13 wins and 29 points through 20 games. Not a bad place to be one quarter into the season.
Over the three seasons prior, the Kings posted between 21 and 23 points in each season through their first 20 games, with last year’s 11 victories their most in that span. The Kings had a shot at 30 points through 20 games for just the second time in franchise history, heading into Wednesday’s eventual defeat against Washington, but even with that result, consider this to be one of the best first quarters in franchise history.
The 13 victories are the third most in a season-opening 20 games in franchise history, behind only the 1990-91 Kings and the 1980-81 Kings. The Kings finished the first 20 games of the season with a goal differential of +30, finishing just one goal shy of the 90-91 squad for the best in Kings history. While franchise rankings are nice, franchise rankings don’t get you into the playoffs. NHL rankings do, and the Kings have set themselves up amongst the league’s best in several categories, as they sit between games 20 and 21.
Wins (13) – T-7
Points (29) – T-7
Points Percentage (.725) – 3
Goals Scored Per Game (3.85) – 1
Goals Allowed Per Game (2.35) – 1
Goal Differential (+30) – 2
Power Play (20.0%) – T-16
Penalty Kill (89.4%) – 1
A lot of 1’s in there, aren’t there?
Highlighting a couple of these points specifically, what’s kind of funny about this section is that we can look back at some of the preseason question marks and how, at this point in the season, not only have those question marks not been question marks but they’ve actually been strengths.
If you read a preview of the 2023-24 LA Kings, much of the external skepticism centered around goaltending and the penalty kill.
On the goaltending front, Cam Talbot has come in and stabilized the position, posting one of the league’s best statlines here in the early goings. After what he called an inconsistent start, Pheonix Copley has turned in back-to-back strong performances and the Kings have yet to lose a game he’s started in regulation so far this season. With a team save percentage of .913 at all strengths, the Kings rank sixth in the NHL in that area through 20 games. Remember that statistic from the 50 Facts article entering the season? From opening night through the trade deadline last year, the Kings allowed 41 more goals than they would have with a league-average save percentage. That was likely a division-winning swing in numbers. We all thought, well what can this team look like with league-average goaltending. Well, currently we’re seeing what they look like with well above average goaltending and the answer is leading the NHL in terms of fewest goals-allowed per game.
Regarding the penalty kill, the transformation has been apparent and obvious. The Kings made some changes to their systems and their structure, a couple of changes to personnel and through the first 20 games, they also lead the league in penalty kill. Regarding the personnel, Trevor Lewis has been a first man over the boards type of player, which is terrific, and Andreas Englund has contributed as well. Large in part, though, the biggest turnaround has come in net, with the Kings ranking second in the NHL in shorthanded save percentage, up from 31st a season ago. Cam Talbot is a part of the personnel changes and his shorthanded numbers have been excellent. As have Pheonix Copley’s. A strong start in that department, with the personnel and system clicking to perfection.
Then, there’s other end….well, it’s really more of the middle of things, is the power play. Expectations for the Kings on the power play have been sky-high, when considering where the team finished last season, as a Top-5 unit in the NHL. Here, at 20 games, the power play has been far from a disaster, but it also hasn’t reached the heights of a season ago. The Kings, at first, had an adjustment period to the personnel look that now consists of four, left-shot forwards on both units. That adjustment is largely behind them, but we’ve reached a stretch with some really, really good power plays and others that don’t generate either goals or momentum. It’s been a prime area of focus in practice as of late and something we’ll continue to see moving forward, whether it be on the ice or via video. If we’re talking about the power play, which ranks dead middle of the NHL, as an area of focus, things have gone pretty well.
“We’re looking for improvement,” Todd McLellan said of the power play. “A 20-percent power play isn’t that bad and we can’t be over-adjusting things and over-tinkering things, they have to be able to use some of their instincts, but there are some things that we think we can do better in certain areas and we’ve addressed them.”
Regarding individuals, for the most part, the bigger names on the Kings have delivered as needed.
Ranking 1, 2 and T-3 on the team in scoring at the 20-game mark are forwards Kevin Fiala, Adrian Kempe and Anze Kopitar. If you took a bet at the beginning of the season, and parlayed those three names together, the odds probably wouldn’t have been all that steep. Those are the guys you expect to see up there and all three have produced, even if in different ways than you might have expected. You might expect to see Kempe and Kopitar with reversed stat lines, with Kempe at 10 goals and Kopitar at 12 assists, but nonetheless, two guys who are where you expect them to be, production wise. Fiala’s production has been consistent and now his overall game is matching the gaudy offensive totals.
If you’re looking for two surprises, how about Trevor Moore leading the team in goals and Quinton Byfield ranking second on the team in assists. Moore had a really tough second half of last season, impacted by injury, but has hit the ground running here this fall. With 11 goals from 20 games, he’s already got the second-highest total of his career and is on pace to shatter his career-best mark of 17 from the 2021-22 season. Amazing what a full bill of health, a lot of hard work, a small change to the curve of his stick and a little bit of dad strength will do. On the topic of shattering career highs, Byfield has 16 points through 20 games played. He’s one goal and six points shy of his career-best marks and we’ve got 62 games to go. I think a step forward for Byfield was seen by many, but the size of the step he’s taken has probably exceeded all expectations. He’s an LW1, both through his play and his production, and that’s a massive win for the Kings.
Production levels across the board have been relatively consistent for most guys, with some exceeding what was expected of them. Carl Grundstrom is fourth on the Kings in goals, while Jordan Spence is fourth on the Kings in assists. While goal production from the blueline has been a bit tapered as of late, the Kings are still middle of the pack in assists and points from their defensemen, as a part of an NHL-leading total in goals-per-game. So, even with a bit of a drop there, the overall output has still been high.
McLellan indicated that he and the coaching staff have done individual evaluations for all players through 20 games. While he didn’t give us the exact report cards on everybody, it’s a mark in the season that the staff is using as much as we are. That leads to direct conversations with players on either maintaining an exceeds expectations level of play, or correcting a bit of a disappointing start.
“We have done 20-game evaluations, where we’ve sat as a staff and talked about each of the players,” McLellan said. “Have they met expectations, are they just what we thought they would be or are they a little disappointing. We made some mental notes on it to try and push some guys on it and try and keep others at an upper level.”
The second segment of four here this season takes us beyond the new year, into 2024, but doesn’t take us quite through the NHL All-Star break. The 41-game mark falls right as the Kings conclude their longest roadtrip of the season, a six-game swing of the Southeast throughout the first couple weeks of January. While it’ll be hard to maintain some of these paces throughout the course of a full, 82-game season, the Kings have established a strong base that will set them up for success in a lot of areas, even if certain paces do fall a bit.
Game 21 coming up tomorrow, as the Kings host Colorado. Full preview to follow, before the team heads East for four games, beginning on Tuesday in Columbus!