What’s Driving The LA Kings’ First Line? A Lot Of Good Things, That’s What.

Anze Kopitar has led the Kings in scoring in 14 of the last 15 seasons. Since January 1, he’s done exactly that once again.

Now, with the addition of Kevin Fiala to the roster, things might come down to the wire here in the 2022-23 season. Fiala’s 68 points are the only total that currently ranks ahead of Kopitar’s 61, though with Fiala’s current injury and Kopitar’s offensive form, certainly wouldn’t call that race just yet.

Since the 1st of the year, Kopitar has 32 points (15-17-32) from 27 games played, leading all Kings skaters in that span. His only teammate with more goals in that span has been Adrian Kempe, who has 18. Kempe has been Kopitar’s right-hand man throughout the course of the season and in the new year, they’ve been close to unstoppable. Both players are +14 in that span and their linemate, Quinton Byfield, is +9. Plus/minus on its own doesn’t tell you much but in this case, we’ll call it a grander representation of an ongoing trend.

Since their first full game together, which just so happened to come on January 1, the LA Kings’ top line has been on the ice together for 21 goals for, compared to just eight against at 5-on-5. Among lines with 300 or more minutes together this season, the Byfield – Kopitar – Kempe line ranks third in the NHL in terms of percentage of goals controlled.

While their offensive production has been outstanding – at 4.19 goals-per-60 – they’ve been just as in control defensively, also ranking third in fewest goals allowed per/60. What are numbers without comparables though, right?

Kopitar and Kempe have played together for the majority of the season, closing in on 800 minutes at 5-on-5. Nearly 500 of those minutes have come without Byfield as the third member of that line and the goals for total reads 18, while goals against reads 20. Though their expected metrics were on the right side of 50, just about every category you can measure is better with than without. The same can be said the other way, with Byfield’s totals much stronger in his current role than his totals prior to.

Assuming you believe Money Puck and Natural Stat Trick, from which all data was referenced, that’s pretty damn good. While totals of that staggering of a level are rarely sustained over the course of the full season, it’s also not a coincidence that since those three players have been put together, beginning in the third period in Colorado back in late-December, all three players have seen their chances, production and suppression metrics improve. When the back-end numbers are better and the raw production is better, you just might have something.

So, what is working?

This was obviously not a line that anyone had down in their notebooks when the team broke camp back in September. Kopitar and Kempe as a player pairing, sure, but Byfield began the season as the third-line center and had some early success between Alex Iafallo and Gabe Vilardi. Sometimes, though, it’s something different than you might have expected that lends the most success.

Kopitar and Kempe have forged a relationship on the ice over the last three seasons, with Kempe going from a part-time running mate to the clear option at RW1, with his 35 goals a season ago cementing his place in that spot. Kempe and Byfield have some similarities in that they both have good length, they both skate well for their size and both players are willing to play with intensity at the right moments. They’ve also bought in defensively, which is paramount when skating on a line with the Selke Trophy-winning Kopitar. Todd McLellan has detailed each of those traits as reasons why the line is working.

Offensively – With Juice and Byfield, they’re long, they’re aggressive and they skate very well and that’s a really good complement to what Kopi does. So, they now understand that and they can play knowing that. They [bring] intensity on the forecheck to loosen pucks up and keep plays alive.

Defensively – Kopi has always been excellent defensively but those other two have really committed to it as well. They break up a lot of plays and get on the other way and it makes them a dangerous line.

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

On Kopitar, McLellan put it simply after practice the other day – “Kopi is playing some of his best hockey of the season right now.”

When Adrian Kempe was asked a similar question, about how high a level Kopitar is bringing at the moment, he laughed at first before answering that Kopitar has been playing at the same, elite level for 17 years. Accurate math and accurate words. As he added, the puck is going more for both he and Kopitar right now. Personally, I think that brings more attention to what Kopitar is doing. It’s funny, because you start to see Selke chatter picking up for Kopitar on social media, but it’s coming at a time when his offensive production is as high as ever. It shouldn’t take goals to shine a light on all of the little things that Kopitar does, has done and probably will do. If that’s what it takes though, then he’s getting what he deserves.

When it came to asking Kopitar the same question about Kempe, the most consistent thing about the answer was the laugh before answering. Kopitar said that Kempe’s been hot for the majority of the season, not just right now, and if you’re hot for that long a stretch, are you really hot anymore or just productive? He called it a safe bet anytime you can put the puck on Kempe’s stick. 18 goals from his last 27 games has him on pace to not only reach last season’s 35-goal total, but exceed it. He’s currently on pace for 39 goals over the course of 82 games, more than justifying the contract extension he signed in the offseason.

So. Kempe knows that Kopitar is doing what he’s done all year. Kopitar knows that Kempe is doing what he’s done all year. What about Byfield? He’s certainly putting some of the pieces together.

We know about Byfield’s combination of size and speed. That package is matched by very few players around the NHL. We just didn’t always see it utilized in game situations until recently and now we’re seemingly seeing it every night.

“He’s had the tools, he’s just using them more and he’s more confident in those situations,” McLellan said of Byfield. “He’s on his feet more, he values a lot of those little things now that don’t end up on the score sheet. Eventually, and it is happening now, he’s starting to end up on the scoresheet. It’s amazing how it works.”

By Byfield’s own admission, when he played in the OHL for example, he didn’t need to value those other things. He was so much better than just about everyone else in the league that he could score close to two points per game without them. In the NHL, though, there are a lot of guys who scored that easily in the OHL. At this level, everyone’s bigger, everyone’s faster and everyone’s better.

It’s something that everyone has to learn and everyone has to go through. Byfield has spoken about how much he’s trying to use his physicality, his tenacity and his aggression to open up space for his linemates. When asked blanket questions about what he’s trying to do well, he touches on those things before he touches on goals or assists. As McLellan said, those will come and are already starting to. He’s doing a lot of things well right now, the points are starting to flow and it’s showing up in the success of his line.

Continued production down the stretch and hopefully into the postseason will be important. If what’s working right now continues to happen, you’d have to think it will.

Kings are back on the ice for practice this morning at 11 AM. More to follow as the team gets back on the ice to prepare for tomorrow’s matchup against the Islanders!

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

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