Los Angeles Kings find groove at their normal pace (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick deflects a shot during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Los Angeles Kings seem to do this all the time.

Every year, they seem to only be an okay team for basically the entire first half of the season, and then around game 60 or so, they take off like a coiled spring. Like clockwork, really 

Since Darryl Sutter took over the club in 2011, the Kings have won two Cups, and gone to a Western Conference Final (in the lockout-shortened season, when things got very weird). This, clearly, illustrates that they are a juggernaut come playoff time. And, as we know more anecdotally, their annual run to deep in the playoffs tends to start pretty early.

 Put another way, in three full, 82-game seasons they've gotten to Game 60 looking decidedly average, or even poor. Last night was Game No. 60 for Los Angeles and they lost to the Senators (a bit of a surprise), and held steady at 70 points for the year, sitting eighth in the conference. Even after this huge recent winning streak, they're still only on about a 96-point pace.

Last year, they were similarly unexciting, with 70 from 60 and holding a sixth-place seed in the West. In their first Cup year, 2011-12, they were even worse: 66 points and in eighth place, on a pace for just 90 points on the year.

We know what happened next in each of those two seasons: In 2013-14, the Kings went 14-6-2 down the stretch, finishing with 100 points. In 2011-12, they were 13-6-3, and ended with 95. Their points pace improved by 15 and 18 points over an 82-game season, respectively. (Which just goes to illustrate how even if you turn into a brutal, take-no-prisoners killing machine, it's still almost impossible to improve whatever playoff position you hold after 60 games.)

Obviously it remains to be seen what's going to happen over the final 22 games of this season, but if the past few weeks have been any indication, this is a team poised to go on yet another run to terrifying levels of dominance. Certainly, they're now bolstered by the addition of Andrej Sekera, who adds a legitimate defensive depth threat that did not exist in the absence of Slava Voynov. If rumors of Dean Lombardi seeking additional pieces beyond that prove true, things could get very troublesome indeed for the rest of the Western Conference and, potentially, whoever is unfortunate enough to make the Cup Final.

But the thing is that the numbers have shown all year long the Kings were a dominant team in the NHL even during Games Nos. 1-60, when they didn't seem to be playing to the level we've come to expect. Here are three tables to illustrate just how good, but at least a little unlucky, the Kings have generally been for the first three-quarters of every full season in the Sutter era.

Photo via Ryan Lambert
Photo via Ryan Lambert

The possession numbers are always there. Always. The worst they've been at this point is fourth in the league, and that's important to keep in mind because while it's possible to sustain a high PDO for somewhere between 50 and 60 games, you can't rely on that to bring you success over 82. But if your process is that fundamentally sound — and the Kings' is, both in terms of suppressing opponents' shot attempts and generating their own — you're going to win a lot of games. Los Angeles currently ranks fourth in the league in attempts per 60 minutes (behind only the Islanders, Chicago, and Dallas), and allows the second-fewest (behind Detroit, tied with Tampa) 

What's also interesting, though, is that it's around this time of year that Jonathan Quick tends to start “elevating his game.” Take this chart from 2011-12, when Quick was just about the only reason the team didn't totally crater because it wasn't scoring at all. You can see he basically turned into Henrik Lundqvist (that year's Vezina winner) for most of February and again into late March and early April.

Photo via Ryan Lambert
Photo via Ryan Lambert

And then again last year, Quick went from a tough January in comparison with Tuukka Rask to an excellent March and April once again (though here Rask was better, and starting from a higher baseline).

Photo via Ryan Lambert
Photo via Ryan Lambert

Now, I'm not arguing that Quick is “clutch,” necessarily, because I don't think you can just “flip a switch” and become a guy who's playing a roughly equivalent level to the future Vezina winner. But clearly there is something that happens with the Kings that makes late February through the end of the season a laughable waltz to Trophy Town. This is an acknowledged trend, but goaltenders and outfield players alike really can't just say, “I'm going to try harder now,” and do it.

This seems like a mix of luck and what I can only assume is the team doing even more to suppress shot quality. You once again have to compare the first 60 games to the final 22 in these situations, and indeed, this is another way in which Los Angeles controls the games so much more expertly at this point in the season.

Over the first 60 games in 2011-12, their CA/60 was a very respectable sixth in the league. Over the final 22, it dropped to just 45.2, which was second-best. Same deal with scoring chances: 19.7 against per 60 in the sprint to the finish, after 25 against in the first three-quarters of the year.

Last year, their scoring chances against per 60 was unchanged at 22.6 in both situations, but the number of shots being allowed dipped to 45.9 from 46.7.

You can probably attribute this to a few things, not the least of which is the fact that this is around the time of year when Dean Lombardi goes out and gets someone who makes a major impact, which then shuffles guys down the depth chart and makes the Kings as a whole harder to play against. In 2011-12 it was Jeff Carter, acquired on Feb. 23, after the Kings had played their 61st game. Last year it was Marian Gaborik, acquired March 6, after Game No. 63. This year it's Sekera, acquired after Game No. 59, at the least.

It's a really interesting way of doing things that not many GMs use. The team very rarely dips into free agency to find guys who help in this way, and would apparently rather give up assets (usually prospects a few years away from the NHL, plus first-round picks that are going to be in the late 20s anyway) to get guys they feel they can control over a considerable length of time. Most hockey people now think there's basically no way the Kings don't re-sign Sekera, which tracks with what they did to get Gaborik under contract. The thing is the Kings can basically get people to sign for less money than they're probably worth because they can guarantee them Cup competition for at least the next few years, and few other teams are in that ballpark.

I'm really not sure what to make of the top of the West. Chicago without Kane is a very unknown quantity, as is Nashville. What about Anaheim, how for-real are they with that PDO and all those bounces for the whole of the season? Can St. Louis still hack it with that goaltending? All questions that don't necessarily have certain answers.

Meanwhile, here's one for which we have a better idea of the answer: Can the Kings keep this up? History suggests that there really isn't much in the way of this team's success from Game 60 on. They take having a good process to its logical extreme at this time of year, in each of the last two seasons when they played more than 48. Two can be written off as coincidence, but three's a trend.

And with as many wins as they have in the last few weeks, they're already trending in the right direction.

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

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