The problem being a writer when you're following a team: a lot of the time, a story becomes irrelevant by the time you get around to writing it. Take, for example, the Kings' defense. I had a great idea to take a look at how the Kings' defense was being utilized differently under assistant coach John Stevens than they were under former coach Mark Hardy. I had a chart and everything.
Then, Willie Mitchell gets hurt and that whole plan goes to Hell. But I still have last season's numbers in front of me and hey, without Willie Mitchell the Kings basically have last season's defense, minus Sean O'Donnell and Randy Jones and plus Davis Drewiske and Jake Muzzin. How will the Kings look for the next month without Willie Mitchell? The answer is... kind of the same, kind of different.
First, a look at how the Kings played at even strength against the New Jersey Devils last January:
Drew Doughty- ~20 min. EV
RobScuderi- ~18 min. EV
Jack Johnson- ~15 min. EV
Matt Greene- ~14 1/2 min. EV
Sean O'Donnell- ~14 min EV
Randy Jones- ~13 min EV
As you can see, there's a pretty clear hierarchy going on. Doughty's the #1 defenseman and plays whenever he isn't exhausted. Scuderi rides shotgun with Doughty at even-strength and heads the penalty kill. The other 4 play fairly similar defensive minutes at even strength and then help out on special teams as suits their strengths. It's a fairly even spread and plays to each defenseman's strengths. This was under Mark Hardy.
John Stevens, though, seems to prefer to play 2 defensive units a lot and the 3rd far more sparingly. Here's a look at the Kings' game versus the New Jersey Devils on October 30, a game they played without Drew Doughty:
Mitchell- ~20 1/2 min. EV
Scuderi- ~19 min. EV
Johnson- ~17 1/2 min. EV
Greene - ~18 1/2 min. EV
Jake Muzzin- ~14 1/2 min. EV
Davis Drewiske- ~14 min. EV
(Note: Yeah yeah, the even-strength numbers don't line up from last season to this season because of penalties. You get the idea, though.)
As you can see, the Kings have a clear break between their top 2 pairings and their bottom unit. Rather than matching up the defense, Stevens prefers to roll his top 2 pairings and let forwards coach Jamie Kompon worry about matching his lines.
So, what does this mean for the Kings while Willie Mitchell is out? It means a hybrid of last year's and this year's pairings. Head Coach Terry Murray has already indicated that the Kings will reunite Drew Doughty and Rob Scuderi, who will now serve as the Kings' shutdown pairing like they did last year. They will also unite Jack Johnson and Matt Greene, a pairing that occurred only 2% of the time at even strength last year. Stevens wants that unit to be interchangeable with Doughty-Scuderi, capable of shutting down opposition or chipping in offense. The Kings will most likely ride those top 2 pairings, with Jake Muzzin and Davis Drewiske filling in when both units are too tired to play.
Why does Stevens prefer to have a top-heavy corps compared to Hardy's more even mix? I think it's because Stevens wants to be able to dictate when Drew Doughty is on the ice, rather than letting another team's top forward line dictate when Doughty will play. Think about it: if you let another team dictate Doughty's ice time, he'll always be on the defensive. If he can get a few shifts against weaker competition, he can drive the play and be more of an impact player at even-strength on offense. Put other teams on the defense and don't give up that advantage, that seems to be Stevens' style.
The pairing I'm going to watch tonight is Johnson-Greene. Both are big and strong, but both are also kind of... situationally unaware. Is that a nice way to say "dumb?" Johnson often plays too safe on defense, almost as if he's afraid of getting burned, while Greene can sometimes forget that he's a big ox and take a bad penalty. They need to play good defense and Greene is going to have to play smart enough to cover for Johnson's mistakes. How that pairing does will go a long way in determining how the Kings fare in Mitchell's absence.
Now the penalty kill is another story. If you'll look at these numbers...
(To be continued...)