This isn’t Darryl Sutter’s first rodeo. Contrary to the early thought that his Los Angeles Kings were dead in the water after only three games, the two-time Stanley Cup winning coach has his team back on course.
The coach responsible for assembling That 70’s Line has now concocted a new combination that’s not only responsible for 22 points in L.A.’s last six games, but in finding comfort for newcomer Milan Lucic.
For eight seasons with the Bruins, the 27-year-old Lucic was a linchpin through Boston’s seven playoff appearances, including their Stanley Cup Championship in 2011. Lucic’s 139 goals and 203 assists while wearing the spoked “B” crest in 566 games didn’t exclusively reveal his value to the organization.
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound power forward provided the New England organization with leadership, along with his physicality and offensive production.
Nothing lasts forever, though, as the cap-strapped Bruins were forced to trade those contributions, as well as his $6.5 million AAV, to Los Angeles.
“I can’t tell you how difficult the call was to make, and I expressed that to Milan,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney, per ESPN’s Joe McDonald, back in June. “It was a very difficult conversation to have. I just felt the situation we were in, it was going to be very difficult to extend the offer to the level that it would take to retain Milan going forward.”
Despite feeling rejuvenated for another run at a Stanley Cup, the edgy left wing’s early experience in L.A. wasn’t exactly ideal. Flanking Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik through the first three games, the Vancouver native posted a minus-three rating while failing to notch a single point.
“He’s played really well for us,” said Darryl Sutter, per Derek Van Diest of the Edmonton Sun. “Everyone always questions where a player fits or who he plays with. But that always sorts itself out, especially a guy like Lucic who has played in one organization his whole time, he’s had one coach.
“You look at it and he’s had pretty much the same centreman his whole career. The adjustment doesn’t have so much to do with him and his performance, it’s about adjusting to his new surroundings and he’s played really well, for sure he’s been our best left winger by a long shot.”
I think we all knew back in late June that Milan Lucic and Tyler Toffoli would have amazing chemistry together.
— The Royal Half (@theroyalhalf) October 28, 2015
Since his fruitless start to the season, which coincides with the Kings’ 0-3-0 start, the ninth-year veteran has found instant chemistry with new linemates Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter.
Sutter’s decision to juggle lines paid off immediately, as Michael Duarte of NBC Los Angeles recently pointed out :
The line of Lucic, Toffoli and Jeff Carter has been unstoppable over the course of the six-game winning streak, as they have been responsible for 12 goals and 10 assists on the young season.
Individually, Lucic has now put together a point streak of four games, turning in five of his six points during that span, including his pair of game-winning goals against San Jose and Winnipeg.
“I don’t think things gelled as well as they … I guess, should have with Kopitar and Gaborik,” said Lucic, via Josh Cooper of Puck Daddy. “I think a big thing has to do with, for myself, getting used to the new system and new players and new atmosphere and all that type of stuff. I hesitated a little bit (early) … playing with Carter and Toffoli – for myself has taken that hesitation out of the game.”
Whatever hesitation Lucic’s unfamiliar surroundings may have caused are now in the rear view mirror, as the breakdown of numbers indicate.
Tale of Two Lines
Along with shoring up a desolate power play that went 0-for-13 throughout L.A.’s first three games, Suter’s shake up has led to his team going from last place to first in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division.
Since being outscored 12-2 through the opening trio of contests, the Lucic, Toffoli, and Carter line has accounted for 12 of L.A.’s 18 goals, as the Kings have gone onto outscore their opponents by a combined margin of 18-6.
That Lucic-Carter-Toffoli line is the definition of "heavy", a real handful for any top pairing, overwhelming for #Oilers.
— Larry Fisher (@LarryFisher_KDC) October 26, 2015
“I think we thought it was going to be easier than it was,” said Lucic, via Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times. “Once we got back to the drawing board and really took a look at ourselves, as individuals and a team, in the mirror. Asked ourselves: ‘Were we really committed to playing the right way?’ That was the big question.”
Since teaming up with Toffoli and Carter, the nephew of former NHL forward Dan Kesa has responded, showing what type of difference a line’s cohesiveness can make.
Through Lucic’s first three games skating alongside Kopitar and Gaborik, the former second-round draft pick was stymied to a minus-9.3 percent five-one-five relative shots-for percentage, and an even worse minus-20 percent relative scoring chances-for percentage.
Lucic’s lack of chances relative to his linemates were also in spite of receiving favorable even-strength zone starts, as the chart below shows.
|Five-on-Five||Games 1-3||Games 4-9|
|Relative Shots For Percentage||-9.3%||4.3%|
|Relative Scoring Chances For Percentage||-20%||13.2%|
|Fraction of Offensive vs. Defensive Zone Starts||10.5%||-1.4%|
|SAT Percentage Close||41.38%||61.79%|
(Information acquired via NHL.com and War-on-Ice.)
The former Bruin turned in a 50.79 percent SAT percentage, which ranked him 10th among team forwards, while seeing a fraction of relative offensive vs. defensive zone starts of plus-10.5 percent.
After joining Toffoli and Carter, however, Lucic would go onto to generate a higher frequency in shots and scoring chances, while doing so with less offensive zone starts.
Throughout the latter span, the first-year King ranked fourth among team forwards in SAT percentage, second in SAT percentage Close, and first in SPSv Percentage, which show in his recent outburst of production.
Another driving factor in Lucic’s recent outburst has been the familiarity of the pair he now skates with. Toffoli and Carter are two-thirds of the original That 70’s Line, sharing success together since 2014, as Jewels From the Crown recently explained:
Since the start of last season, Tyler Toffoli has played 715 of his 975 5v5 minutes alongside Jeff Carter. In that time, their numbers are staggering. They outscore their opponents at a better than 2:1 clip – 3.69 g/60 against 1.76 ga/60. They’ve controlled 57% of all shot attempts in this time as well.
The sample size with Lucic as the finishing piece to that line may be small, but the results speak for themselves. Six wins, 22 points, and a seat atop the Pacific Division may not earn a playoff berth or a Stanley Cup, but for Lucic and the Kings, it’s enough to stave off the ever so critical doubters.