For NHL fans of a certain age,1 the definitive Los Angeles Kings team is Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings team. The franchise existed for 21 seasons before Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles in 1988, but the banality that he single-handedly made hockey relevant in LA is largely true. Kings attendance soared with No. 99 in the fold,2 the team’s value increased sharply during his tenure there,3 and Gretzky instantly transformed the on-ice product into a legitimate contender by powering one of the best offenses in the game. Behind a 40-point postseason by Gretzky, the Kings reached their apex in 1993 — losing in five games but earning what was, at the time, the franchise’s lone Stanley Cup Final berth. For years, the Gretzky era easily represented the high-water mark of hockey’s four-decade experiment in Southern California.
Not anymore. The Kings now are back in the finals for the second time in three years, and are looking for another Stanley Cup victory to follow the one they won in 2012. But this team isn’t Gretzky’s. It’s constructed differently and it plays a different game. And it might be better for it.
If you’re looking for an NHL “Moneyball,” the modern Kings may be as close as any team to embodying the ethos of hockey’s sabermetric revolution. As FiveThirtyEight contributor Eric Tulsky has noted before, the current Kings pursue a strategy of constant control of the puck. With a host of possession superstars, the Kings have led the NHL in close-score4 Fenwick percentage — a proxy for time of possession that measures a team’s share of all unblocked shots directed at either net during its games — for two years running, and the year before that they dominated the metric down the stretch after swapping defenseman Jack Johnson5 for center Jeff Carter at the trade deadline.
No opposing team can score (or even shoot) when it doesn’t have the puck. During the regular season, LA allowed the league’s third-lowest rate of unblocked shots per minute of 5-on-5 play, and its second-lowest rate of total shots allowed per game. Along with decent goaltending from Jonathan Quick, that’s how the Kings helped clinch the William Jennings Trophy, given to the goaltenders on the team that allows the fewest goals all season. Maximizing possession is a hockey hack that helps at both ends of the rink.
But all that possession hasn’t guaranteed the modern-day Kings a bushel of goals. The Kings spent most of the 2013-14 regular season struggling to light the lamp, despite firing the league’s second-highest rate of unblocked shots at the opposing net.6 Their 5-on-5 shooting percentage with the score close, which had been average in 2012-13, slumped to third worst in the NHL this season. Still, LA kept emphasizing possession and putting the puck on net, seeming to trust that shooting percentages tend to regress heavily to the mean.
And the Kings rediscovered their scoring touch at just the right time. During the playoffs, they’ve scored on a substantially higher proportion of shots than they did during the regular season. It doesn’t hurt that they also acquired right wing Marian Gaborik — whose career shooting percentage ranks among the best of any active player’s — at the trade deadline. But the biggest reason for the Kings’ offensive resurgence is that they rode out their poor shooting luck and continued to focus on dominating the puck, the way statheads have been calling for teams to do for years.
The Kings squad that Gretzky tearfully joined on Aug. 9, 1988, played a very different kind of hockey.
We don’t know for sure because play-by-play records from that era are not available, but it’s unlikely that Gretzky’s Kings dominated possession of the puck. According to estimates of close-score Fenwick percentage for older seasons, Los Angeles ranked among the top half of teams in possession rate just once (1990-91) in the eight seasons the Great One wore silver and black. Most of the time, they were actually somewhat bad at keeping control of the puck, ranking 18th out of 26 teams in estimated close-score Fenwick percentage during Gretzky’s tenure.
Instead, they lived off a suspiciously high shooting percentage that modern analysts might decry as luck. During Gretzky’s first three seasons as a King, LA finished no worse than second in goals per shot. But Gretzky’s playmaking wizardry was probably a very real effect. Over that span, he paced the league in assists by a wide margin,7 and his teammates shot 9.1 percent better in those seasons than they would over the rest of their careers.
Gretzky’s squad didn’t have a deep roster, either. According to Tom Awad’s catch-all summary stat Goals Versus Threshold (like Value Over Replacement Player for hockey), the 1992-93 Kings were a notably top-heavy team. They were led by stars such as Luc Robitaille and Jari Kurri. (Not to mention Gretzky, who recovered from an injury in time to post 65 points in 45 games.) But they also lost 17.8 goals because sub-replacement-level talent was on the ice, one of the largest totals in recent memory by a team that won more than half its games.
The current iteration of the Kings has superior depth, and nary a Gretzky type to be found. Since LA’s top scorer Anže Kopitar debuted with the club in 2006-07, his best offensive season was 86 adjusted points. Gretzky’s worst full-season mark as a King by far was 83 adjusted points9 in 1994-95 — and he cracked the century mark in five of his six full seasons in Los Angeles. Today’s Kings rely less on a single superstar to carry the bulk of the offensive workload.
Superior depth and puck possession don’t automatically equal a better hockey team, though they often do. The proof is in the results for the current Kings, who over the last three seasons are already twice as close to a quantifiable dynasty as the franchise was during Gretzky’s entire stay in Southern California.10 If advancing deep into the postseason is the standard for success, today’s Kings beat No. 99’s in a landslide.
Gretzky himself has said that the present-day Kings are impressive. Of the Cup-winning 2012 team, the Great One said, “They’re a much better team than we were in ’93.”
He’s right. Gretzky’s team was an exciting offensive squad, and one of the last successful relics of the high-octane playing style that had ruled the game in the 1980s. But today’s Los Angeles Kings are exemplars of the modern game. They know that if you always have the puck on your stick, you can’t lose.