INSIDERS. A good afternoon to you. The LA Kings took the Toyota Sports Center ice shortly before 10:00 a.m. this morning and aligned thusly:
–The vitals: Jonathan Quick was the first goalie to leave the ice and is expected to draw the start in net. In eight career appearances against Carolina, he’s 5-3-0 with a 2.37 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. Nikita Scherbak has not yet arrived and didn’t skate, nor did Ilya Kovalchuk, who is expected to miss approximately four weeks after undergoing an ankle bursectomy. Paul LaDue, who played more than 15 minutes Friday for the first time this season, is a projected scratch, but “that may change,” according to Willie Desjardins, who noted that a player currently in the lineup is “banged up” and will draw some attention before the game as to whether they’ll be able to go. Wait for the song, yada yada yada.
–Their vitals: Carolina did not hold a morning skate as Staples Center plays host to a Lakers matinee against Phoenix, so there are no updated lines and pairings. Before departing for Los Angeles, the Hurricanes activated defensemen Brett Pesce (lower-body) and Haydn Fleury (concussion) and assigned defenseman Jake Bean to Charlotte. “Hopefully they’ll both be ready to go,” Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour told Hurricanes Senior Web Producer Michael Smith. They’re healthy. The structured Hurricanes, who have built a dynasty in the Corsi Hockey League, again lead the NHL in possession, clocking in at 57.0 CF% entering tonight. “They’re quick, really explosive, lots of stretch passes. They put up lots of shots. They’re a team known for that, for volume,” Desjardins said. “But real quick transition, lots of long passes.” This will be Los Angeles’ first look at the second overall pick from this past June, Andrei Svechnikov. The 18-year-old Russian has six goals, 12 points and a plus-one rating while averaging 14:07 of ice time. 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner and current Hurricanes captain Justin Williams ranks fourth on his team, just above Svechnikov, with 14 points (4-10=14). Carolina will wear its red jerseys, Los Angeles its road whites.
–The Kings’ penalty kill is hurting. They’re 19 for their last 32, having lost games on back-to-back nights when they were unable to will out a late-game kill, and now rank 29th in the league with a 72.7% rate that’s difficult to fathom. From 2010-11 through 2017-18, Los Angeles and St. Louis are tied atop the league with a cumulative 83.9% rate. The last time they were even below 80% was in 2007-08.
One area that Los Angeles could make a concerted shift to improve, according to Alec Martinez, is being more aggressive. “I’d rather be aggressive and get beat by good plays than be passive and get beat by good plays. I think that we’ve talked about that as a group, and hopefully things turn around going forward here,” he said.
“I think if you look at Edmonton, what hurt us was that shot in the middle. I think the game winner, Carts was standing right there and it just goes right through his legs on the ice, and with all the traffic in front, that’s a pretty tough save for Quickie to make because there’s at least three or four, maybe more, bodies in front of him. I think that we’ve addressed some of that, but at the end of the day, it’s just not good enough. We just have got to be better at it.”
It probably isn’t a coincidence this skid has coincided, almost entirely, with Tanner Pearson’s trade to Pittsburgh, and the injuries to Trevor Lewis and Pearson’s replacement, Carl Hagelin. Both are among the most experienced and capable penalty killers in the league. But Los Angeles often used an eight-man forward rotation in their kill last season, and as the reigning Jennings Trophy winners and a team whose identity has forged through strong defensive play, there should be other players equipped to handle additional minutes in that role. Desjardins wasn’t looking at personnel as the main cause behind the fall, however.
“The thing that’s a little bit ironic is how good the penalty kill’s been in previous years, and we haven’t changed anything structurally-wise, or personnel-wise, either,” he said. “So, all of a sudden, why are we giving up so much? We do have to look at it a little harder. We’ve got to analyze exactly what’s happening. Dave Lowry’s done that. He’s looked at it, he ran it last year, too. He has a good handle on it, but you’re right, we have to be better in that area.”
Perhaps we’ll see a kill with more aggression tonight, ready to pounce on mishandles and mistakes.
“I think we can do a better job of being more aggressive at our own blue and not allowing entry and then having a mentality when you see one guy, see guys’ numbers, see a bobbled puck, sometimes if a guy is on an entry, a guy can kind of be isolated,” Martinez said. “Recognizing that and kind of jumping up and trying to take away his time and space when he doesn’t necessarily have the best outlet. I think when one guy jumps, we should all be jumping. So there’s quite a few different areas that you can be aggressive and I think that that’s something that when we’ve had success in the past. I want to say we had a top five PK for the past 10 years … and I think that that’s what we were doing when we were successful.”
–Los Angeles is an older team, but that average age is coming down a bit through injury and acquisition. When soon-to-be-23-year-old Nikita Scherbak arrives, he’ll join a group that tonight will feature on its bottom six a 22-year-old (Kempe) centering a pair of 21-year-olds (Wagner, Luff), and veteran Nate Thompson centering a 22-year-old (Amadio) and a 23-year-old (Rempal).
These younger players have combined to accrue 217 NHL games, 184 of which come from Adrian Kempe and Michael Amadio. The NHL is not a developmental league, though, so these players, especially away from Staples Center, are facing some challenging situations against world-class players.
“Yeah, it’s harder on the road for sure to get the match-ups, and I thought they did a good job,” Desjardins said. “Like, sometimes we had to go down to three lines to kind of load up that third line a little bit to watch those match-ups, but overall, guys played hard. Luff and Kempe got hard match-ups all the time. Sometimes they were with Thompson, sometimes they were with Wagner. I thought the guys did a good job with that.”
That they did. Kempe’s line often drew Connor McDavid’s line last Thursday – both Matt Luff and Austin Wagner saw more five-on-five time against McDavid than any other Edmonton forward – and were the recipients of Vancouver’s skilled Goldobin-Pettersson-Boeser combination last Tuesday.
When not drawing the likes of McDavid and Elias Pettersson, they were forechecking to get the team on the scoreboard Friday night against the Flames as Kempe finished off a pass from Wagner on a good hustle shift for his third goal of the season.
“We split them up early [in Calgary], but I had liked that combination. It’s scored in the past too for us,” Desjardins said. “They’ve got two guys that go pretty hard on the wing, Kempe’s a pretty good skater, and it’s nice when you’re a young line. When you’re all young, it’s not like you have to give anybody the puck, You don’t feel like you’re looking at one guy, so they kind of just work as a unit a little better. They’ve been good.”
–More to come shortly on Nikita Scherbak. Essentially, this is a low-risk, no-cost move to bring in another young player to provide depth whose speed and skill-based package aligns with what the team is looking to find and cultivate. There are some shortcomings in his consistency and play without the puck that he’ll strive to improve amidst the change of scenery, so they say. More to come on the team’s first ever Everett Silvertip later today.
–I’ve joked with Cal Petersen that he’s becoming a good broadcaster with the number of times he’s joined us on the LA Kings Live post-game show recently. He’s down to earth and intelligent, and that comes through in this feature story by Deborah Lew of LAKings.com.
–Tonight’s officials are referees Dean Morton and Chris Schlenker and linesmen Devin Berg and Jonny Murray. Staff Sargeant Michael Polmanteer of the United States Army will perform tonight’s anthem. Let’s talk soon, Insiders.
— nikita scherbak (@nikscherbak) December 2, 2018
–Lead photo via Gregg Forwerck/NHLI