Why the LA Kings go on wild swings (Trending Topics)

Why the LA Kings go on wild swings (Trending Topics)

After a brief scare thanks to a super-hot run by the rival Anaheim Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings are back on top of the Pacific Division, and looking quite comfortable once again.

This, too, is a team accustomed to going on runs. This year they've had winning streaks of seven, six, and five games, but also gone through stretches where they lost four of five, five of seven, and five of nine. In short, it's a team that can quickly go from looking unbeatable to looking awful, and it's not often that they spend much time in between.

Since Feb. 20, a little more than a week before the trade deadline, the Kings are 9-2-1, which is obviously fantastic and the reason they're back atop the division. During that time, they have the third-best possession numbers in the league (54.7 percent percent, actually a little down from their season average) and have gotten world-class goaltending from Jonathan Quick (a ludicrous .958 at 5-on-5). 

And that, you'd have to say, is why the Kings are having so much success right now. Going .958 over a 12-game run is stretching the boundaries of credulity. That's not just unsustainable. He would have to get appreciably worse to have his numbers drop just to a normal level of unsustainability. He's been on runs like this before, but they have been very, very brief, and are usually followed by some career lows.

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The thing with the Kings is that they have typically always beaten teams on volume, which is a good idea because there's generally less luck involved as a result. Their historical ability to drive shot attempts, scoring chances, and so on is well above the talents of any other teams. But this comes at the expense of their ability to get to “quality” shooting areas as regularly as their opponents might. While the Kings are traditionally near the very top of the league in possession numbers, their scoring-chance numbers are usually a little bit lower than that. They're still dominant in terms of both overall and high-quality chances, but less so than the other numbers might suggest.

Since Dec. 22, 2011, when Darryl Sutter took over and the Kings became a juggernaut, the team has a score-adjusted corsi percentage of 55.9, ahead of Chicago and Boston by 2.0 and 2.9 points, respectively. During that time, they have the second-lowest shooting percentage in the league (just 7.1 percent at 5-on-5) and the second-highest save percentage (.929). So clearly, something is happening in close to the net on both ends of the ice that depresses goalscoring. Part of that is team talent (i.e., Quick is an above-average goaltender playing behind a well-above-average defensive team), part of it is systemic.

But as it relates to this year, it seems things have gotten a little extreme. The possession numbers are holding steady at that familiar old elite level. High-danger chances have been a little more up and down but, as you might expect, generally pretty strong. The share of goals they're scoring, though, has fluctuated wildly.

So the question is, why? Obviously as long as they're controlling the tempo and hanging onto the puck. All things being equal, you wouldn't expect to see a team go from a goals-for percentage of 40 and then a month later be up around 70, especially as the team's share of high-quality chances dipped briefly below the break-even point.

You would generally expect an inverse correlation between a goaltender's save percentage and the number of high-danger chances the team in front of him allows, and that has certainly been the case in this recent run for the Kings. Earlier in the year, though, that wasn't always the case. While hockey is random in a lot of ways (there are so few goals that even those from well outside traditional scoring areas dramatically impact save percentage in short samples), it should follow certain recognizable patterns. Mostly, it has here.

At the other end of the ice, though, there's almost no relationship with high-danger chance generation and shooting percentage. For instance, over the last 10 games, the Kings are shooting 8.4 percent, their highest number of the season in any 10-game stretch. But their high-quality chances per 60 is just 10.2, one of the lowest numbers seen for the team all year (which would be one of the lowest in the league if stretched over an entire season, about the same number as Minnesota). Part of it is that the teams they play don't generally get good goaltending (New Jersey sans Schneider, Montreal, Dallas, Vancouver, Buffalo, Anaheim twice, etc. are all average or worse) but they've gone through similar stretches of high shooting percentages without the benefit of a more permissive netminder, and generating more chances per 60, without the bump in goals to show for it.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by this sort of thing any more, because the Kings tend to score so few goals at 5-on-5 in general. They have the same number of goals as the Arizona Coyotes, but more shots than the Pittsburgh Penguins. Again, there's clearly something in Sutter's systems that depress shooting percentage, because it's a talented team that shoots a ton, but they've almost always in the bottom third of the league in goals-for. 

And as such, we can only draw one conclusion about why the Kings do and do not have success during any given stretch: When Quick is on, they're unbeatable. When he's off, they struggle. And when he's mediocre they usually win anyway because of all that favorable shot volume. The Kings almost never outperform bad PDO, and turn into a superhuman winning machine when Quick performs well. That's not true just this season, but historically.

At issue here is that Quick isn't one to stay in one lane as a goaltender. He goes through runs of 10, 20, or even 25 games in which he's absolutely lights out. Since he came into the league, the average 5-on-5 save percentage  is a little more than .922. Quick's career number is .925, which is to say he's been marginally above average, but generally pretty valuable to the Kings. You would expect as much, given that the Kings are so good at keeping opponents away from him. 

But if you look below, you'll see that even when he's roughly the league average, not even at his career number, the Kings win 60 percent of the points in his starts. That's a pace for 98 points on the season, which is a solid enough number. Since the league went to the loser point system in 2005-06, no team with 98 points has even come close to missing the playoffs. So when Quick elevates his game, as he has done on many occasions, it's lights out. And when he sinks below average, well, the Kings “inexplicably” miss the playoffs.

The fact that he can consistently deliver .910 save percentages, well below the league average, and still expect to win more often than not is telling. That's the extent to which the Kings can rely on pushing their opponents' outfield players around the rink to more or less where they want them to be.

Again, Quick is a perfectly adequate goaltender for what the Kings need, and maybe even a little better. With that having been said, however, his occasional descents into sub-mediocrity do create issues. They've been few and far between this year, and that's why the Kings have led the division almost all year. That's also why they'll probably continue to do so through the end of the season.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.

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