LA Kings: Defensive injuries progress is best news for team

LA Kings (Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports)
LA Kings (Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports) /

LA Kings head coach Todd McLellan delivered some positive news on Wednesday, indicating injured defensive players could all return soon.

Ask just about anyone what the issues are with the LA Kings right now, and the first thing out of their mouth will be something regarding issues along the blue line. January 28 seemed to be a doomsday, of sorts, for this club when Andreas Athanasiou and Blake Lizotte landed on the NHL’s COVID protocol list before and after the two-game series finale against the Minnesota Wild, respectively.

During the game, the LA Kings lost both Matt Roy on a boarding penalty and Sean Walker on a slapshot to the face. Todd McLellan’s group has yet to get in the win column in February, and while holding late leads is another topic entirely, getting the regulars back along the blue line will go a long way toward righting the ship.

And it sounds like that day is vastly approaching.

“He [Roy] was wearing a non-contact jersey, but there was still some gentle battles if you want to call them that, that he got involved in body positioning and stuff like that,” McLellan said after practice on Wednesday. “So [I] talked to him after. He was excited and happy to be out there with his teammates. I think that’s sparked a little life in us as a team right now. And we can always use that. So all indications are that he’s going to keep working and get through it. The cancellation of the game against Minnesota is going to help our team get healthier. And hopefully, by next week, we have some healthy bodies to inject into the lineup.”

Roy isn’t a flashy player. The definition for Matt Roy is consistency. The analytics support that, as Evolving Hockey has him ranked among the best defensemen in the league in terms of Goals-Above-Replacement (GAR). It’ll be interesting to see when Roy returns to the lineup if the Kings elect to pair Mikey Anderson with him again, as the duo accounted for a 50 xGF% in an eight-game sample size.

Of course, Sean Walker is the other player missing from the lineup right now, and it appears he’s close to skating again, which is great news considering he needed surgery on his nose.

“He’s [in] great spirits doing really well,” McLellan said of Walker. “Training off the ice. There’s a good chance we’ll see him skate either on his own or with the group here in the next day or two.”

The Kings looked like they were about to hit the trifecta in terms of right-shot defensemen lost to injury when Drew Doughty took a slapshot off his forearm. The former Norris Trophy winner left the ice under his power but never returned in Tuesday’s game against the Sharks, and his presence was sorely missed in the closing seconds of regulation with the LA Kings clinging to a 3-2 lead.

“I know for me, it’s a maintenance day and he [Drew] doesn’t miss many games,” McLellan explained. “I think that I’m going to have his number up on the board tomorrow and he’s going to be ready to play. So I’m not necessarily big relief. It’s probably what I expected. And we’ll be excited about getting them back.”

Crisis averted for now, but it would appear that only Doughty will return to the lineup on Thursday in the series finale against the San Jose Sharks. The Kings have to find a way to start games faster, as they have found themselves trailing in the first period in all but two games. I’m not sure if playoffs are still a realistic expectation – I suppose anything is possible if the Kings get hot – but you’d like to see the rebuild start trending in the right direction.

We’re 12 games through the 2021 regular season, and it feels like the Kings have regressed some from the end of last season. Yes, injuries and COVID has played a role. And yes, Kurtis MacDermid shouldn’t be playing second-pairing minutes. But the offense, outside of the team’s first line, just hasn’t been consistent.

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I saw some positives from Jaret Anderson-Dolan in the last three games, and moving Gabe Vilardi up to the second line center to play with Jeff Carter was a great move. Let’s see if the LA Kings can come out a little better against San Jose on Thursday night, play a complete 60-minutes, and hopefully notch their first win in February.