The Secret To The Kings Turnaround

Derek Zona
May 14 2012 11:48AM

Quality.  Photo by Buchanan-Hermit via Wikimedia Commons

Author's Note: Though the tagline has my name only, this story was made possible by conversations with and the work of Eric T.

In January of this year, I received the following e-mail from noted Kings' writer Rudy Kelly:

Subj: Penner

My Dearest Derek,

What the f*(k.

Sincerely,

Rudy Kelly

Rudy was unhappy with Penner's production and the Kings' play in general. At the time, the Kings were in 8th place in the Western Conference, 29th in goals for.

This despite the fact that the Kings were a dominant possession team. Los Angeles was entrenched in the top ten in all major possession categories as well as situational possession categories.  The possession was there, the overall shots were there, but goal-scoring was non-existent.  To make things even more confusing, the Kings under Murray were a top-10 5v5 shooting percentage team each of the two previous seasons.

As the linked article details, I told Rudy that something very strange was going on in Los Angeles, especially with respect to even strength shot distance, but I hadn't yet figured it out. Dustin Penner was attempting shots from four feet farther away from the goal than at any other point in his career. Jarrett Stoll's presence on the ice correlated with increased shot distances from his teammates.

Aside from the odd individual numbers, the Kings were the only team in the league in the top five of percentage of shots attempted by defensemen and simultanesouly in the bottom five in average shot distance by forwards.  In other words, the forwards weren't shooting much, and when they did it was from far away from the goal mouth.

I knew all of this already because I'd previously asked the formidable Gabriel Desjardins a question similar to Rudy's, and Gabe's cryptic answer was something along the lines of "If the players have all had success before, it's probably not the players."  What was wrong with the Kings and were they going to waste an all-decade goaltending season from Jonathan Quick? Eventually the Kings righted the ship and started scoring goals. What was it that they corrected?  

While the easy answer is "They got rid of a bad player in Jack Johnson and added a great one in Jeff Carter," there's more to the solution than that single trade.

I began bouncing ideas off of Eric T. and talked through a number of theories and in mid-March we happened upon a series of interesting facts. 


The chart above shows the five-game rolling average of total shot distance at even strength by all players created in mid-March. Ignore the pronounced dip at game 40, and the chart still shows a downward trend from just after game 30 through the end of the season. What happened at that time that impacted the team on such a significant level? 

Terry Murray was replaced by Darryl Sutter.

The Switch

Under Murray, the team's average shot distance was 37 feet. Under Sutter, 35.6 feet. 

Under Murray, the defense took 28.4% of all shots. Under Sutter, 26.7%.

Under Murray, the forwards took 23.1 shots. Under Sutter, 25.1.

Under Murray, the forwards' average shot distance was 31 feet. Under Sutter, 29.3 feet.

To recap, the Kings, under Darryl Sutter, altered their system and style and that alteration changed the way the team executed with the same personnel. The forwards shot more often and from closer to the net and because of this scored more goals.  Remember, the Kings were a very good possession team that drove the play against even the best opponents. 

Typically, a coaching change doesn't fundamentally alter a team or the team's on-ice results. Usually, a new coach benefits from regression and has the ensuing team success credited to him in a variety of ways, none of them truly measurable. In Kings' case, however, the numbers generated after the coaching change were markedly improved and the team benefitted immediately from the change.

Through the first half of the season, the portion with Terry Murray behind the bench, the Kings' results were marred by terrible shot quality as the forwards collectively generated fewer shots, and the shots they did take were more often from the outside.  Shortly after the coaching change, this was corrected.  Whether the improvement in underlying shot quality was a shocking coincidence or whether it was driven by the systemic changes put in place by Darryl Sutter is still unclear.

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#1 Jared Lunsford
May 14 2012, 11:58AM
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Not buying it.

I honestly don't know if I watched the Kings this year when Murray was the coach, but I'm not convinced it's a style thing. They were flat-out dominant after the trade deadline, as all possession metrics show. Wouldn't having the puck in their end the whole time lead to more shots from the forwards compared to the defensemen? If the Murray coached team with the exact same system played an AHL team for 50 games wouldn't you expect the forwards to be getting a higher percentage of shots?

The Jack Johnson thing can't be overestimated here, for two reasons. The obvious one is that he sucks, and it's no coincidence that dumping him and bringing in play driver Jeff Carter lead to much of the dominance I mentioned above. The second part, which actually might be more important, is that he took a ton of shots. The coach can set up the style, but not having a shot-happy d-man back there is obviously going to improve the metrics you mention.

There's another small detail - their shooting percentage went down! One of the games got eaten, but under Murray they shot at a 6.1% clip at even strength. Since then they are at 5.9%. (TOI mplayer shots games 0-432 and 433-1230) Your article is a good argument for why that was more than just variance, we would definitely expect it to go up with the info in the article, but if we're explaining why something happened in the past I don't think shot quality is a good one when the actual shooting percentage went down.

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#2 Eric T.
May 14 2012, 12:27PM
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It's worth noting that the Kings were a top-10 team in 5v5 shooting percentage each of the previous two years. So I'm also not ready to roll all of this up in Murray's lap just yet, but there's no question that they were taking very low-quality shots over the first half of the year and that they've turned that around.

Jared makes a good point about shooting percentages. Using the BTN data (http://behindthenet.ca/L.A_2011.html), it looks like through 29 games they were at 6.0%, and they were at 5.9% through 61 games when Johnson got shipped out, then spiked up over the remainder of the season.

Their average shot distance was definitely falling throughout that span, though, and the percent of shots from defensemen dropped right at the time of the coaching change. So I think a fair argument could be made that the team was getting better shots and variance in shooting percentage was masking that change, but it's admittedly murky.

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#3 Cam Charron
May 14 2012, 12:35PM
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I remember suggesting that Terry Murray wasn't the right guy in LA because they were *only* a top-half possession team when, with that roster, they ought to have been top-5.

Those numbers definitely improved under Sutter:

http://blogs.thescore.com/nhl/2012/05/05/can-anybody-beat-the-los-angeles-kings/

Their FenTied spiked nearly 5% in the immediate two months after Sutter's hiring, then increased substantially after the Carter trade.

As Jared points out, if their shooting percentage went down, going from a below .500 team to a dominant one isn't indicated by shot quality, but I think taking shorter shots leads to more shots, not goals.

An unscreened point shot gets swallowed up by the goalie and possession ends. A screened shot from the top of the circle creates a rebound. Can the logical argument be made that taking closer shots allows for more sustained puck possession?

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#4 Tach
May 14 2012, 01:04PM
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Was anyone tracking Scoring Chance data for the Kings? (I googled it and only came up with other teams tracking against LA which could be assembled).

Wouldn't the same question of an increase in shot quality show up in that data in a manner that Cam's question of possession metrics being autocorrelated with shot distance ought not to affect?

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#5 Derek
May 14 2012, 01:58PM
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Fenwick Tied pre-Sutter: 50.2%

Fenwick Tied post-Sutter, pre-Carter: 54.9%

Fenwick Tied post-Carter: 61.2%

It really seems the Kings' meteoric rise had a lot more to do with a drastic improvement in possession under Sutter (which was greatly accelerated following the Johnson/Carter trade) than the relatively small improvement in shot distance that you're documenting here. They weren't much better than league average at possession under Murray and that jives with history since, in Murray's three previous seasons behind the bench, the Kings were never better than a 50.9% Fenwick Tied team.

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#6 Bob Knob
May 14 2012, 02:22PM
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None of you watched the Kings under TM this year because it was too gotdamned boring.

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#7 Robert JftC
May 14 2012, 02:34PM
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Sadly no. But over at Jftc we are going to do it retroactively over the post season.

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#8 Robert JftC
May 14 2012, 02:37PM
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@tach

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#9 Robert JftC
May 14 2012, 03:02PM
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Sutters Successes:

-Allowing Dustin Brown to play consistently at LW.

-Consistently playing Alec Martinez (league leader in Corsi this season) instead of scratching him for no good reason

-More aggressive forecheck, allowing defensemen to pinch more often

-Not playing Kevin Westgarth like ever

-Matt Greene getting 3rd pairing minutes only

-not being afraid to allow young players to fill big roles on team (i.e Voynov as 2nd pair, King on 2nd line, Nolan on 1st and 2nd lines at times) instead of guys like Ethan Moreau and Trent Hunter.

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#10 dan
May 14 2012, 03:59PM
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I agree with Derek. It certainly looks clear that possession improvement directly from Sutter. I know in interviews with D. Doughty he says Sutter explicitly told them to hang on to the puck more.

Question: Derek,

When the Pens dramatically changed their fenwick Tied under D. Bylsma wasn't that the result of system change & not regression?

Also,as for the impact of Sutter on Kings: The graph by Snark of FTF shows the increase.

http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/1085773/stllakfenwick.png

And, I have a multivariant regression /prediction model. In comparing LA 11 to LA 12 I found LA 12 improved exp. points by(+10%) these changes: Fenwick Tied increase worth 6% increase even sve% worth ~3% pp shot increase worth 1%

I think it can be argued that Sutter changed the style of play/system % everything flowed from this structural change.

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#11 SpenceYosh
May 14 2012, 04:13PM
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Murray and his dump and chase system was excruciating to watch. He played not to lose, rather than played to win.

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#12 Bob Knob
May 16 2012, 02:04PM
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Robert, Now that you mention it, everyone has forgotten what also happened around the time TM was fired. Moreau and Hunter were placed on waivers. Two players who really had no place on this team, imo. Old, slow, unskilled players.

It could be a part of the reason for the improvement as well. Also, yeah, Westy barely got any games in under Sutter, which is a good thing mostly. I think for next year we need to get someone skilled who can also fight players like Clowe. Cliffy can't step up to anybody and Nolan is 1-2 so far in fights.

Mr. NHL Numbers guys/programmers, Did you guys create your own scripts/ETL process to scrape the stats off of NHL.com's website or are you just pulling it from another site?

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