Through the first 31 games of the season, are the 2013-14 Kings proving to be the antithesis of their 2006-07 counterparts?
Including the overtime of the game in which a former Conn Smythe-winning goaltender succumbed to injury, Los Angeles has posted a 9-1-4 record behind the stellar contributions in net from Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones, who have combined to record a 1.28 goals against average and .953 save percentage in Jonathan Quick’s absence.
Though both goaltenders have certainly earned their share of praise, the team’s play in net has been solidified by a more tightly executed defensive system that will carry a streak of 16 consecutive games having allowed two goals or less into Wednesday’s matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I think the big part is we’ve found our game from the structure, defensively,” said Goaltending Coach Bill Ranford. “We were giving up probably 10-plus more chances a game early on in the season, and we felt we had to clean that area up and get the puck moving quicker and faster, and I think that everything started to fall into place. You give good teams that many extra opportunities, pucks are going to end up in the net. It doesn’t matter who’s in goal.”
While that may be true, Scrivens and Jones have also provided the stops they’ve needed to make in addition to stops in key situations. Scrivens’ save percentage while the team is shorthanded is .957 and is higher than his even strength save percentage of .942. Jones was dynamite in stopping eight power play shots on goal in Tuesday’s 6-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens – his second consecutive shutout – and has stopped 21 of 22 shots while shorthanded and 51 of 52 shots while at even strength.
“It’s been pretty crazy how things have gone. Obviously the guys have been playing great in front of me,” Scrivens said. “That’s the biggest thing – you don’t just put up good numbers by yourself alone. It’s a good team in front of you, and guys are playing well.”
Jones’ small window of success since his call-up isn’t an enormous surprise to those who have followed his career trajectory from the North Shore Winter Club in suburban North Vancouver, to the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen, to Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, and from the Manchester Monarchs to the Kings.
Though he posted slightly superior numbers to Hitmen starting goalie Dan Spence in his draft year of 2007-08, he was the clear number two with an incomplete body of work in his second year of major junior hockey and went undrafted before being offered a training camp invitation by Los Angeles.
Ranford and Kim Dillabaugh, Goaltender Development, liked the habits they saw in the then-18-year-old.
“He was the type of kid that was in the gym, stretching, getting prepared for practice, and didn’t really know anybody. But just his professional approach for a kid…that was still playing junior hockey at the time, on a tryout, that really impressed me about him, and that went a long way as far as I think this guy has the mind that he wants to be a pro and can be a pro,” Ranford said.
“For me, pedigree, resume sometimes comes into play, and all I knew about this kid was that he won at every level, and I just felt with his size and such a strong technical package that he already had in his game that this was something that I felt comfortable, that I thought was a real good challenge to work with somebody like that.”
“It’s easy for me or Kim to try and take credit for it, but it’s the goalies that do the work,” Ranford said.
The strong defensive play and goaltending reflects well on the organization, even if Ranford doesn’t take credit for the club’s riches in net. Noting that he’s not out to build a one-size-fits-all goaltender, Ranford, like any coach, works with what has been given and makes adjustments at the appropriate time.
“If things that you’re doing are costing us hockey games, I will step in and change them. Other than that, it’s just like a piece of clay, and you’re just trying to mold it and make it better,” he said. “If you look at the goalies that have gone through here, the only cookie cutter part of the LA King goalies are…attention to detail, work habits. There’s been just a blend of Quickie – the athletic. Bernier – the standup, kind of a blend. Jeff Zatkoff – a little bit more of a butterfly. So there’s been a huge variance in how guys hold their stick, how deep in their stance they are.”
“We don’t believe in a cookie cutter goalie. Whenever we bring a new goalie in, the first thing we talk about is habits and detail. First thing. We don’t even look at detail. Don’t even start there. I met with the pitching coach with the Dodgers this summer, and the thing that they always talked about is it’s starting from the bottom – just basic habits with their pitchers. They don’t even look at technical. They just start with habits, and once they get their habits to where they need, then they start looking at little tiny details of what they do.”
Those habits came naturally for Jones, who grew up in locker rooms and skated on the Rogers Arena ice as he took advantage of opportunities provided by his father, Harvey, the Vice President of Construction with Canucks Sports and Entertainment. He’ll draw the start tonight as the road trip continues with a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
With family in the front office of an NHL team, eyes perhaps weren’t as wide and nerves didn’t appear to be quite as unsettled when he turned aside 26 Anaheim Ducks shots before prevailing in a nine-round shootout in which he remained deep in his net and denied Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne – and six other skaters.
“I guess I have my style of play,” Jones said. “I think I’m at my best when I have that patience, and a nice balance between that and having that compete when I need to in those situations. It’s come a long way, my game, in the last few years, so it’s nice to see it pay off a little bit here.”
It has paid off to the tune of two shutouts in three games and eye-popping yet unsustainable statistics through a small sample size. Entering play Wednesday night, he’s 3-0-0 with a 0.65 goals against average and .973 save percentage. The only other rookie Kings goaltender who posted back-to-back shutouts was Gerry Desjardins in 1968-69. Both games ended in scoreless ties.
With the opposing scoring chances minimized and the team nearing the zenith of its recent regular season success, it raises a question: do teams adjust their styles of play when playing in front of a goaltender that isn’t their number one guy?
“Well, I think it sometimes may happen when you have your number one guy go down,” Ranford said. “I think it’s just an automatic thing that a team will try and buckle down and defend – I don’t know if you say ‘harder,’ because you’re always trying to defend harder, but I think those first couple games, you always get into that scenario where guys are like, ‘Let’s let this guy get his feet underneath him until he gets comfortable’ kind of thing.
“But I think it was more so just the situation where we had to play better as a team, and it just kind of coincided when Quicker went down.”