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Pacific Division Preview: Los Angeles Kings determined to prove last season was an aberration

The Kings have nowhere to go but up after finishing last in the conference with 71 points in a demoralizing 2018-19 campaign.

Washington Capitals v Los Angeles Kings

As Year 3 of Vegas Golden Knights hockey fast approaches, we’ll take a look at the other teams in the Pacific Division ahead of the 2019-20 campaign. This series will provide an overview of each of Vegas’ division rivals, reviewing how the teams fared last season, examining organizational changes made during the offseason and exploring what their lineups might look like to start the season.

The Los Angeles Kings are coming off one of the worst seasons in franchise history. They finished second-to-last in the league standings with just 71 points, their lowest point total since 2006-07. With a new coach in Todd McLellan behind the bench and a blank slate with which to work, Los Angeles will look to show the world that last season was an anomaly.

Season in review

Everything about the Kings’ 2018-19 season was bad, and most of it was out of character for a franchise that has two Stanley Cups this decade and a reputation for being one of the stingiest clubs in hockey.

Last year was a different story.

In fact, the Kings finished 10th in goals against, giving up an average of 3.16 per game. Los Angeles also surrendered 31.4 shots per game; both rates were the highest they’ve been since 2007-08.

Surprisingly, the team’s penalty kill was the third-worst in the NHL, operating at just 76.5 percent effectiveness, which is the worst it has been since 2006-07.

On top of that, the Kings generated just 28.8 shots per game, good for 30th overall in the league, and scored the second-fewest goals (199) while maintaining the 27th-ranked power play (15.8 percent).

While the defensive statistics are particularly eye-catching, the offensive numbers paint the full picture as to how the Kings seemingly fell off a cliff in 2018-19.

Los Angeles went from losing four consecutive playoff games by one goal to winning just 17 games on home ice and mounting the worst record in the conference and second-worst in the league. The Kings couldn’t score and couldn’t keep the puck out of their own net; that’s not generally an effective formula for winning.

The individual stats were not much better.

Anze Kopitar saw a massive 32-point drop in production after finishing third in Hart Trophy voting the year before. He followed up that career-best 92-point campaign in 2017-18 with just 22 goals and 60 points in 81 games last season. That was still good enough to lead the team in every category, but it was one of the worst seasons of his career.

Dustin Brown took a slight step back but still hit the 50-point mark, scoring 22 goals and 51 points in 72 games, good for a points-per-game rate of 0.71.

The only other player on the roster with more than 40 points was defenseman Drew Doughty, who scored eight goals and 45 points in 82 games.

Notably, Doughty finished the year with a minus-34 rating, which was twice as bad as his previous career-worst rating of minus-17. That’s a staggering statement for the former Norris winner who is widely considered one of the best two-way defensemen in the game.

He wasn’t alone, though.

Kopitar and linemates Brown and Alex Iafallo all finished with at least a minus-17 (Kopitar was minus-20), and Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Adrian Kempe came in with minus-20, minus-16 and minus-10 ratings, respectively. Though plus/minus is a flawed stat, only four Kings who played at least 40 games finished in the green.

Carter matched his goal production from the previous season but did so in 49 more games in what was easily the worst season of his career. His points-per-60 rate of 0.87 was one of the worst among regular forwards in the league.

Both he and Toffoli had stretches of 18-plus games without a goal (Carter went 20 without lighting the lamp), and Toffoli’s shooting percentage plummeted to just 5.8 percent.

The Ilya Kovalchuk experiment did not work, though head coach Willie Desjardins played a huge role in the bumpy season, making Kovalchuk the scapegoat for the Kings’ failures. Kovalchuk was demoted to a bottom-six role almost immediately after Desjardins took over for John Stevens, and the Russian sniper served as a healthy scratch on a regular basis. Even so, he finished third on the team in goals (16) and fourth in points (34).

Jonathan Quick also had the worst season of his career, going 16-23-7 in 46 games with a 3.38 goals-against average and .888 save percentage. That was down from his 2.40 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 2017-18.

One positive from the season was the play of Jack Campbell. Despite his 10-14-1 record, he posted a 2.30 goals against-average and .928 save percentage in 31 games. The .928 save percentage ranked third in the NHL among goalies who played at least 10 games.

Offseason overview

The Kings hired McLellan in mid-April after going through two coaches in the 2018-19 season. McLellan has great familiarity with the Pacific Division after serving as bench boss for the Sharks and Oilers for 10-plus seasons. His knowledge of the division should make his transition smooth, and he’s a no-nonsense coach who should be a good fit for the Kings’ roster makeup.

He’s already on board with “The Plan” for the future set out by Kings president Luc Robitaille and general manager Rob Blake.

In fact, in a letter to Kings fans, McLellan explained that he expects the players on the roster to “re-establish the standards that are expected of an LA King. These standards include effort, practice habits, preparation and professionalism. ... The Cup-winners that remain on our team clearly possess these standards... but must polish them up. The current group of young players must accept and push these standards on a daily basis.”

As for the roster, the team bought out the contract of Dion Phaneuf and brought in left-shot defensemen Ben Hutton and Joakim Ryan on the back end.

Los Angeles re-signed Adrian Kempe to a three-year, $6 million deal and extended Iafallo on a two-year contract carrying an average annual value of $2.425 million.

The Kings also signed Mario Kempe, brother of Adrian, to a one-year deal.

Lastly, the Kings signed 26-year-old Nikolai Prokhorkin to a one-year entry-level deal. The 2012 fourth-round pick is hoping to finally make the jump from the KHL, though he’ll start the season in the AHL.

Lineup preview

The team’s top line of Kopitar, Brown and Iafallo should remain intact. One significant change, however, is that Carter likely will start the year at right wing on the second line. Carter’s play declined significantly last season, which could explain the shift. Kovalchuk is the top candidate to slot in on the left side, with Toffoli dropping to a middle-six role.

It’s possible Blake Lizotte could center that line, though Adrian Kempe is another choice. However, Toffoli and Kempe had good chemistry last year, so they could be reunited on the third line with Carl Grundstrom, who impressed in a 15-game stint last season. The 5-foot-7 Lizotte seems like a lock to make the team either way.

Michael Amadio, Austin Wagner, Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford are among the other players competing for bottom-six roles now that Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Mario Kempe have been sent down.

On the back end, Tobias Bjornfot has impressed in camp, and Doughty seems to be one of his biggest fans.

It’s possible the Kings will send the 22nd overall pick from this year’s draft back to Sweden because of his age, but he very well could stick with the team, at least for the start of the season.

With Jake Muzzin, Oscar Fantenberg and Phaneuf out of the picture, the Kings could have a very different blue line this season. The additions of Hutton and Ryan give the team depth, especially on the left side given Derek Forbort’s uncertain injury situation. Alec Martinez, Sean Walker, Matt Roy and Kurtis MacDermid are the other players in the mix. Los Angeles recently waived defenseman Paul LaDue.

In net, Quick will be given a chance to bounce back, but Campbell could get a sizable number of starts after his impressive play last season. That’s especially true since Quick has battled several injuries over the last few seasons.

Here’s one possibility for what the Kings’ lineup could look like to start the season:

Iafallo — Kopitar — Brown
Kovalchuk — Lizotte — Carter
Grundstrom — Kempe — Toffoli
Clifford — Amadio — Wagner

Bjornfot — Doughty
Hutton — Martinez
MacDermid — Roy

Quick
Campbell

Quick hits

2018-19 record: 31-42-9-71
Position in standings: Division-8, Conference-15, League-30
Pacific Division record: 14-12-3
Record against Vegas: 2-1-0
Playoff result: Did not qualify for playoffs
Power play (NHL rank): 15.8 percent (27)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 76.5 percent (29)
Goals for (NHL rank): 199 (30)
Goals against (NHL rank): 259 (10)
Leading scorers: Kopitar (22-38—60), Brown (22-29—51), Doughty (8-37—45)
Top Corsi For % (min. 35 GP): Clifford (52.2), Toffoli (52.09), Kempe (51.78)
Goals above replacement: Toffoli (7.6), Leipsic (6.2), Amadio (5.5)
Season opener: Oct. 5 @ Edmonton

Looking ahead to 2019-20

The Kings are a competitive bunch, so there’s no way last year’s demoralizing collapse sat well with anyone in the organization.

It’s hard to imagine this year won’t be an improvement, even with minimal offseason change.

However, the addition of McLellan should help produce a stark contrast in morale from last season, and it’s hard to believe the star players will all have terrible seasons once again.

There is a clear vision in Los Angeles, but the transformation won’t take place overnight. Though making the playoffs seems out of reach, it’s certainly not out of the question given what the team’s core is capable of.

Golden Knights vs. Kings schedule

Oct. 13 @ Los Angeles
Nov. 16 @ Los Angeles
Jan. 9 vs. Los Angeles
Mar. 1 vs. Los Angeles

Statistics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey, NHL.com, Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference.