EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – The Los Angeles Kings have been known in recent years as one of the top puck-possession teams in the NHL.
Ask general manager Dean Lombardi about how they’re able to drive the play in the opponents' zone and he won’t give you much. It’s L.A.’s secret sauce if you will. The Kings have led the NHL in 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage in the last three years per Puckalytics.
From 2012 onward when the team won its first Stanley Cup, the Kings have been in the top two in the NHL in CF%. If a top player goes out, they almost always seem to bring in a guy who can also keep the play in the opposition’s zone.
How have the Kings created a puck-possession assembly line?
The answer starts in July.
At Kings development camp here at Toyota Center, players skated up to the blue line and then pushed the puck wide over and over again for about 15 minutes. It looked poetically beautiful but it was not simply for aesthetics. This was drilled into the future Kings’ heads and muscle memory – to not let the opposition swoop in and take the puck from them.
“We talk about keeping the puck away from defenders' sticks and (scout) Mike Donnelly does an exceptional job of that and you really have to break it down with these kids and take them back to basics really,” said director of player development Nelson Emerson. “It’s the stance, it’s where they hold the puck.”
While many teams use this time on ice to work on power skating, footwork, stickhandling and other hockey minutiae, the Kings have a grand plan. It’s not solely about individual hockey skills with them. There’s an attempt to fit players into their overall on-ice style.
“We stress with some of the fundamentals we do in where to carry the puck and how to carry the puck, how to penetrate without getting the puck stripped,” said development coach Mike O’Connell. “That all requires changing some of the ways we do things and not exposing the puck and trying to keep it away from the opposition while you have it. You just can’t tell them, you have to show them over and over and over again and try to get them to understand the importance of it.”
The Kings don’t put a lot of public emphasis on their annual prospect rite of passage. The timing of when guys are on ice isn’t super publicized – possibly because they don’t want to show all their cards on how they guide their young players towards the ‘Kings Way.’
Though some of L.A.’s core was acquired from other teams, homegrown players such as Anze Kopitar, Kyle Clifford, Dwight King, Jordan Nolan, Tyler Toffoli, Drew Doughty and Tanner Pearson all made their NHL debuts after Lombardi became the team’s GM in 2006. All except Nolan were on the plus side of shot attempts differential via the NHL’s enhanced stats page.
“It’s very teachable,” said director of player personnel Mike Futa. “I think it’s one of the specialties of our development team.”
In a lot of ways, players are like trained animals. If you push something into their brains often enough, it will eventually become muscle memory. Futa remembers a time when forward Wayne Simmonds, since traded to the Flyers, came to the Kings and had an incredible amount of trouble keeping the puck away from defenders. With a lot of work, his habits were changed.
“Simmer used to expose the puck constantly for a guy who was strong, but wiry strong,” Futa said. “Our development team, it’s one of the biggest part of their curriculum is teaching puck protection. Whether it’s getting athletic, etc., it’s incredible how they teach it and how much pride they show in it.”
But there has to be a natural element of this as well. Is it something that can be scouted? If so, the Kings try to project how a player’s puck possession will look after the player works with coaches in the organization.
“We write about it in our amateur report ‘Great natural puck protection’ or ‘This guy is a puck protection dream for our development,’” Futa said. “We look at all that stuff. It’s unique but they’re very good at it.”
It’s more than just the individual player. It’s the whole team. For the Kings, teammates need shake free of defenders. And when they accept a pass they do so with Gordon Bombay-like soft hands.
“(Patriots QB) Tom Brady is a tremendous passer, but those players have to get open,” O’Connell said. “If those players don’t get open I don’t (care) how good a passer he is, he’s not going to find them. So we really stress that these players need to get open as well. “
As for the players, do they get it? Is it something they’ve thought of before? Some of them are too young to truly understand.
“I like defenseman Drew Doughty, I aim to be like him,” said 2015 second-round pick Eric Cernak.
Considering the fact that Doughty, the No. 2 pick in 2008 by the Kings, was the leading NHL player in shot attempts differential last year, I’d say that’s a good start.
-- Celia Balf and Morgan Wolf contributing
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