In the first round the Canucks will face an American born Vezina nominee goaltender with an unconventional style…
What can go wrong?
Throughout their mostly sordid history, the Canucks have been unable to buy a break. Now that Vancouver’s hockey club ices a perennial power house, a team that has won two consecutive President’s Trophies and nearly every individual award a player, General Manager and Head Coach can win – that streak of bad luck continues. Since the lockout, there have never been two more difficult eighth seeds than the 2010-11 Chicago Blackhawks, and the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings. Of course, in the two seasons that the Canucks have a legitimate shot at hockey’s holy grail, they’re dealt an outrageously tough test right off the bat…
Yes, the Kings are that good. They may look like they’re lacking in back-end depth (which is true), and certainly they’ve struggled to score goals this season, but the stew Daryl Sutter is brewing down in Hollywood still possesses some deadly ingredients.
Read past the jump for our detailed advanced stat preview…
The Los Angeles Kings rely primarily on the stellar goaltending of Jonathan Quick, who, on top of having the single most bad-ass goaltender name in the history of hockey, excels while playing an unconventional style. He’s impossible to beat low, and he’s extremely aggressive with his positioning and his arsenal of poke checks. He’s fun to watch, and while he played poorly in the final two games of the regular season, and in last seasons playoffs – he’s having a career year and has often seemed impenetrable in this campaign.
In front of Jonathan Quick, the Kings ice a physical squad that dominates puck possession, even while they struggle to score goals. The Kings play a low-event game, and allowed the fifth fewest shots against per game of any team in the league this season. While the Kings have scored with increased frequency since they acquired Jeff Carter from Columbus, their extremely low on-ice shooting percentage (significantly below 7%) indicates to me that they play a conservative offensive style.
My impression from having watched them play well over ten games this season, is that they shoot from anywhere and in particular shoot at the opposition goaltender’s pads more than your average NHL team. The Kings are a club that look to produce offense off of rebounds and through traffic, and they don’t bother to put themselves out of position on the rush in order to set up fancy "high-quality" looks. While the Kings do ice several skilled players who can beat you off of the rush (Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter especially), most of their roster is better suited to battling for gritty goals in the trenches (Dustin Brown and Jason Williams especially) and for the most part that’s what they look to do.
The Kings’ "shoot-first, ask questions later" approach to the offensive side of the puck may serve to inflate their possession totals somewhat (while deflating their team on-ice shooting percentage), but make no mistake – this Kings side is an extremely effective puck-possession group. According to Broad Street Hockey’s "score adjusted fenwick rankings" they’ve been the best puck possession club in the league since the deadline and are the fourth best this season overall (the Canucks a eighth).
With the score-tied, Los Angeles has controlled 54.5% of on-ice Fenwick events (the gold standard of predictive metrics, as far as I’m concerned), which, is a totally dominant number and is significantly superior to Vancouver’s 53.1% score-tied Fenwick. When you combine the Kings ability to consistently dictate play, with their stellar goaltending, and their absurdly effective penalty-kill – it becomes clear just how big a threat they pose to the Canucks in the first round…
The Season Series
In four games this season, the two teams split the results, however, one of Los Angeles’ victories came in the shootout while both of Vancouver’s wins game in regulation. Basically, Vancouver narrowly won the season series by taking five out of a possible eight points, while the Kings managed four. That’s neither here nor there, however, because regardless of whether or not the Canucks "technically" won the season series, the Kings were absolutely dominant over the course of those four games.
In the four games between the two teams this season, Los Angeles outshot the Canucks at even-strength 108-82, and managed to control 52.8% of Fenwick events. The Kings also averaged nearly seven more 5-on-5 shot attempts per game than the Canucks did.
Those results aren’t inflated by the Kings "shoot from anywhere" approach either, Los Angeles controlled the "quality chances" in the season series as well, handily out-chancing the Canucks 56 to 41 at evens, and controlling 18 scoring chances to the Canucks 15 with the score-tied. Los Angeles won the special teams battle during the season series as well, killing off 15 of 18 Canucks power-plays (83.3%), and capitalizing three times on sixteen power-play chances (18.75%).
By every measure, Los Angeles deserved better from the four games in which they faced the Canucks this season and the only reason the Canucks managed to get five points out of those contests was because of Luongo, whose play was unconscious. Bobby Luu posted an absolutely ridiculous .962% even-strength save percentage against L.A. this season (Quick posted a .951 at evens against the Canucks), which, is a totally sustainable number.
If the Canucks can’t find a way to stop the puck possession bleeding in the postseason series, it’s going to be extremely difficult to get past the Kings. There is some hope that the Canucks were "turtling" this season, and that we’ve yet to see them really show up to play yet. While I have some difficulty believing that, let’s hope that’s the case, because all of the numbers that I trust favour the Kings…
Darryl Sutter is a quality coach, who has had a decorated career, and did well to get the Kings back on track when he took over for Terry Murray this season. That said, Vigneault is one of the leagues best, and with a team as versatile as Vancouver’s – he should be able to throw some difficult looks, and some fun tactical curve balls at Los Angeles. The man behind the Canucks bench is one of Vancouver’s major advantages going into this series.
This series is also where the addition of Sami Pahlsson should pay dividends. In the first three meetings of the season between the Kings and the Canucks, Murray and Sutter soft matched the Kopitar line against the Sedins, and while the Sedins managed to produce offense against the Kings this season, Kopitar’s grup handily controlled possession.
In the fourth and final meeting between the clubs, however, Vigneault hard-matched the Pahlsson line against Kopitar’s group, which, allowed Henrik and Daniel to face Mike Richards (who has had a surprisingly poor debut season for the Kings) and allowed Ryan Kesler to wreck havoc on the Kings bottom-6. The head-to-head ice time sheet, frankly, makes it look like Sutter wasn’t even trying to win the game…
If Sutter doesn’t figure out a clever way to reconfigure his bottom-six so to deal with the ability Vigneault’s deployment strategies to create mismatches, the Kings will be in trouble. At the end of the day, coaching just doesn’t matter as much as the on-ice talent, but in a series that is likely to be extremely close and hard-fought, every edge matters.
Jonathan Quick will be a Vezina nominee this season, and that’s well deserved. Posting a .929% total save percentage in 69 starts is pretty ridiculous, and while he blew up somewhat more than you’d expect from an elite workhorse – he gave the Kings a good chance at winning over 62% of the time. That was essential for a team that struggles as much offensively as the Kings did this season.
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Roberto Luongo will start game one, and provided he plays well, he’ll likely start every game in the first round. That’s especially likely considering the schedule, the Canucks and Kings will play three games between Wednesday and Sunday, and then have two and three days off respectively between games four and five (*if necessary). So long as Luongo stands tall, he’ll be in the Canucks net through this series…
Luongo had a strong season, posting quality starts over 60% of the time, though, he continued to struggle with consistency. He also had a relatively tough time short-handed, and while that doesn’t mean very much to me analytically, it’s why his overall save percentage is significantly lower than his save percentage at even-strength. Five on five, Luongo remains a force to be reckoned with.
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There’s no doubt about it, the Kings have the "edge" in net going into the series, though of course, over a small sample of games anything can happen. Frankly, the Canucks don’t just need Luongo to be good if they’re going to win the series, they’re going to need him to out-duel his counterpart, Jonathan Nimble, at the other end of the rink.
While Luongo has a reputation for less than stellar play in big situations, Jonathan Quick has had "big game" issues as well over the past several years, and as we can see from the respective blow-up percentages – both goalies have had consistency issues this season. Which goaltender will bend and which one will break? The answer to that question could well decide the series.
The Canucks managed to replace Ehrhoff’s offense seamlessly this season and while they remain somewhat thin on the right side, and only have three defenseman I really trust in difficult minutes – the club’s blueline group remains deep and effective.
To begin the series, the Canucks will deploy a top pairing of Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa, while the club’s two best possession defenseman, Dan Hamhuis and Chris Tanev, soak up defensive zone starts and drive play forward on the second pairing. In practice yesterday, the Canucks had Aaron Rome and Sami Salo skating together as the third pairing.
I’ll be curious to see whether or not Vigneault sticks with these pairs for the most part (and then goes to Salo-Hamhuis to play big defensive zone starts in the third period of close games), or whether or not the club reunites Bieksa-Hamhuis at some point in the series. Bieksa and Hamhuis are one of the leagues best two-way defensive pairings, they form a hybrid shutdown unit (they’ll suffocate the oppositions top-players, and they can produce offense) that was essential in the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals last season.
For Los Angeles, it all starts with Drew Doughty who quietly had a pretty good season. Doughty sees a steady diet of top-competition, and while he didn’t manage to break forty points this year, I’d chalk that up to the percentages (5.7% on-ice shooting). From a possession stand-point – Doughty remains an absolute beast, and he’s one of the best pure skaters in the NHL at the moment. All too often we’ve seen that the team with the most dominant defenseman wins the playoff series, and while the Canucks have managed to take advantage of Doughty’s… let’s call it "youthful exuberance" in the past, he has the talent to shutdown the twins and take over this series.
The Canucks agitate the living hell out of Doughty, and he got into it this season with the likes of Burrows (repeatedly), Bieksa (repeatedly), Daniel Sedin and Maxim Lapierre. That’s not a coincidence, the Canucks clearly make a game-plan of waging "mental warfare" to try and get Doughty off of his game. Doughty is going to need to be disciplined and stay on the ice, because if the Canucks get under his skin (and are able to face a few Doughty-less L.A. Kings PK units) that plays right into their hand.
Doughty’s usual partner is Rob Scuderi, a steady veteran who won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins. The Kings second pairing consists of Willie Mitchell, whose long reach helps frustrate opponents, but is also where breakout passes go to die and young puck-mover Slava Voynov. Voynov is a really good possession player though, my impression is that he puts himself in positions to get leveled too often. Still, Voynov had a two point game on New Years Eve, and has looked exceedingly dangerous against the Canucks this season.
The Kings third pair consists of Matt Greene and Alec Martinez. Martinez is an unbelievably good possession player, but based on his Ozone start% and low quality of competition – it’s clear that Sutter doesn’t trust him against opponents top players. Greene on the other hand is a useful pugilist, and penalty-killer who can be trusted in defensive situations against bottom six opponents.
I’ve seen lots of people giving the Canucks the edge on defense, but I think it’s a wash. The Kings have the best overall defenseman in the series in Doughty, and have four defenders I’d trust in tough minutes (Doughty, Voynov, Scuderi and Mitchell). The Canucks have better quality 1 through 3 in Edler, Bieksa and Hamhuis, a lot more depth (if any L.A. defender goes down, they’ll put in Davis Drewiskie – after that – who knows) and get significantly more offense from their d-men. All of that evens the scale up somewhat so, I think this is a push, but I’d maybe give the Kings a slight edge.
There aren’t many NHL players I enjoy watching more than Anze Kopitar. He’s big, he’s a wicked possession player, he’s got some nasty moves in close and he’s got an absolute rifle of a shot. He also battles hard, and I really enjoyed watching him and Henrik do battle in several games this season. In this series, however, Kopitar and his line-mates Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, will face the human clutch and grab machine that is Samme "The Cooler" Pahlsson and his counterattacking wingers Jannik Hansen and Chris Higgins.
It’s the most important matchup, as I see it, of the entire series. Would the Kings dominance of the season series (by the underlying numbers) have been as extreme if they’d faced a Canucks side with Pahlsson on it four times, instead of just one? I’m not sure but if "The Cooler line" of Higgins, Hansen and Pahlsson can reliably turn play the other way against the Kopitar line, and maybe even pitch in some offense – the Canucks are going to be in a good spot.
Daniel Sedin looks to be returning to the lineup in time for game one, which, is essential especially for the Canucks anemic power-play. I expect the Sedins will see an awful lot of Mike Richards, who, for reasons I can’t quite explain had a really bad season this year. Richards finished underwater (very odd for him), despite facing second-line competition and being deployed in a two-way fashion. That has to be a concern for the Kings going into this series, and if Richards can’t find his game, and regularly pin the twins in the Canucks end, this could be over in a hurry.
Vigneault is going to find ways to get Kesler, Booth and Raymond a lot of shifts against the Stoll line and the Colin Fraser line. It’s going to be key for the Canucks that Kesler finds his offensive game, and that this group takes advantages of the match-ups and produces some points. The Kings third line of Jarred Stoll, Dustin Penner and either Trevor Lewis or Brad Richardson is under-rated somewhat, while they don’t play against difficult competition – they can be counted on, I think, to put in some quality shifts against Kesler’s group and Vancouver’s fourth line.
Kings fourth liner Kyle Clifford has a long history of annoying Canucks fans, and players with his collection of cheap-shots and his (I admit this grudgingly) complete reluctance to backdown. In the past he’s injured Chris Tanev with a dirty hit, tackled Keith Ballard and run Roberto Luongo. It’ll be interesting to see if Byron Bitz – who looks like he’ll get the start on the fourth line alongside Maxim Lapierre and Manny Malhotra – can keep Clifford in line. If Bitz can’t, and the power-play can’t get going then I’ll expect the denizens of Vancouver to spend much of this series cursing the name "Clifford!"
There’s no doubt about it – the Canucks have the superior personnel up front. In fact, when it comes to the forward group, I think the Canucks are something of a nightmare matchup for the Kings. If all goes according to plan, Pahlsson’s line should be able to play Kopitar’s to a draw, the Sedins should be able to produce offense against big Dwight King, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and Kesler should be able to do the same against the Kings bottom-six. While I suspect all of that is likely to happen, whether or not the forwards will be able to beat Jonathan Quick – well, that’s another story.
If I didn’t trust the numbers that we use on a daily basis here at Canucks Army, then I wouldn’t use them so much. While it pains me to say this, I think the Canucks are going to have a very difficult time getting out of the first round. Vancouver’s club is clearly elite, the problem is that L.A.’s club is pretty damn good too (despite their slow start to the season, which, inconveniently has caused them to end up inappropriately low in the playoff pecking order).
Ultimately, the Kings are the superior possession team, and show better by the best predictive metrics than the Canucks do. To make matters worse, the quality and style of their goaltending, their superior penalty-killing, and their overall team size makes them a particularly tough matchup for Vancouver’s club.
While we can always hope for the best, and certainly I hope that I’ve misread the tea leaves here, based on the underlying numbers and the way the Kings pulverized the Canucks during the season series, I’m going to have to take the Kings to triumph in six over the Canucks.