With endurance and consistency that would have impressed even Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, the pairings of Rob Scuderi and Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell and Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez and Matt Greene established a system of repetition and reliability in five-on-five play.
After Jack Johnson’s last game as a King on February 22, 2012, the Kings used the minimum six defensemen over the remaining 41 regular season and playoff games.
Fortune did not shine as kindly on the Kings in 2012-13. Matt Greene injured his back on opening day, missed 42 games, and enters the playoffs with an undisclosed ailment that keeps his availability in the “day-to-day” column. Willie Mitchell never even played a game due to swelling in his knee.
Entering the 2013 Western Conference Quarterfinals series against the St. Louis Blues, it is possible that half of the blue line written into Darryl Sutter’s lineup card for Game 1 was not a part of last year’s championship squad.
Other than new nameplates on the jerseys, there hasn’t been a momentous change on the defense.
“I don’t think it’s too different,” Drew Doughty observed. “We’re obviously a little younger, now with Greener out, too. Last year I think Mitchie – not that he got replaced – but Reg (Robyn Regehr) is kind of the same player as him in ways. So I think we’re pretty similar. We’re just younger. We’ve still got good movement on our third pairing. We’ve got good skaters, good puck movers, and then we’ve got guys who’d be physical, too. I think we look pretty much the same.”
Doughty raises a key characteristic of the defense. The emphasis of moving the puck quickly up ice to get it to the forwards – a key trait of Sutter’s aggressive, pushing style – hasn’t changed.
Regehr has stepped into a role that Mitchell vacated, logging an average of 2:09 shorthanded time on ice per game with Los Angele. By continually fine-tuning his own game despite the lack of practice time and a late trading deadline, his average ice time per night rose to 21:16 with Los Angeles, a number that rose steadily by ice time totals of at least 21 and three-quarter minutes in four of his last six games.
“You never want to just sit there and say, ‘OK, I think we’re all right now and we’re just going to keep it status quo.’ That’s not the way things work,” Regehr said of his acclimation to the Kings’ methods despite the lack of practice time in the shortened season.
“We’re always looking at areas that we can improve. We’re always looking at areas that maybe we’re doing a good job and we want to continue to do that. There’s always some key things that you’re doing in order to get the job done out there. You’re always working together and communicating and watching some video here and there, too, that everything is going the way it should be, or that you’re looking at things that you need to fix because maybe you don’t feel that you’re as effective as you can be out there.”
Changes have been necessitated even amongst players that were front and present for last spring’s Cup run. Slava Voynov, who skated with Willie Mitchell for much of last season, was paired early in the season with Rob Scuderi, Doughty’s primary defensive partner from a year ago.
“Yeah, I think it’s good for me and good for Scuds because we played a long time together, and sometimes we think the same thing,” Voynov said. “It’s easy for me with him.”
One player that has made adjustments and has seen his confidence grow has been Jake Muzzin, who has been in the background for some Calder Trophy whispers by virtue of a seven-goal, 16 point rookie season in which his plus-16 rating led the team.
Over the course of an 82-game season, those numbers translate to 27 points and a plus-27 rating – impressive hauls for a player that is clearly running with the opportunity provided despite being paired with a variety of different defensemen.
“With guys coming in and out of the lineup, it’s tough, but growing,” Muzzin said of the defense’s chemistry. “I think we’ve improved on our D-handoffs and on our talk with the goalie and stuff like that. You know, we have to continue being quick and spending less time in our zone.”
Keaton Ellerby, acquired on February 8 from Florida, has adjusted favorably to joining a new conference while showing versatility that he can play “teen-minutes”, as Sutter has often said, on both the left and right sides.
“Off the hop, right when I first got here it was a bit of a challenge, but now I’ve been here long enough that there’s no new things that I don’t know or I’m not expecting. I think that’s in the past, and just go and play now,” said Ellerby.
When Ellerby made his debut in Detroit on February 10, the Kings ranked 21st in the league by averaging three goals against per game. Entering the playoffs, the Kings are tied with their first round opponent, St. Louis, with an average of 2.38 goals allowed per game.
“The reason we made the playoffs is because of Muzzin and Ellerby, very simple,” Sutter said. “We made it because of those guys, not because somebody else was hurt. We might not be in the playoffs. We don’t know. We made it because of Muzzin and Ellerby. Those guys did an awesome job for us.”
With the team’s goal of making the playoffs accomplished, attention now turns to the dangerous St. Louis Blues, a physical team playing its best hockey of the season that Los Angeles will have to get past if it is to embark on an extended quest to defend its title.
“It’s so exciting to be a part of a team that’s looking to repeat and expects to do it again,” Ellerby said. “They expect nothing less than winning the Cup again, so that’s exciting to be a part of, and hopefully we can get it done.”