Through the Olympic break, the Los Angeles Kings were struggling for offense. Or, more accurately, they were struggling to get the puck into the back of the net—which isn't the same thing at all.
They had 141 goals in 59 games, or 2.4 a night. That was good for 26th in the league, ahead of only Calgary, Florida, New Jersey, and Buffalo, a murder victims' row of teams that couldn't score if their lives depended on it. Despite this, they sat 12th in the league with 68 points in those 59 games, only a 94.5-point pace.
Today, they're scoring a hell of a lot more. They ended the regular season with 206 goals, meaning they scored 65 over their final 23 games, at 2.82 per night (which, by the way, still isn't a lot). They also ended the season with 100 points, so their pace over the final month-and-a-half of the season was better than 114 points.
The scoring, and the winning, continued in the postseason, including last night's 6-2 comeback over the Blackhawks to even up the Western Conference final at one game apiece. Their 3.25 goals per game is tops among all playoff teams.
So, what changed? The most commonly cited reason is the trade for Marian Gaborik. Pretty convenient, really, because the Kings' offense took off right around the time the Olympic break ended, and he was acquired five games after that (please ignore that the Kings scored 18 goals in those five games).
But if Gaborik is even a major part of the reason all this scoring is happening, then he'd have to be considered the most valuable player in the league by far. If he can add more than 0.4 goals per game to the Kings offense, that makes him worth about 33 goals over the course of an 82-game season, or 11 standings points. That would in short, be a crazy amount. Gaborik is very good, and in the time since he's come to Los Angeles — across both the regular season and playoffs — he's put up 32 points in 35 games. He also put up a 60 percent corsi during the regular season, likely a product of playing with Anze Kopitar, who finished at 61 percent for the year. But he's not this good (though he may have stolen Mike Richards's powers).
So there's something else at play here. If no one player can add all that offensive power, then why did the Kings suddenly start scoring nearly 17 percent more goals per night?
You'll recall that around the All-Star break two years ago, the Kings were in a bit of a quandary on offense. Then, on Feb. 23, 2012, they traded for Jeff Carter and the team, collectively, went off. They were 30th in the league in goals at just 131 in 61 games (2.15 per) but scored 63 over their final 21 games (3 per), and then cruised to a Stanley Cup behind 2.85 goals per game. Carter, like Gaborik, didn't add that much pop all by himself.
What's more likely to be the case was that the Kings continued to do things how they always have—possession, possession, possession—and only bolstered their chances to create goals by making those trades, though they'd have been insane to expect this kind of uptick. The Carter trade saw them shed a negative-possession defenseman (Jack Johnson) and a first-round pick. For Gaborik, they gave up marginal NHLer Matt Frattin, and second- and third-round picks. Neither price was in any way detrimental to the team's immediate roster.
And at the same time, their possession numbers remained among the tops in the league. Prior to the Carter trade in 2012, their 5-on-5 fenwick percentage with the score close was 52 percent, and they ended the season at 53.7 percent. A notable difference there—though it shouldn't lead to the nearly 40 percent increase in goals per game—to go with a slight drop in goals against. (One could make the case that the subtraction of Johnson — 49.8 percent corsi — did as much good as adding Carter's 51.5 percent, given the volume of minutes both played for the Kings. Johnson has been garbage since.)
But this year, the post-trade impact on the team's underlying numbers hasn't been as substantial. They acquired him on March 6, when their team fenwick close was a mountainous 56 percent. They ended the season at 56.7 percent, which is admittedly difficult to do because of how high it was to begin with. But if you look at the graph, the team was basically fluctuating in that Himalayan range of 55-57 percent more or less since the final week of October. That's remarkable, but doesn't point to Gaborik's addition fundamentally changing the hockey being played.
A team cannot create 56 percent of shot attempts in their games and keep scoring in the bottom sixth of the league. This is, perhaps, antithetical to the "watch the games" arguments of some observers, but correlation does not equal causation. Gaborik wasn't brought in to make the offense go so much as he was to complement the offense that was already going very, very well. He was inserted onto the top line to add a little more pop, sure, but even without him Anze Kopitar would still have been dominant.
The Kings didn't think there was anything wrong with their play, and weren't really addressing a specific need by adding a player of Gaborik's caliber (and keep in mind, at the time of the acquisition, he was coming off an injury and hadn't been overwhelming for Columbus). They viewed him as what he was—a luxury addition to push a playoff team up to serious Cup contenders.
But here's the twist: The Kings' offensive increase has come at the expense of their defensive dominance, at least somewhat. While their goals per game have gone up, goals against per game have increased as well. Prior to the Olympic break, they were at 2.1 goals allowed a night, and since then, it's been 2.4. So despite the increase in offense, their percentage of all goals scored in their games (53.2 percent) hasn't changed.
The Kings don't want to get into a shooting match with the Blackhawks. Chicago is probably the deepest team in terms of scoring ability in the league, and if they're going to go punch-for-punch, it probably isn't going to go well. A game with eight goals, as Game 2 was, isn't likely to work out in the Kings' favor most nights.
Of course, if you're scoring more than half the goals in your games overall, you're going to win more often than not. That comes from doing everything right game in and game out, and being deep, and having some of the best possession players on the planet, like Kopitar and Justin Williams and Drew Doughty. That's why the Kings win, and that's why they're scoring now, seemingly all of a sudden. Because they were always supposed to. It's the process that got them to this point in the postseason three straight years. It works because of everyone, not because of one guy. No matter how many points he has.
Ryan Lambert is a columnist for Puck Daddy, among other places. His email is here and his Twitter is here.