If they had not missed the playoffs this year, the LA Kings would be battling the Chicago Blackhawks for the title of the NHL’s foremost current dynasty. Since taking their big step forward in 2011, the Kings have been the best possession team in the league and have won two of the last three Stanley Cups prior to this season.
So how did they go from a perpetually mediocre club to one of the best in the league?
The Big Gain
2009-10: 50.8% corsi
2010-11: 52.1% corsi
2011-12: 55.2% corsi
LA was a good possession team in 2009, but they rapidly became one of the very best by the end of 2012.
Like most teams in the big gainer series, the Kings selected a couple of superstars in the NHL draft who formed a quality nucleus to build around. Unlike, say, the Blackhawks, however, there was a longer latency period for the Kings between picking Anze Kopitar (2005) and Drew Doughty (2008) and then making the big gain (2011).
That’s due, in part, to a slower player acquisition process that occurred in those intermediary years for LA. The Blackhawks in their “big gain” had a large collection of kids who more or less matured simultaneously upon the arrival of Kane and Toews. In contrast, Los Angeles built up many of their supporting pieces between Kopitar’s selection in 2005 and the year they took the big step forward 2011.
Kopitar’s entry draft was the start of several outstanding drafts for the Kings. That year they picked Kopitar (11th overall) and Jonathan Quick (3rd round). In 2006, the Kings grabbed Jonathan Bernier (1st round) and Trevor Lewis (1st round). In 2007, it was Thomas Hickey (1st round), Wayne Simmonds (2nd round), Alex Martinez (4th round) and Dwight King (4th round). In 2008 and 2009, they also collected Drew Doughty (1st round), Slava Voynov (2nd round), Andrei Loktionov (5th round), Brayden Schenn (1st round), Kyle Clifford (2nd round) and Jordan Nolan (7th round).
Altogether, that’s 14 regular NHLers, including a handful of difference makers, in the space of five drafts. Not included here is the signing of free agent Jake Muzzin (drafted by the Penguins) in 2010 and the acquisition of Jack Johnson via trade in 2006.
Johnson is a name of interest because, like some of the draft picks you see listed above, he wasn’t actually a key member of the Kings big gain. While the organization filled out its depth through the draft admirably, LA also traded away some of the assets you see here to further improve the roster.
In June of 2011, Dean Lombardi dealt Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn for Mike Richards, giving the team another legit two-way pivot behind Kopitar. Eight months later, the Kings would reunite former teammates Richards and Jeff Carter when they acquired the latter for Jack Johnson. That particular swap not only added another quality goal scoring centre to the team, it banished one of the worst possession players on LA in Johonson. It was addition through addition and through subtraction.
Add in the swap for Justin Williams in 2009 for Patrick O’Sullivan and 2nd round pick (ouch) and you have three essential trade acquisitions that led to their big gain.
Of course, the season the team traded for Jeff Carter was the same year they replaced Andy Murray with Darryl Sutter mid-season.
Via War on Ice, here’s how the Kings possession improved in 2011-12 thanks to those few, key moves:
Here’s how the Kings roster evolved from 2009 to the end of 2012.
- Frolov – Kopitar – Smyth
- Brown – Handzus – Williams
- Parse – Stoll – Purcell
- Ivanans – Halpern – Richardson
- Doughty – Johnson
- Scuderi – O’Donnell
- Greene – Jones
- Brown – Kopitar – Williams
- Gagne – Richards – Carter
- King – Stoll – Penner
- Parse – Lewis – Richardson
- Doughty – Mitchell
- Scuderi – Voynov
- Greene – Martinez
Jake Muzzin would become a regular on the Kings blueline by 2012, but you can see even before his arrival how much things had improved before he arrived. In addition, LA’s forward centre depth went from okay to well above average thanks to the arrivals of Richards and Carter. The maturation of guys like King, Lewis, Clifford and Fraser (which helped bump Raitis Ivanans from the roster) didn’t hurt either.
The Kings are a bit of an anomaly in this series in that their big step forward came with almost zero noteworthy free agent signings. Willie Mitchell helped when he was inked in 2011, he’s the only marginally noteworthy UFA you can point to in the Kings ascension over this period.
Instead, the club was built through the draft, trades and a coaching change. Here’s the main items of their transformation:
– Drafted two superstars in Kopitar and Doughty
– Chose a number of supporting players over five drafts who either filled out the depth chart or were dealt for improvements
– Made a trio of big win trades, including Justin Williams, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter
– Traded away possession sink-hole Jack Johnson
– Stepwise improvement in coaching by going from Andy Murray to Darryl Sutter
Item one above is pretty much a requirement. As we move through this series you’ll see having a core of elite players becomes a theme. It’s the other stuff – how the organization fills in the blanks between these players, like the Kings did here with their drafts and trades – that is of interest to us. It’s what separates the big gainers from the clubs like the Edmonton Oilers, who toil perpetually in mediocrity despite boasting elite talent.
The Big Gainers Series
Part 3 – Los Angeles Kings