May 14 2012 11:48AM
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:
My Dearest Derek,
What the f*(k.
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.
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.