You have to credit the Kings for somehow looking blander without Darryl Sutter. Somehow, John Stevens never got the team to put together a consistent game for the playoffs, aside from game two where the Kings were consistently doing nothing but defending. For a guy who was supposedly “nicer” to the team, they didn’t seem to give a shit about playing for him.
Stevens also ran into problems at times this year with zone entries, where the team had no speed entering the zone, or it was one player taking on the entire defense if opponents sat back. His forecheck system of one forward chasing the defense while the other two drop back and wait for a mistake was wildly unsuccessful for this series. The conservative approach prevented Vegas from counter-attacking frequently, but the Kings never had the puck or put any real pressure on the Knights in their own zone.
The breakouts deserve a memorial because they have been dead all year. The play: A stretch pass from one winger to another while three other players stand around doing nothing was easily read and broken up, while on the occasions that opponents didn’t try and break up the pass in the neutral zone it instead led to the aforementioned zone entry problems. Any forecheck applied had the Kings passing the puck sloppily because of how static the setup was.
There were some instances of the Kings turning to the old approach of cycle the puck around the boards and wait for a chance to develop. The ol’ Sutter system. It worked better than anything else. Except that the Kings fired pucks wide, straight into Marc-Andre Fleury with zero traffic, or couldn’t settle a puck to save their lives. Part of that was Vegas under Coach Goofus played a really sound defensive game. Part of that was the Kings looked flatter than day old beer. Either everyone went to the front of the net or no one did.
A brief player by player breakdown:
Adrian Kempe! Played okay and was the one player whose legs worked. Except on defense where he was a total mess BECAUSE HE SHOULD BE PLAYING WING AND NOT CENTER.
Tobias Rieder! Who? Oh him. He is going to go into his RFA contract negotiation in a very bad spot.
Anze Kopitar! Tried to do too much because no one else was doing anything.
Kyle Clifford! Did all you could ask for a guy whose job is to stir shit up.
Alex Iafallo! In the last two games he was all over the ice and was the only forward creating turnovers. He was nowhere in game one, and had that translate into not playing game two.
Trevor Lewis! Back in the overtime in game two he blocked a shot without a stick and was sorta hurt. It would have been easier to just change.
Dustin Brown! Missed a lot of open looks and passed to no one frequently.
Nate Thompson! Hit people.
Michael Amadio! Played two minutes all series.
Tanner Pearson! Undeservedly got shit this year for not producing enough points even though he was playing great. Then in the playoffs he produced no points and played awful.
Torrey Mitchell! Please just leave now.
Tyler Toffoli! Also missed a ton of open looks.
Jeff Carter! Hasn’t looked great since returning from having his leg cut off.
Dion Phaneuf! Tired. Slow. He made me feel like that because he was fucking useless.
Christian Folin! Not his best stretch of four games, and whiffed on a few plays up ice that translated into rushes against.
Jake Muzzin! Wasn’t up to speed clearly. Made a few good stretch passes, and made a few boneheaded plays.
Oscar Fantenberg! Played pretty well overall but when he missed a play it was devastatingly bad and it unfortunately happened at really really really bad times.
Drew Doughty! Good defense all series. Horrific offense all series. Also got a bogus suspension.
Alec Martinez! Played pretty decent defense and had a ton of minutes. Some trouble in the defensive zone with the puck. Actually carried the puck up ice himself a few times, which he should do more.
Paul LaDue! Got exposed defensively pretty frequently.
Kevin Gravel! Got burned in overtime.
Okay, a few words more about Quick than everyone else. He’s gotten a lot of shit a lot since 2012 where he posted insane numbers and dragged the Kings into the playoffs and then to a Cup. The health has been a concern. The rest of the team improved in 2013 and 2014 so he wasn’t the only guy doing something productive. He occasionally fucked up a play from time to time. But that happens with every goalie in the game. It happens with every player really. Except of course it’s a billion times more obvious with a goalie because their mistakes are on the scoreboard. Quick has for the most part though provided really strong goaltending since he’s been called up nearly a decade ago.
In this case, Quick stood on his damn head all series. He had zero support. He gave the Kings a shot in game one and two, despite the fact they had no business being in either one of those games. The defense choking in critical spots was all he got in return.
It was a strong finish from him after carrying the Kings for stretches earlier this season before his body started breaking down again around the All-Star break. He picked his game back up after getting some rest, which is sooooooo shocking when you’re on pace to play 78 games. Stevens didn’t learn too much from any of Sutter’s mistakes it seems.
Quick has seemingly had a tendency to play better the more action he sees in a game, and he saw plenty during the series and season alike (he faced more shots per game this season than any other previous season). And like this whole season, he was up to the task. His team did him rotten in the playoffs after relying on the goalie to get them there (along with Kopitar and the year he had) in the first place. It was the complete opposite of the 2012 playoffs for Quick this time.
The rest of the Kings for their meager four playoffs game meanwhile threw blind passes around, and were held to the perimeter for their shots. While there is a lot of noise over Fleury posting an inflated set of numbers through the series, Los Angeles wasn’t exactly providing the most strenuous test. There were a few big stops, but Vegas out chanced L.A. by a 2:1 margin.
On that point, if Stevens is back next year as anything other than as an assistant coach it would be negligence by the Kings’ management. Having your shots on goal allowed jump from around 24 to over 30 while having your possession metrics bottom out is damn near catastrophic. Sure, Dustin Brown started scoring but the team system is a mess. Having your second best defenseman get arrested (2015) and your workhorse goalie die (2017) is enough of a wrench to screw with your team for a while, and hey? Maybe the problem wasn’t just Sutter running a boring system? Changes were needed, but it’s apparent Stevens doesn’t have the answers, as much as I or anyone else likes him.
For the rest of the team personnel, locking down Dion Phaneuf for three more seasons while having a hit over five million bucks seems concerning especially with how slow he looked down the stretch. The three goals in four games petered out to four points in his last fourteen. The depth at center remains a problem, as Adrian Kempe is still more suited to be a winger despite how much they pencil him in at the pivot. Drew Doughty is set to be a free agent next summer, and if he wants to win...well, the Kings better hope next year is good. The core of the roster is not getting any younger with Brown, Kopitar, Carter, and Quick all on the other end of 30.
It was a series the Kings could have won. Sure, the injuries to Derek Forbort and Muzzin, along with the ridiculous suspension on Doughty did not do the Kings any favors. But stale play and an inoperable system gave them no real shot, despite losing every game by a single goal. So instead they got swept.
Next season could have Gabriel Vilardi on the roster, which would be a huge help at the 3C spot (finally) if he makes any impact. A better system could turn the Kings back to being a possession team with more speed. The Pacific isn’t the monster from 2014 that it once was so playoffs are certainly feasible.
In the meantime, 2018 goes down as another frustrating chapter since the 2014 season.