $3.25M for one more year. It will be interesting to see what LA does with Gaborik, who is now an unrestricted free agent. On one hand, Gaborik was outstanding in a Kings uniform, scoring almost a point per game in the regular campaign and exploding for 14 goals in the playoffs; on the other hand, he’s 32 and notoriously brittle, he’s been traded off of two teams in the past two seasons, and he may not want a big cut from the $7.5M salary he made on his last contract. All-Universe defenseman Drew Doughty is signed for five more years, as is Slava Voynov; the 24-year-old Voynov is skilled offensively, though he had the worst Corsi Rel % of all Kings blueliners not named Robyn Regehr (who will make $3M in Los Angeles next season despite being the team’s worst defenseman). Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene are UFAs and are unlikely to return, as the Kings’ dollars are likely to be better spent on extensions for defenseman Alec Martinez and Smythe winner Justin Williams, as well as new deals for pending RFAs like Jake Muzzin, Tyler Toffoli, and Jones. But those are worries for another day. For the time being, Kings fans will doubtless enjoy the satisfying end to a very interesting season, and look forward to being one of the NHL’s best again in 2014-15.
Other season wrap-up posts: Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and the NY Islanders, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New Jersey, Washington, Carolina, Nashville, and Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Detroit, St. Louis, Dallas and Columbus, Philadelphia, Colorado, San Jose, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Minnesota and Anaheim.