Kings Issues: Team Needs to Address Lack of Size & Physicality
The Kings are no longer a big, physical team that punishes the opposition at every chance.
It seems so long ago that teams dreaded playing the Los Angeles Kings. During the Cup years, every team knew they were in for a tough, physical battle against the Kings. Now, that identity is gone.
The Kings are no longer a big, physical team that punishes the opposition at every chance. The move to a faster, more skilled team was necessary for the team, but they've gone too far in the other direction. They've gone from one extreme to the other and it doesn't work.
Take Thursday's game for example. Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach Aston-Reese buried Arthur Kaliyev at center ice and as you'd expect, someone went after Aston-Resse for a big hit on a young star player. The issue? That player was 5-foot-9, 170-pound Blake Lizotte. And good on Lizotte for standing up for his teammate, but that should not be the player holding the opposition accountable.
This issue is only exaggerated with Brendan Lemieux out of the lineup. When asked about the challenging task of replacing Lemieux, Todd McLellan said:
"The role that Brendan fills, the physicality, the battles, and the forecheck and the body contact can be shared by everybody. The policing part of it, every team might have one, some teams don't have any. That's where he specializes a little bit more than some other guys have."
But, the Kings having just one NHL-caliber player who can physically impose himself points to a greater issue. Yes, other players can replace some of the physical elements on the forecheck Lemieux brings. But, as McLellan points out, it's the "policing" accountability element that Lemieux brings that's clearly missing.
McLellan brings up a good point that most teams only have one player, at most, who specializes in this role. And the Kings don't need to bring back Kurtis MacDermid, but they do not have anyone who can impose themselves physically on the opposition.
The team's two most physical forwards right now are Carl Grundstrom and Adrian Kempe. Grundstrom is a heavy forechecker who throws his weight around but doesn't worry teams with his physicality. And Kempe wasn't re-signed for $5.5 million for his physicality.
On defense, there's a similar issue. Players like Mikey Anderson and Matt Roy won't shy away from the physical side of the game. But they aren't physically imposing. They don't bring the element a defenseman as Matt Greene did for the Kings.
The team has the same problem across the board. Their most physical players aren't especially physical. They're as physical as you'd expect from shut-down defensemen or bottom-six grinders.
Even with Lemieux in the lineup, who is as tough as they come, the team needs more help. A defenseman who could fill the role, or another forward higher in the lineup would go a long way for the Kings. And they could really use both.
Options Moving Forward
That leaves the question; what can the Kings do? There are only two options, make a trade, or wait for an internal option to become available. The only viable internal option, which I'll get to, is a few seasons away. A trade seems like the only immediate fix.
And again, the Kings don't need a MacDermid style, pure enforcer. They also can't overpay for the notion of size and grit as so many teams have. Contracts given to players like Erik Gudbranson, Rasmus Ristolainen or Ben Chiarot are examples of overpaying for this element, but there's a balance.
Looking at defensemen, someone like Jamie Oleksiak or Derek Forbort would be a step in the right direction. They aren't pure enforcers but effective left-shot defensemen with size. Physical players who can add an element that's currently missing in the lineup. Even if these two, in particular, weren't available, that is the type of player Rob Blake should be targeting. And given the team's abundance of assets, acquiring a player like that should be very achievable.
At forward, there are a few options. Someone like Brandon Duhaime or Austin Watson fits the mold if you want more of a fourth-line player. Both have speed, post solid defensive metrics and bring that missing element to the lineup. If the team wants someone with more offensive upside, who can play a top-nine role. Lawson Crouse is a solid option from the Arizona Coyotes.
There is one player in the organization who could solve a lot of these problems. That player is 2021 second-round pick Samuel Helenius. Standing 6-foot-6, 216-pounds at just 20 years old, Helenius was drafted because he is an extremely physical player with a mean streak. Playing in the Finnish Liiga, he didn't come with much experience fighting, but he recently got into his first two professional fights. If he adds that element to his game, he will solve this problem for the Kings. The only issue? Helenius is still a few seasons away from the NHL. At least two.
In the meantime, the Kings have to get a stopgap. One of the players listed above, or someone who can fill a similar role. It would come at the cost of more skill in the bottom-six, or on the blue line. But it's a sacrifice the Kings should gladly make.
They don't have to fully return to the Darryl Sutter era of size and toughness but adding a little bit of that would go a long way.