With the Kings preparing for their 20th game this season, what would normally be the quarter-season mark is now just a few games from the halfway point. The projected Stanley Cup winning depth has been ghosted on defense with the loss of Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene. The recent trade of Simon Gagne thinned the forward ranks to just one extra man. Do the Kings have the depth necessary to repeat?
Below is a depth chart of the current team roster. Jeff Carter, for example, plays both Right Wing and Center so he is entered twice, once for each position. Jeff Carter is versatile. In Carter’s case, as with others, that versatility enhances the depth of the lineup; Sutter has more tools, more options, more room to adjust when he needs to.
Players are stacked vertically by position, ranked by their offensive abilities; the best guys are on top. Notice I said abilities, and not potential or expectation. Like Coach Sutter, I am going with what these guys have done most recently, this season. These are just my preferences; you may disagree, and many of you probably will. For example, I rank Dustin Brown as the Kings best Left Wing, but I put him third among Right Wings. You might also notice the Goalie rankings, too…
The roster maxes out at an allowed 23 players, plus injured reserve. Currently the Kings have 22, plus Matt Greene on IR, meaning the Kings have one open spot for Greene (or Mitchell) to return.
Candidates have been selected for position only if they have actually played that position for the Kings. For example, Trevor Lewis would not have been with the Left Wings just a few weeks ago, but Sutter apparently said, “the hell with it” at some time in Edmonton, resulting in a game-winner. Gotta love that stuff…
If depth is indeed everything, how do you create extra depth when your roster is limited? By versatility, that’s how. How important is versatility? Here’s a quote from Coach: “…Lewie didn’t play left wing until halfway through the Edmonton game. I’d never played him on left wing and quite honest, I’d never played King on right wing, and he’s done that. Nolan, I’ve played on left wing and right wing. Some guys are fighting to stay in the lineup by having to play other positions…”
So, versatility is only important if you want to play in the games… I get it. But there are other benefits, too, that Sutter did not mention at that time. Not only does versatility allow more choices to compensate for loss due to injury, or help guys stay in the lineup, but versatility helps avoid injury, too, by reducing fatigue. I’ll explain.
The Kings travel miles always rank in the top ten; in 2011-2012, the Kings traveled the NHL most due to opening the season in Europe. This season, the compacted schedule gives less recovery days. Spreading minutes by rolling 4 lines helps reduce fatigue night over night, and versatility makes it easier to trust those 4 lines. Coach Sutter addressed this idea, too:
On how the shortened schedule affects teams and players:
“The top players, end of shifts. How you’re using them. Their ice times. A lot of top guys are on power play, penalty kill, and they’re taking faceoffs. All those things we’ve cut… Up front, we’ve tried to pull [minutes]. Really, guys are two, three minutes down, other than Kopitar. You know what? Somebody’s…talking about depth, you talk about depth, well depth doesn’t really friggin’ matter unless your top guys are [playing well], cause depth just means deep. If the top guys aren’t performing at a high level, it doesn’t matter how much depth you have. You’re going to win and lose with those top guys, and then your depth comes into it…”
On first read, it sounds like Coach is saying depth is meaningless, but what he is really saying is depth is secondary to scoring. Of course it is. But he is also saying that when he needs to regularly “pull minutes” from his top guys, he needs to lean on his depth guys. So, the two are inextricable: you can’t just have depth, but you also can’t just burn out your scorers. Scorers need depth players to lighten the load.
Depth via versatility is highlighted in the following quote from Dean Lombardi, who is more than just the Dean of General Managers: I think he is the reigning Chess Grand Master, or the Stephen Hawking of NHL General Managers. Dean clearly recognizes in Brad Richardson that one player’s versatility gave him more flexibility as a General Manager trying to economize among roster spots, at the time of the Gagne trade:
Lombardi, on whether he’s looking to add another left wing, or whether Trevor Lewis’ contributions have changed his assessment:
“We still have Brad Richardson, who can play all of the positions. That’s one thing that’s good about Brad. He’s a guy that can play every position – center, left wing, right wing. He can go play on your top lines as well as play a checking line. So he’s still a part of this group. As I said earlier, I think the only reason we [trade Gagne] is not thinking I’ve got [another] trade coming…”
Dean had other reasons, too, but knowing he had one guy that can play all three forward positions was a part of that decision. And now, with Trevor Lewis playing Left Wing, Dean has another guy that can play all 3 positions, and on all lines. Considering that Coach Sutter wants to carry 13 forwards (only 1 extra) and 8 defensemen, having forwards that cover multiple positions becomes indispensable. That’s why Dean could lose a guy like Gagne.
Gagne was exclusively a Left Wing, and further, he was pretty much only going to play regularly as a scoring Left Wing. Gagne was not versatile. Checking was not Gagne’s forte to begin with, and rushing into corners carrying a recent history of severe concussions was also not going to, shall we say, aid in his development within the checking role.
By my count, the Kings have 33 “players” from among a roster of 23. Those numbers won’t change much if Greene and Mitchell return, but the upgrade in talent will be welcome even though it means losing someone. Ellerby could go, and from the little I know about him he is exclusively a Left Defenseman. If Drewiske goes, we would lose a guy that plays both sides on Defense.
So, Coach Sutter can look at his depth chart and choose from among 5 Left and 4 Right Defensemen, he can choose from among 7 Right Wings and 7 Centers, and he can choose from among 8 Left Wings.
I started with the question of whether the Kings “have it.” In my mind, they do. They’ve already survived key injuries on Defense, and they were able to let go a scoring Left Winger, thanks to depth and versatility. The scoring Left Wing position may be inconsistent in Penner, Lewis and Clifford, who have all played on the scoring line with Richards and Carter, but what is lacking can be made up by Sutter finding the hot hand on any given night, on any given shift. So far Sutter’s been pretty good at doing just that.
Because Dean Lombardi sought versatility, Sutter can now afford to look down his bench, just say “the hell with it,” and everything will probably turn out just fine. Should be fun to watch, huh?