Todd McLellan didn’t use names. He didn’t need to. His dour description of the Kings’ 8-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday was specific enough to know who he was talking about.
The Kings erred plenty in their first two games of the season, allowing six goals in Edmonton and blowing a three-goal lead in Calgary. But on the whole, those performances were largely tolerable for the Kings’ new coach. Those mistakes were rationalized as realities of a growth process, hiccups as McLellan overhauls the club’s systems and playing style.
Wednesday’s setback in Vancouver, which dropped the Kings to 1-2-0, was something else entirely. Afterward, McLellan’s message took a foreboding turn.
“Some of the players we’ve counted on, or we need to count on, have to play a lot better or they don’t belong in the league,” he said. “We’ll have to look at some individuals.”
Though most of the Kings’ roster could have fallen within the crosshairs of that criticism, the second line of Jeff Carter, Adrian Kempe and Ilya Kovalchuk was likely near the top of the list.
Those three were the Kings’ worst forwards in plus/minus rating Wednesday. Kempe, a fourth-year center who signed a new three-year, $6-million contract this offseason, was a career-worst minus-four. Kovalchuk and Carter, who have 1,866 games and 28 NHL seasons between them in their careers, were both minus-three.
That line also graded out as the Kings’ worst trio analytically. During their 12:19 of playing time together, they registered a Corsi-For percentage of just 25%, according to NaturalStatTrick.com, meaning while they were on the ice at even strength, the Canucks generated 75% of all shot attempts. For comparison, the Kings’ other three lines were all above 50%.
Often playing against the Canucks’ top two lines, Kempe, Kovalchuk and Carter spent long stretches of Wednesday’s game in their own end. When they did get up the ice, they too often allowed the Canucks to generate odd-man rushes on the way back.
An example: On the first score of the Canucks’ four-goal third-period outburst, all three Kings’ second-line forwards were sucked deep into the offensive end. When the Canucks suddenly countered on a 3-on-2 break, they futilely chased the play from behind, failing to catch up before Christopher Tanev’s tap-in goal.
There was more than enough blame for the Kings to pass around elsewhere in the locker room after they allowed eight goals for just the second time in the last eight years.
Goalie Jonathan Quick got beat on several unscreened shots and stopped only 17 of 25 overall. The team’s top two defensive pairings, Drew Doughty and Tobias Bjornfot, and Alec Martinez and Matt Roy, were all minus-three as well. On the power play, the Kings went 0-for-4, including a squandered 5-on-3 opportunity late in the second period.
About the only positives Wednesday came from the bottom of the lineup. The fourth line of Kyle Clifford, Michael Amadio and Trevor Lewis started for a second straight game and consistently kept the puck in the offensive zone. Third-line winger Tyler Toffoli was the lone Kings forward to score. Defenseman Sean Walker also added a goal and was, somewhat amazingly, a plus-two on a night his team was outscored by six.
“We said at the start of the game every chance we get, throw it on net,” Walker’s defensive partner Ben Hutton said. “Walks scored, which was nice, but as a team, it doesn’t matter if you get pucks on net if the score is that at the end of the night.”
Moving forward, any Kings turnaround might require Kempe, Kovalchuk and Carter to all return to form. In the first three games, the Kings were at their best when the second line produced, and at their worst when they disappeared.
In the 6-5 loss at Edmonton, the trio struggled as the team spotted a half-dozen goals. In the 4-3 win over the Flames three nights later, the group bounced back with a positive plus/minus rating. Kovalchuk even double-shifted at times in McLellan’s 11-forward lineup and scored a goal.
“The three of them were challenged, Kovy, Carts and Kempe, after the Edmonton game,” McLellan said in Calgary on Tuesday. “I don’t think they were particularly pleased with their group’s play or maybe individual play, and we challenged them. We gave them another opportunity and they took advantage of it.”
However, they couldn’t sustain it a night later, turning in three of the Kings’ worst performances on a night chock-full of bad ones.
“There are a lot of things that go into the game,” McLellan said. “There’s the mind and then there’s the skill set. And there’s the systematic play and the ability to get involved in the right position. I thought as the game wore on and it got away on us, that just crumbled.”