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Game Preview #57: New Jersey Devils vs Los Angeles Kings

Having lost playing mostly well against the Montreal Canadiens, the Devils take on a hot Los Angeles Kings team who are also coming off a loss. Learn more about tonight’s matchup in this Devils game preview.

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NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Los Angeles Kings
Pheonix Copley: the hot hand in LA
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils versus the Los Angeles Kings. Kings SBN Blog: Jewels From The Crown

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN, BSW

How Are the Kings Going Generally?

The Kings are a very good team this year. By the standings, they sit second in the Pacific division, fourth in the Western conference, and 10th in the NHL. MoneyPuck gives the Kings a 91.9% chance of making the playoffs and a 5% chance of winning the Cup. The Athletic has these numbers at 98.8% and 1%, respectively. These opinions differ somewhat, but both sites have the Kings as a strong, top-ten team.

In the shorter term, the Kings are 7-2-1 in their last ten, good for third in the NHL over that stretch. Granted, over that span they only beat one team currently in a playoff position (Florida hold the second Wild Card in the East), but nonetheless, they are winning games and are confident. They lost their previous game to the Minnesota Wild, playing well but getting goalied, so will be desperate to not drop two in a row.

Per NaturalStattrick, across the season, in the run of play, at 5-on-5, the Kings are 20th in goals-for percentage, 8th in corsi-for percentage, 12th in xG-for percentage, and 9th in high-danger chances-for percentage. Despite having very strong underlying metrics, the Kings’ results are below average. The reason? They have had some of the worst sequencing luck in the league this year: 30th in PDO, 22nd in shooting percentage, 30th in save percentage, all at 5-on-5. They have been especially unlucky in high-danger situations, being 29th in high-danger shooting percentage and 30th in high-danger save percentage, for a high-danger PDO bad for 31th. This is highly encouraging for the Devils, as they will need a lower relative proportion of chances and especially high-danger chances to get good results against this LA side at 5-on-5.

Thankfully, even during their recent, successful ten-game stretch, these sequencing trends persist at 5-on-5: 20th in shooting percentage, 27th in save percentage, 23rd in high-danger shooting percentage, 26th in high-danger save percentage. Considering their rates, strangely, despite winning at a 750% points percentage, the Kings are 21st in goals-for percentage at 5-on-5. Being 11th in corsi-for percentage, 16th in xG-for percentage, 6th in high-danger chances-for percentage, this is seems confusing for the Kings: compared to their entire season, the only real difference is their points-percentage and their goals-for percentage, where their points have gone up as their goals percentage has gone down.

The explanation lies at special teams. Over the entire season, the Kings are second in powerplay goals for per 60, and 27th-ranked in penalty-kill goals against per 60. Over the last ten games, they are 1st and 10th, respectively. These results are significant enough to completely save their goals-for percentage: at all strengths, the Kings have gone from 20th in all-situations goals-for percentage, to 4th. What we can conclude here, then, is that the Kings are (results-wise) a below-average even-strength team, but are a wagon on special teams.

The following is a graphic from MoneyPuck showing how many penalty minutes teams draw and take per 60 in all situations this year.

Evidently, the Kings are pretty much league average in both categories. This is in terms of penalty minutes, however. The following, from HockeyViz, shows the number of minor penalties drawn and taken per team this year.

Clearly, the Kings both take and draw amongst the most minor penalties per game this year. The Kings, you would infer, know that they are very good at special teams, and thus do their best to increase the number of minor penalties in a game, both for and against. Note that offsetting minors are excluded, which only strengthens this point: ignoring offsetting minors, there are on average roughly 3.2 + 3.3 = 6.5 minor penalties in LA’s games. In their last 10 games, the Kings have had 2.8 powerplays per game, whilst their opponents have had 3.2. So both are slightly lower. More granuarly, however, in games that the Kings have won, these numbers are 3.3 and 3.6, whereas they are 1.7 and 2.3 in games that the Kings have lost. What this all says, then, is this: keep the Kings at 5-on-5, and good things will happen, but watch out on special teams.

In both of the above penalty-proneness figures, the Devils are below average, so that will offset some of the LA penalty-seeking. But the point remains that, at 5-on-5, the Devils have to exploit the Kings, because on special teams, they will be haniging on for dear life.

I will now look in more detail at the Kings roster. The below depth chart from The Athletic is representative of what the Kings have to offer, given that they have no significant injuries. I will be referring back to it as I look through some of the Kings players.

The Kings Offense

As can be seen, the Kings have made a deliberate effort to spread out their scoring in the top six. Their best player this season — Kevin Fiala — is playing on the third line, runner-up Viktor Arvidsson is on the second. Summing up the game score value added for each of these three lines gives:

0.5 + 1.8 + 1.1 = 3.4

1.3 + 1.6 + 2.0 = 3.9

2.6 + 0.6 + 1.0 = 4,2

Which is an extremely equitable distribution (divisional-rivals, and an extreme case, the Edmonton Oilers, for sake of comparison, have 11.8, 6.2, 1 on their top three lines). Of course, as highlighted above, the Kings haven’t been great at 5-on-5, but it is worth noting that they have three lines of approximately even strength (and a fourth line considered above-average), making them deep, despite these struggles.

LA’s one-two punch down the middle is one of the better defensive units in the league. Kopitar is an ex-Selke trophy winner and Phillip Danualt was brought in after his Montreal Canadians team went to the Stanley cup final on the back of him shutting down every opponent’s top-line. They are both flanked by wingers in Kempe and Arvidsson at 0.75 point-per game seasons, and Byfield and Moore being young players with great potential.

Fiala is the main guy for the Kings, however. The only player above a point-per game pace with 1.05 — Kopitar is second-best at 0.88 — he leads the team in point shares and game score value added. On the powerplay — as elaborated, the Kings’ greatest threat — he leads the way with 21 powerplay points. He, along with Kopitar and Kempe, have led the way in the last ten games for the Kings, all three having 14 points.

The Kings Defence

Drew Doughty is the main guy here. Check out his player card from The Athletic

As can be seen, after having down years in 19/20 and 20/21, having game score value added of 0.3 and 0.8, both below average, he has rebounded terrifically, now being a top 10% defenseman in the league. His eleven million dollar contract will perhaps never provide full value, but he is doing a lot of good things for the Kings. After previously being known more as a strong offensive defenseman, his defensive metrics are great this year (in addition to strong offensive outcomes). His TOI and usage are also very high, demonstrating that he has been playing massive minutes against tough opposition with below-average teammates. Expect to see him out there often tonight, and — to the extent that Kings coach Todd McLellan can impact matchups, LA being the away team — expect to see him out against Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.

Alongisde Doughty, Mikey Anderson and Matt Roy lug big minutes short-handed, with all three above two minutes of short-handed icetime per game. Sean Durzi is more of an offensive guy, quarterbacking the second-unit powerplay and not touching the ice when the Kings are down a man. As a whole, The Athletic — from the depth chart above — have the Kings as a slightly-above league average defensive unit. Other than Doughty, these are all pretty strong, slightly above average guys, but nothing that would inspire fear in the opponent. The third pair is not great, so that is something the Devils can look to exploit. That being said, Edler and Walker average only 15 minutes a night, apiece, so not a large amount of time to capitalise on.

The Kings Goaltending

As discussed above, the Kings have received really bad save percentage at even strength, especially so on dangerous chances. Early in the season, Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen struggled terribly, and the Kings suffered as a consequence, being far down the standings, compared to what their expectations were, when Petersen was finally sent down to the AHL at the end of November (nobody claimed him on waivers). Pheonix Copley entered the picture, and has been the Kings main guy since, going 17-4-1 since coming in. Having played eight of the Kings last ten games, there does not seem to be any kind of load management, with them just going with the hot hand. Since the Kings have had a night of rest since their last game — which was one of Copley’s four regulation losses — I expect to see him in net against the Devils.

There are some mixed stats about Copley. His save percentage of 0.904 is slightly below the league average of 0.906. Per HockeyReference, his quality start percentage of 0.583 isn’t amazing, but it is above the league average of 0.53. Regarding goalie point shares (GPS) — the number of points contributed to a team by a goaltender due to his individual performances — Copley is 39th in the NHL with 3.4. However, he has only played in 24 games, which is fewer than many of his peers. The following figure shows the GPS per game-started of goalies who have played regularly this season. They are ranked in descending order by total GPS: Hellebuyck has the highest GPS this year, followed by Sorokin, whilst, amongst these goalies, Merzlikins has the lowest, followed by Demko.

What the line through the bars shows is the trend amongst these goalies, in terms of GPS per game started. For instance, compare Hellebyck to Ullmark. Hellebuyck does have the highest GPS with 10.6 compared to 9.3, but he has also played more games, with 44 to 35, meaning, on a per game basis, Ullmark contributes more points to his team than Hellebuyck does. Copley, then, in red, is below this line: he has a reasonably high GPS, but this is actually more due to playing more games than his peers, relatively, than by virtue of playing exceptionally well in those games. Compare this to Wedgewood for instance, who has the same GPS, but has started eight fewer games.

What this all suggests, then, is that Copley is roughly a league average goalie, with a great record, which he has not really contributed to, given the number of games he has started.

Devils-Specific Considerations

Injuries and Illness

This was a couple days ago now, the morning of the Montreal game. Puckpedia has him as day-to-day, so hopefully this isn’t too serious. I was sad to see this news, as I am really rooting for Blackwood. I remember a couple of years ago when he broke out, he really was one of the only bright spots on a terrible Devils team, and I still have faith that he can be that guy. His play recently has, to my eyes, been really encouraging, and so it is such a shame for him to take this step back. All the best, Mackenzie.

Akira Schmid played very well with the Devils previously this year, also with Blackwood out. If the Devils have to go to him once or multiple times in the coming days/weeks, I am not too worried about that, as I have faith both that Schmid can play solid hockey (he has 71.4% quality starts percentage in his 7 starts this year) and that the Devils skaters can adjust their game, and play for the kid.

This has been going around, that some or many of the Devils are playing ill. Marino was an especially notable case of this against Montreal. And as John pointed out in his recap of that game, it clearly impacted him. I hope that the boys have been able to rest up, and hopefully feel a bit better. Having lost to Montreal, it would really suck to lose a second in a row.

Answering the Bell

Miles Wood, after criticism, both by myself and most other Devils fans, scored the game winner against Winnipeg, and picked up his first powerplay point of the season on Mercer’s goal against Montreal. Good for Miles: after being benched against Pittsburgh, he clearly realised that he had to step up, and step up he has: he was the best player on the Devils in terms of individual on-ice 5-on-5 xG for percentage, and was well above 50% against Montreal with 63%. Obviously this is a small sample space for us to be claiming that Miles is back, but it is certainly encouraging. Hopefully he can continue this play.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of tonight’s matchup? Am I exaggerating the point that the Kings, more or less, are a special-teams team, who can be taken advantage of at 5-on-5? What of the players I highlighted? Fiala, Kopitar, Doughty, obviously, but did I miss someone? Someone you are particularly afraid of? And what about the Pheonix in net? He’s obvously got a great record, but his stats suggest that this might be despite his play, rather than because of it. Are you of the same opinion, or am I doing him a disservice? Let me know in the comments, and thank you for reading.