LOS ANGELES — After hitting the halfway point Tuesday night, Los Angeles Kings head coach Todd McLellan will sit down with his coaching staff and Rob Blake to evaluate the first half of the season.
With no practice Wednesday morning, I'll do the same. Looking at the new arrivals, biggest surprises, disappointments and where the team is overall.
Had this season gone according to plan, Pheonix Copley wouldn't be included in this article. He would still be with the Ontario Reign; splitting starts with Matt Vilalta. As we know, everything didn't go according to plan.
Father time has caught up to Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen failed to take the mantle of number one goalie. Leaving the Kings fate in the hands of Copley. And what a safe pair of hands he's provided.
In what has to be one of the biggest surprises in the NHL, Copley is currently 9-1-0 with a .908 save percentage and 0.8 goals saved above expected. He's righted the ship in net for the Kings and is providing the quality net minding they missed early in the season.
His success is a testament to the quality of this Kings team. He isn't standing on his head every night, stealing games for the team. He's providing solid, dependable performances in net. He's doing enough to give his team a good chance to win, and the team is taking advantage of that.
He's calm in net and that calming presence has spread across the team. Copley has given the Kings far more than they expected this season and they'll need to ride him for the foreseeable future.
The big-name signing meant to fix the Kings' offensive struggles, there was a lot expected of Fiala. He was acquired in exchange for Brock Faber and a 2022 first-round pick and immediately signed a $7,875,000 contract. Has he been everything the Kings hoped for?
Yes and no. His offensive talent is unquestionable. He leads the team in points, assists and primary assists. On pace for 78 points, he's a big reason the Kings have a top-10 offense this season. It's been a long, long time since the Kings have had a player of Fiala's style and caliber. He routinely makes plays that take your breath away and can propel the Kings to wins they wouldn't have gotten in the past. All good, right? Unfortunately, there are two glaring weaknesses in Fiala's game.
The first is his defensive play. He is bad defensively, really bad. His -1.5 defensive goals above replacement is the worst on the team by a noticeable margin and he doesn't pass the eye test either. But you didn't bring Fiala in to be good defensively, he was brought in to generate offense. The Kings have plenty of defensively sound forwards to make up for one luxury player. By itself, his poor defense isn't the end of the world.
The more problematic issue is his discipline. His 32 penalty minutes are second only to Brendan Lemieux and unlike Lemieux, all of Fiala's penalties have been minors. Often selfish, offensive zone penalties. Tuesday's game against the Dallas Stars is the perfect example of the duality of Fiala's game. He makes a beautiful play to set up Adrian Kempe for the go-ahead goal, Fiala's second primary assist. A play only Fiala can make on this Kings team, but the next shift, he takes an unnecessary slashing penalty with eight minutes left in a one-goal game.
That penalty didn't hurt the Kings in this instance, but it will at some point. And the concern is that will happen in an important game, a game 7, or an elimination game. After Tuesday's game, McLellan was asked if Fiala's discipline is frustrating to manage.
"It is a bit," said McLellan. "Cause we've talked about it, but I don't manage Kevin, Kevin manages Kevin. And I think I mentioned this to the media yesterday or the day before. When it's crunch time and we're up by one or down by one I want him to be on the ice all the time. But he, or other players, will dictate whether they are or aren't."
McLellan was very complimentary of Fiala's first half Monday morning.
"I think Kev has been a great addition to our team,” McLellan said. “His creativity, his playmaking, his shot are all something that we needed and I think he brings that to the game every night. When he’s on the ice, there’s a big threat, so I think he’s been a great addition. I think he fits our group well and I think that his teammates like having him around.”
Overall, it's been a successful first 41 for Fiala, with some room to grow.
Copley would be the number one candidate for this spot, but I already covered him so he won't feature here.
Heading into the season Gabe Vilardi's Kings career was hanging in the balance. If he didn't improve, there's a high possibility he wouldn't be an LA King this time next year. And improve he did.
He started the season red hot, with 15 points in his first 15 games, including 10 goals in that period. He's slowed down significantly since that hot start, with six goals and 10 points in his next 25 games.
But crucially, he's added other elements to his game. As McLellan calls it, his "B" game is far better this season than it's ever been. He's posting the best defensive metrics on the team and leads the team in goals and wins above replacement.
He's finally emerging as the player he was meant to be when drafted 11th overall in 2017. There's more confidence and more swagger to his game. And everyone seems to agree, he looks like he's having fun playing hockey again. He's found a nice home on the Kings' third line and top power-play unit, and there's hope he and Fiala develop chemistry over the next few games. Your leading scorer and playmaker clicking would be huge for the Kings.
Consistency has been a problem throughout Vilardi's young career, so his second half will be fascinating to watch.
A player who consistently outperforms the tools he has, Blake Lizotte has taken another step up this season. Penciled in as the fourth-line center heading into the season, Lizotte has moved up to the third line and is on pace to set career highs in goals, assists and points.
He's an important cog between Vilardi and Fiala right now, providing the puck-hunting and dirty work for his more skilled wingers.
He'll never be more than a bottom-six center and he'll likely return to the fourth line at some point this season. But his play through 41 games has been fantastic.
Jonathan Quick/Cal Petersen
Instead of discussing them separately, I'll cover Quick and Petersen together, as their combined struggles were the Kings' Achilles heel early in the season.
Both goalies have below a .900 save percentage and a combined -20 goals saved above expected. I said earlier that Copley wasn't stealing games for the Kings, well Quick and Petersen have stolen games away from them this season.
The fact that Copley's numbers are fairly average league-wide and the Kings look like an entirely different team with him in net says a lot. Neither Quick nor Petersen have provided the Kings with NHL-caliber goaltending this season and Petersen was sent to the AHL because of this.
In the larger context, their failures this season puts the Kings in a tricky situation, only adding to the disappointment in their performances.
There is no bigger disappointment than the goalies this season. Had Copley not come in and played well, this issue could have unraveled the Kings' season. And it still can if Copley can't sustain his level of play. But given expectations heading into the season, the majority of that blame would fall on Quick and Petersen.
This might feel a little harsh to include Byfield in the disappointment category, especially after his performance Tuesday night. But he hasn't been good enough. Even with the context of his illness and AHL stint, there hasn't been enough from him.
He's on pace for zero goals and 18 points in 53 games. Even the fact that he spent 16 games with the Reign is a disappointment.
This season wasn't expected to be his big breakout, but there were supposed to be signs that a breakout was imminent and that hasn't happened. In far too many games he's been a passenger and has failed to impose himself. There's been a timidness to his game that doesn't lend itself to a dynamic forward.
There's good news though. He's currently on the team's first line, playing wing, and just had his best game of the season. In that game, he drove offense and made his presence known. If he can continue that level of play, the production will follow and he can save his season.
His play against Dallas points to an impending breakout, but he needs to do that regularly. His lack of consistency was pointed out as a big reason he remained in the AHL for so long and he needs to put that behind him. A big second half from Byfield would be game-changing for the Kings and would almost feel like a trade deadline acquisition.
The Team Overall
It's been an up-and-down season for the Kings. They started the year with a high-powered offense but an incredibly leaky defense, leading to a lot of high-scoring losses. They continued this trend through December and into Buffalo. In Buffalo, they were shellacked 6-0 by the Sabres in a performance that sent fans into a frenzy. People were calling for heads and #FireTodd was trending on Kings' Twitter.
That loss in Buffalo turned out to be an inflection point though. The Kings have won seven of nine games since then and only dropped one game in regulation, they look like a more committed team and appear to have bought into their system.
They're currently trending in the right direction. Posting positive metrics at five-on-five, getting improved goaltending, and still boasting a top-half power play.
The one area that needs improvement is the penalty kill. They're a bottom-five team in penalty kill percentage, a standing that is unsustainable. Special teams killed them last year and will again if they don't figure something out. There has been improvement recently and it culminated in a three-for-three performance against the Stars Tuesday. That improvement needs to be seen over a long stretch now.
Copley's play in net had done a lot for the penalty kill. As they say, your best penalty killer needs to be your goalie, and the Kings are proving that true.
On pace for 100 points, which will see them make the playoffs comfortably, it would be hard to complain about the first half. There's been inconsistency and rough patches, but the Kings have found a way to win games. They also dealt with a grueling schedule to start the season, hitting the 41-game mark before any other team and have a lighter second half. More time between games to practice and keep healthy should benefit them.
Had fans been offered 50 points after 41 games in isolation, I'm sure many would have taken that. It hasn't always been pretty, but the Kings are meeting expectations.