In push to raise ceiling, call for more regular secondary scoring sounded

Though the LA Kings made significant strides to improve their offense well beyond the overall rising tide of league-wide scoring, there were still clearly separated tiers of production that depicted a divide between Anze Kopitar from Dustin Brown, and those two from the rest of the field.

Among the forwards, there were Kopitar’s 92 points, followed by Brown at 61. Behind him, Tyler Toffoli posted 47, Tanner Pearson 40 and Adrian Kempe 37. From March 1 through the end of the playoffs, Toffoli, Pearson and Kempe combined for eight goals and 20 points in 66 games.

There were still prominent contributions from that trio down the stretch – Pearson’s forechecking and net-crashing was apparent, as was Kempe’s growth in physical play and battling – and the team also relied on a productive defensive corps that combined for 189 points, the most by an L.A. blue line since 2000-01, but there simply wasn’t the amount of production to allow the Kings to really sustain consistency late in the season. After the three-game winning streak that bridged Ferbuary and March, the team never won more than two games in a row the rest of the way, and though they deserved better than a four-game sweep at the hands of the Golden Knights, still only scored three goals in their four-game series.

And it’s becoming clear, from looking at the numbers above and listening to what hockey operations figures have said, is that while the top players produced at high levels, the team will need more from its secondary contributors and will make off-season moves with that focus in mind.

“I think our secondary goal scoring is a concern and was in the playoffs, for sure,” General Manager Rob Blake said. “I think some of our bigger players in Kopitar had tremendous years. There’s two ways to look at that. There’s personnel, and there’s a continual push on the emphasis of offense and how we’re going to create that from the D-zone, the neutral zone and on into offensive zone. So, yeah, definitely things we will look at and continue to build on.”

As Blake noted, there are tactical and personnel-based means to strive to enhance the scoring push.

“It’s not a lot different from when we sat here probably a year ago and we said the same thing,” Blake said. “We’re going to continually make adjustments to be quicker and to provide more offense, and we’re going to keep stressing that again.”

Tactically, there will be the continued push to add more speed and skill to the lineup, a process that many of the “heavier” teams have begun to undertake in recent off-seasons. There’s a key difference between individual speed and playing fast, but Boston, St. Louis and San Jose – three teams who’ve been known for playing a harder game – kick-started that process perhaps a year or so before Los Angeles concertedly began that transition last summer. Anaheim, it appears, will be the latest team to try and catch up. More on speed and pacing will be shared in upcoming stories.

Personnel-wise, esteemed top prospect Gabriel Vilardi will be given every opportunity to make the club. Adrian Kempe posted 37 points as a 21-year-old rookie and should continue to grow into a wider role. Keep in mind that the team had also held internal conversations last summer and early in the year that weighed the possibility of trading from their defensive corps to acquire a forward in an effort to boost their offense. In the end, the team raced out to a promising start offensively, and no trade was made.

More will also be asked of the likes of Pearson and Toffoli, both of whom signed free agent contracts last off-season and engineered stretches of production but did not factor positively into the postseason series. This is in line with the continued need for the younger, wider core to supply the secondary offense and inherit more of the leadership reins vacated by the likes of Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene, Willie Mitchell, Justin Williams, Mike Richards.

But it’s not only Pearson, or Toffoli, or Kempe or the assortment of younger players that will be called upon to provide that secondary scoring. Trevor Lewis, who had etched out a career-high in goals, was providing the necessary peripheral production during the regular season but was not the same player in the playoff series after suffering two injuries over the final two months of the season. He’ll be called upon to pick up where he had left off earlier in the year.

“Some of the younger guys, I mean Mods (Michael Amadio) got a little bit of a taste this year and I think he showed spurts of really good poise and puck-moving ability, which if you can find that in a player that can play in your bottom six and still be that, it’s still hard to find those types of guys,” Dustin Brown said. “I mean you look at a guy like Bonino and what he did for Pittsburgh and now he’s in Nashville and those are the types of guys that really make it hard for other teams, especially as you go deeper into the playoffs.”

In the end, the team will be lifted by the players’ abilities to maximize their skill sets. With Toffoli, that happened in spurts, particularly earlier in the season when he raced out to 17 goals through December 30. With Pearson, a career-low all-situational 8.3% shooting percentage put a cap on his goal output despite a career-best +2.6% CFRel and his traditionally solid all-around efforts.

“If you’re going to have a team that can sustain success in tight games and key moments, you’re going to need more than just your top line to score,” John Stevens said. “I think Jeff going out early in the year was an adjustment for them. We tried different people with Shoresy and then Adrian ultimately there, so I think the Carter situation might’ve affected those guys a little bit, but you talked about teams here in the past, those were young players on a team here that was ready to win, and now those guys have kind of moved up in terms of responsibility on your hockey team. They’re good kids and they’ve shown an ability to have success at this level before, but there were inconsistencies in different stretches there in terms of production, and I think we need to get back to it with those guys. I think those are going to be two guys that are going to be key for us to become a better offensive team and have more consistency in our game to be able to win tight games. Those guys are 200-foot players that play in all situations and have both won before. I think they’re guys we can lean on heavily but they’re guys that we’ve got to help become better players.”

Rob Blake, on Christian Folin, Torrey Mitchell and Kevin Gravel’s free agent status:
We’ll get into that over the next little while here. Gravs hit the Group VI free agency by not playing in enough games. We’ll get into a little bit more of the player detail on that. I do think a guy like Paul LaDue, Michael Amadio, some of these young guys that you got to see down the stretch are pushing for spots in our lineup, also.

John Stevens, on scoring depth:
I thought the top end of our lineup was really tremendous all year in terms of leadership and what they did for our hockey team. I thought some young players – the Iafallos and the Kempes, for instance – but it’s no different looking at your body. The strength of your body is the core is the middle, right? So, you need to have top, you need to have bottom, but it’s all tied together with the people in the middle, and I think that’s where we have some work to do. And I’ll refer back to the summertime when the free agency was around, and we just stayed with a lot of people who were here. We think we have a lot of people here that can make us better. I honestly believe that. We’ve got some work to do, and that’s our job to help some of our players becaome better players. I think there’s an awful lot of good around here. We have people in our lineup that know how to win, but there are some areas of our game that need to improve. We want to have secondary scoring in our lineup. We want to be able to shut the game down but still score key goals and create more offense than we did certainly at the end of the year and in the playoffs, but that philosophy hasn’t changed. We’re going to continue to try and get better in those areas. There are some things we’re going to look at to see if we can do differently to create more of those situations, but at the end of the day, it’s about winning and it’s about winning at the most important time of the year.

Stevens, on whether scoring depth can be addressed by getting more out of individuals:
We’re going to look at all of it. For sure there are some individuals that can be better players for us, and some of it’s consistency. Inconsistency in your team and inconsistency in your players doesn’t work. You end up losing at the wrong time of the year. We had some players go through long stretches without scoring, but we’ve also had some players who had career years – many of ‘em. Kopi, Brownie, Drew, Muzz, those guys all had career years, so obviously there’s a style of play that’s working for them. I think it’s a combination of both, so we’re going to go through a deep analysis right now of or own team – goals-for, goals-against, where they came from, first period, second period, third period, what happened. We’re going to take some time to see some trends around the league. There are some teams that had a lot of success this year. There are some teams in the league that maybe we think play a similar style to us that took advantage of some things to create more offense and still be really sound defensively. We need to take a look at that and see what those trends are and see if those are some things that can help us. We’re going to become really good students of the game and figure out ways to do exactly what we’re talking about here: help our players become better players and help our team become a better team that’s going to sustain success through this time of the year.

Anze Kopitar, on how closely the team is to recapturing its caliber in which it won Stanley Cups:
We’re not far off. Maybe it looks a little bit more on the outside than it actually is. But I think we still have the pieces in place, obviously. Like I say, we have definitely the best defenseman in the world playing for us and if not the best goalie, at least top-three in the world. And those are obviously pretty big pieces, so you know, everybody is still here that was here in ’14 and almost in ’12 for that matter, too. So we’re not that far off. It’s going to take a lot of work, yes. But we’re not that far off.

Kopitar, on Adrian Kempe and Tyler Toffoli’s goal droughts, and what he’d say to Kempe:
Well I think that’s a learning process, really. In all honesty, I didn’t realize it until I saw it after the series that [Kempe] hadn’t scored in a couple months or something. So, I mean just work at it, really. Stretches like that are going to happen. I’m no stranger to that. You’ve just got to work at it and see one go in, really. I think there’s a few guys around the league, not just on this team, that go through stretches like that. So, it’s pretty common, maybe even more so with the younger guys, but yeah. I mean just really play the game and know that breaks are going to happen and are going to happen, but just always try to get out of it as quick as you can.

Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire

Lead photo via Harry How/Getty Images

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