Jason Lewis writes about the Pacific Division for Hockey Prospectus and writes for HockeyBuzz. Follow him on Twitter @SirJDL
Depth in the modern NHL is always key. You simply cannot rely on too few people producing too many points and get away with it. Case in point, the Anaheim Ducks of 2015-16. Without Perry and Getzlaf driving the offense, the Ducks have stumbled to a 3-7-2 start. They have only scored 17 goals thus far, which is lowest in the NHL.
In small sample sizes, you actually can get away with too few people scoring all your goals, but once they go silent it can be a blackhole of low scoring games and losses. In that regard we turn to the neighbor of the offensively stunted Anaheim Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings.
After going 0-3-0 to start the year, the Kings ripped off seven wins in a row. They have now settled into the middle of the Western Conference standings with an 8-5-0 record after 13 games. They continue to be a dominant possession team, but a quick perusal of the individual team statistics presents a few curious things. The most curious of all has to be the lopsided nature of their goalscoring.
Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter have had masterful starts to the season. Carter leads the team in points with 13 in 13 games. This includes six goals, which is second on the team. In front of him in goals, but behind him in points lies Toffoli, who has 9 of the former and 11 of the latter. Without these two, the L.A. offense would be practically non-existent. The team as a whole have scored 31 goals. Forwards have accounted for 28 of those. Here comes the hammer, Carter and Toffoli have accounted for 15 of those 28. Yikes. That’s more than half the goal production for the entire forward group coming from two players. Between 10 to 11 other forwards the Kings have mustered just 13 goals. If you eliminate the next highest goal scorer on the team, Anze Kopitar with four, the Kings have nine goals outside their top three scorers (9 players. One each!)
The main question probably is, is this normal? You see a lot of lines get very hot to start the year and dominate boxscores for different teams, and the Lucic-Carter-Toffoli line have certainly carried the mail. However, is this a normal distribution of goal scoring across a lineup to start a season?
Let’s look at some distributions for teams in 2015-16 so far.
And now that we have a good look at a couple distributions, let’s look at the Kings
Pretty lopsided right? Of the teams randomly selected, most hover around 50 percent in depth scoring. You get a lot of goals from your top three, but the rest of your forward group still makes up at least half of your scoring. In certain instances we see some extremes. Take Dallas for example. They have an unreal amount of top heavy scoring coming from Seguin and Benn. However, Seguin and Benn are on a different planet right now. Dallas can get away with (at least for now) scoring like this because of the extreme talent of those two players. This is the same kind of thing we have seen with Anaheim in the past. Getzlaf and Perry are just that dominant that they can carry teams for an entire game and an entire season offensively. Other teams have no such luxury, like the Kings. To put it in extremely rudimentary examples, if the three top goal scoring players were a line and they got shut down, a team that would regularly score three still may score two or one and a half (the half could be a fortuitous bounce, a fourth line chip in goal, etc.). That is not the case with the Kings currently. You shutdown Carter and Toffoli, and you are essentially eliminating over half of their offense. Include Lucic and his production into this and you are looking at maybe two-thirds of the Kings offense gone. Again, you look at a team like Dallas and say, “Oh it’s simple, just shut down Benn and Seguin.” Collectively every coach in the NHL says, “Good luck with that.” If you ask a shutdown unit go take out Carter and Toffoli, it becomes a more realistic approach to a game, especially if you have good defensive forwards.
Chicago executed this in their 4-2 win over the Kings back on November 2nd by gluing Jonathan Toews, Artem Anisimov, and Patrick Kane to Carter and Toffoli. The result was a victory for Chicago, a dreadful night in the face-off dot for Carter, and one of their lowest CF/CA60 differentials on the season (Carter -3.6, Toffoli 3.6). From a possession standpoint, the Kopitar line did very well that night, but Joel Quenneville took a calculated risk in putting a lesser shutdown line of Shaw, Desjardins, and Kruger on them. While Carter and Toffoli got the top two shutdown units, the Kopitar line saw the second and third. The result was a fairly competitive yet solid victory for the Hawks. Carter and Toffoli remained off the score sheet entirely, and Kopitar logged the only even strength goal for the team amongst forwards. Also worth noting was the interesting defensive balance Quenneville used in putting Svedberg and Seabrook against Kopitar, with Hjalmarsson and TVR against Carter.
Flashback to October 22nd when the Kings took out the Sharks 4-1 in San Jose. DeBoer, with last change, set up Kopitar against Joe Thornton, Pavelski, and Matt Nieto. That, at the time, was the top line for the Sharks. This left Carter with Hertl, Ward, and Marleau. This very night Carter registered a CF60 rate of 86.3, while Milan Lucic and Toffoli registered a 91.2 and a 76.3 respectively. They also accounted for both Kings goals at even strength. DeBoer treated Anze Kopitar’s line as the top line and was punished for it. Now teams with limited depth or poor shutdown forwards are probably going to struggle against the Kings regardless, but in games where the talent is pretty evenly matched, these decisions are key.
The Kings scoring depth is strikingly limited at the moment. They are still a great possession team, but they are very top heavy from a scoring perspective. Dustin Brown looks incredibly snake-bitten, Marian Gaborik has struggled to find form, and Anze Kopitar is somewhere in between the two (And a group of rotating wingers like Lewis and Pearson) trying to get them going. While Kopitar is still a great possession center (57.81 CF%), his line is offensively stunted. Until teams start taking advantage of that and playing the Carter line like it is the Kings top line, ala Chicago, the games of 77 and 73 finding the score sheet will continue. It is only a matter of time until Brown, Gaborik, and the rest of the Kings’ cast starts scoring with more regularity. Until then it should be paramount for teams to takeout the Carter-Toffoli-Lucic line and take a chance at beating the other 40% of the Kings offense at even strength. While the top line of the Kings isn’t scoring, the sheer thought that they might has deterred a lot of teams from taking their top shutdown units away from them and placing them on Carter. Even when not scoring, depth can still prove to be a key element. Without Kopitar, Carter would have all eyes on him. Still, it would probably help if some others chipped in moving forward. If teams start treating the Carter line like the top line, things could dry up quickly offensively.