(This article was originally published by me as a guest author at the site called “Surly and Scribe.”)
Nearing the mid-point of this Summer of Satisfaction, I have finished re-watching the Kings heroic playoff run. I still cry at the strangest moments, not only at the most obvious moments of scoring and triumph, but also at the tiny moments of individual sacrifice, of individual valor.
Even though the joy of spring has yet to fade, and as much as I want to languish in the cocoon of singular success, I know this butterfly of hockey excellence cannot help but feel the pressing heat of summer and the approaching angst of autumn. Even though the days of summer last longest, the peak of late June is now 6 weeks gone, the glory days are inexorably waning, and the solstice draws closer each minute. Are the Kings due for a Fall?
I think not. The lineup is sound, and there is room for adjustment if needed. The “prospect pool” now must include playoff veterans ahead of hopeful rookies. A close look at what Dean Lombardi has accomplished with this roster is astounding.
I once wrote, a few years ago, that depth is everything, and that versatility is the key to depth. At this moment, I don’t think there is a team on the planet that can equal the Kings in depth and versatility. And why is versatility so important? For all reasons. Versatility is like an amino acid; it is the basic building block of team chemistry, in all facets of the game.
Next year, we cannot expect the same luck regarding injuries as we enjoyed this year. Usually the talk is about how a team had the depth to overcome a key injury. The Kings were a team that actually got healthier during the playoff run; we lost nobody and Simon Gagne returned to the lineup. Getting healthier is not the norm, to say the least.
A team suffering injuries must be able to compensate; someone needs to step in and step up. Doing so is the key to survival. Since you can’t afford to have players 4 or 5-deep at all skill positions, the best way to compensate is to have players that are capable of playing multiple positions. Instead of guys that must play out of position, player versatility allows for positions to be filled with capable substitutes. And the Kings have player versatility in spades. (Kings/spades, get it? Poker, poker, poker…Sorry, I digress, still buzzed over a recent deep run in a big tournament)
The Kings active roster lists 18 players, but that includes Corey Elkins and Scott Parse. Among the 16 remaining players, Lombardi has given Sutter as many as 8 left wings, 9 centers and 11 right wings. For example, Jeff Carter is a natural center, but he seems to have done okay as Richard’s wingman, plus he provides a second face-off guy. Also, Dustin Brown plays both wings, and Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis can play all 3 forward positions. When you add them up, Sutter has the luxury of potential line-up configurations nearly double that of actual players.
Another reason that versatility is so important is the Kings’ style of play. In Judo, one of the key principles is to use an attacker’s momentum against him. If a guy lunges, you pull him and throw him. Rather than opposing his strength, you rob him of it with cunning. This is what the Kings do; hold the puck until they draw coverage, and only then do they pass or fake. Make them commit, read their commitment, and then play around it. Let them have a hit, but not the puck. Let them lunge, and with one quick adjustment they are suddenly past you and behind the play, or at the very worst they are with you and neutralized.
Forget the “Left Wing Lock,” or “The Trap;” The Judo System is new. Perhaps not entirely new, but the way the Kings play is at least many new wrinkles if not a fully evolved, new form.
Holding the puck and forcing coverage decisions often means a defenseman will lead the rush. The idea is that whoever has the most ice should take that ice and advance the puck until forced to pass it. Even Rob Scuderi leads rushes, in the freaking playoffs, and if you think that is just an accident or is not something intentional and new, then this article will be fully lost on you. Advancing the puck like a forward in this way, even though you are the quintessential “stay-at-home” defenseman, is the absolute statement defining the need for versatility among positions and also among each player’s skills.
As well, when Scuderi rushes, a forward must take his spot and hang back. So, not only the forwards but also every single player must be able to assume the duties of multiple positions in-game and during play. Versatility is needed not just in filling a line-up, but also from player-to-player moving position-to-position, as play develops.
This interchange, this required versatility, is paramount on the forecheck, too. Doughty cannot pinch down the wall unless Richards sees it and fills that ice. Scuderi cannot pinch the other wall unless someone expects it and is ready and positioned to fill that ice.
The hockey IQ required for this pinch, this one play in the offensive zone, is high, but the Kings do it at every position in every zone. It is total connectivity, it is plug-and-play, it is modular. It’s like taking a watch apart and changing the order of gearing, yet the watch still keeps perfect time. The recognition and fluidity combined make the Kings, I think, the smartest team in the game right now.
Remember in cartoons, when a guy would close the top dresser drawer, and the bottom drawer would pop out and bang his shins? Then, he would kick that drawer shut only to have the middle drawer pop out into his stomach. So he leans over and shoves the middle drawer shut, and you guessed it, the top drawer punches him in the face. That is the Kings forecheck. Always moving, popping in and out, always either within range to hit or angling on approach to disrupt passing and then giving the hit, too. It’s like the Harlem Globetrotter’s famous 3-man weave at the top of the key; with the Kings, it’s all 5 men able to perform a full-team weave at any area of the ice. And that takes versatility.
Of course, other teams have guys that switch, guys that pinch, but the Kings are taking it to an extreme. Detroit’s Kronwall makes those hits on guys leaving the zone because he has forwards coming back to cover his ice. Now, the Kings do this to both sides of the ice, even on the same sequence of play. Mitchell gets hits like that, and now so does Voynov. We take the walls and force the puck to the middle, except the middle has a guy in your face and another guy back-checking, too.
Teams have no way out of their own zone, because they usually have no way of establishing possession. The forecheck lessens their possession time, and a two-wall pinch disrupts their breakout.
When a team eventually gets frustrated, as did Vancouver, St. Louis and even Phoenix and New Jersey, that team loses their system to combat our forecheck. In an example, Martinez created a goal against Phoenix on a forecheck by pinching down the wall in a 1 on 3, and he won the puck, but he also forced 3 guys to be occupied. Phoenix thought they needed to overload one area to win that puck, but once the puck was moved, those 3 guys were way behind and out of the play. Talk about getting the opposition “running around;” our open guy passed it to another open guy, and Phoenix was completely lost in the corner. Goooooooooooooooooooal!!!
One wonders what other teams will try to do in the coming season. Dave Tippett couldn’t figure it out, and he was the coach I feared most. I am sure he is sitting at a computer somewhere looking at footage and plotting how to beat the Kings and their Judo. I am sure he is wishing to be the dresser that triple-punches the Kings, next time. But this is where the Kings reach a new height of style, one that I think is the new paradigm.
The Kings’ versatility extends also to their tactics based on their opponents. The Kings are not the biggest team, but they cannot be significantly out-sized. The Kings are not the fastest team, but nobody is so much faster that it creates any problems, plus the Kings defensive style thwarts speed and flow, anyway. Top end offensive skill, top-end defensive skill, and after all that you still have to face a person known as Quick, Jonathan. So, maybe Tippett is trying to find the Kryptonite to stop what he sees as Supermen. But it just won’t work.
My belief is that the Kings are not Supermen; rather, the Kings are Kryptonite to everyone else, and as everyone knows, nothing beats Kryptonite.