Why the Kings are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders

ByMatthew Coller ESPN logo
Tuesday, January 2, 2018

When we hear analysts refer to teams' "window to win," it can mean one of two things: Franchise players are in their prime or a good-not-great club has all of its best players peaking at once.

For example, the Chicago Blackhawks routinely traded their early-round draft picks at the deadline for role players while superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were at the height of their powers. Last season, we saw the Ottawa Senators ride a hot streak to the Eastern Conference Final -- only to have a predictable slide backward this season.

It appears that both Chicago and Ottawa's windows to win are either closed or only open a crack. And once that window slams shut, it's rebuilding time.

At the end of last season, the Los Angeles Kings' window looked like it was closed, locked and boarded up. They finished 2016-17 with 86 standings points and scored the fourth fewest even-strength goals in the NHL behind three franchises building from scratch (Colorado, New Jersey, Buffalo).

Lacking the cap room to make a big free-agent splash and with few exciting prospects coming through the system, the Kings seemed to be on the cusp of fading to the back of the Pacific Division.

But a coaching change from Darryl Sutter to John Stevens and the resurgence of two stars has flung their window wide open again as the Kings have the third-best record in the West and the second-best goal differential.

How did they bounce back? Is L.A.'s success for real or will they fade in the second half of the season? Let's have a look.

The top line rides again

In 39 games, No. 1 center Anze Kopitar has 28 even-strength points (14 goals, 14 assists). Last season, he scored only seven 5-on-5 goals and added 25 assists in 76 games. Kopitar is on pace to reach totals much closer to his best seasons when he scored 50 even-strength points in 2011-12 and 44 two seasons ago. Beyond point production, the same numbers that clearly demonstrated Kopitar's greatness during the Kings' Cup years were down during the past two seasons. His relative Corsi for 2016-17 was minus-0.3 percent, marking the first time in his career the Kings had a better shot differential without him than with him.

Everything has come back to life for Kopitar this season. He's managed a plus-3.2 percent relative Corsi, and the Kings have outscored opponents 38-25 with their star center on ice.

Part of Kopitar's jump in production is puck luck. At 20.9 percent, his even-strength shooting percentage is higher than any season of his career, and nearly triple last season's mark. That's bound to come down. But L.A.'s franchise forward is also getting better opportunities. According to the analytics site Natural Stat Trick, he had 136 scoring chances in 2016-17, but is on pace for 168 this season. That would be the second-best rate of his career.

Dustin Brown's bounce back has also been driven by Kopitar.

Brown has 29 total points and 25 at even-strength in 39 games following four straight seasons with under 40 points. Last season, Sutter broke up Kopitar and Brown, playing them together for fewer than 400 minutes. They have already cleared that mark this season. And when they are deployed at the same time, Kopitar and Brown have outscored opponents 30-17 and have an outstanding 54.2 Corsi for percentage.

Brown is back to playing nearly 20 minutes per game after three seasons of spending fewer than 17 minutes on ice.

Stevens has also found a diamond in the rough to tag along with the two veterans. Kopitar, Brown and former Minnesota-Duluth scorer Alex Iafallo have spent the second most minutes together of any line in the NHL (389) and produced a 52.0 percent shot-attempt differential and 17-12 scoring advantage. Iafallo went undrafted, and had a huge senior campaign in college, with 51 points in 42 games in 2016-17. His presence on the top line has allowed Stevens to move other skilled players down the lineup.

Recently, Tanner Pearson has moved up to the top line. He and Kopitar have a 56.1 percent Corsi for percentage in 89 minutes. Kopitar and Brown's chemistry gives the head coach flexibility at the left wing spot on the top line.

While the Kings' top line has high shooting and on-ice save percentages, Kopitar's numbers reflect much more of a return to excellence rather than an anomaly. And that's good news for Los Angeles's chances of returning to prominence in the West.

Young depth

Los Angeles's system has not created another superstar at the level of Kopitar or Drew Doughty in recent years, but several young players have developed into solid middle-six players, giving the Kings some bite when Kopitar's line is off the ice.

For a large chunk of the season, three of the key 25-and-under players made up an impressive line. Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Adrian Kempe -- all drafted and developed by the Kings -- produced a 12-6 goal advantage and 53.2 percent Corsi for percentage in 169 minutes. Recently, veteran scorer Marian Gaborik has joined Toffoli and Kempe. Toffoli has already topped his 2016-17 total of 16 goals, including 13 at even strength, while Kempe has potted 11 goals at evens and Pearson has 19 even-strength points (six goals, 13 assists).

You likely won't see any of them in the All-Star game, but the trio has combined for 30 even-strength goals, which has played a big role in making up for the absence of star center Jeff Carter.

It appears Carter is still far away from a return, which could push the Kings to add more depth scoring at the trade deadline.

Quick is flying high again

For years, some in the advanced hockey stats community fought the notion that Jonathan Quick was an elite goaltender, because his regular season numbers did not always match up to his playoff performances. But in 31 games this season, he's looking like the all-world goalie that finished second in the Vezina Trophy voting and posted an absurd .946 postseason save percentage in 2011-12.

Quick has quality starts in 64.5 percent of his chances between the pipes, a rate comparable to his 2011-12 season (63.2 percent). He's among the best goalies in the NHL with a .928 even-strength save percentage, and the star goalie is getting ample rest time with backup Darcy Kuemper playing well.

There is at least one sign that Quick's performance will be difficult to sustain. The Kings are currently the No. 1 penalty-kill team in the NHL, in large part because of his .920 shorthanded save percentage. Quick's career high in that category is .906, and he hasn't been above .900 since 2011-12.

Even with a drop off on the PK, the Kings' franchise goalie is likely to maintain a high level of play. In seven full seasons with L.A., he's produced a positive goals saved above average rate (per Hockey-Reference) in six of those seasons.

The bottom line

There are some hints of possible regression in Los Angeles. They rank third in the NHL in combined shooting and save percentage at even strength, a sign that their "puck luck" could change in the weeks ahead. But part of the jump in those areas appears to be related to coaching. Under Sutter, the Kings finished in the bottom five of the NHL in even-strength goals three times, and cracked the top 10 only once (2014-15).

So long as the top line and goaltending continue excellent 5-on-5 play, there is every reason to think Los Angeles will remain competitive in the West -- especially with Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty still playing at his usual level, leading the team in Corsi for percentage.

Whether they can raise another Stanley Cup may depend on Carter's status, and if the Kings can add a key player or two at the deadline. They have the best even-strength goal differential in the West, but St. Louis, Vegas and Nashville are on their heels.

With their window looking closed after last season, though, you wouldn't have guessed the Kings would return to prominence this quickly. And based on the underlying numbers, this team will be one to reckon with this spring.