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‘It’s their goal to don’t play hockey’ — Is the Kings’ 1-3-1 bad for the NHL?

Vancouver Canucks defenceman Nikita Zadorov bluntly criticized the Los Angeles Kings' 1-3-1 neutral zone trap earlier this week.
Vancouver Canucks defenceman Nikita Zadorov stares down Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar while goaltender Cam Talbot looks on.

This week, outspoken Vancouver Canucks defenceman Nikita Zadorov caused a stir when he bluntly assessed the Los Angeles Kings’ style of play. 

The Kings play a 1-3-1 neutral zone trap that sees one forward “forecheck” in the loosest definition of the word, three players clog up the neutral zone to prevent gaining the offensive zone with control, and one defenceman back to chase down dumped-in pucks and send them right back out of the zone. It’s boring, infuriating, and — worst of all — extremely effective.

“I mean, that's their system,” said Zadorov. “They don't really make plays; they just rim the puck and sit back all game. I mean, it's their goal to don't play hockey and don't let the other team play hockey, pretty much.”

"I wasn't too keen on playing it, to be honest with you"

Zadorov’s comments coming after a 3-2 loss can make it sound like sour grapes but he’s voicing the frustrations many fans have with watching the Kings play hockey. The Kings have perfected a low-event style that relies on waiting for their opposition to make mistakes and counter-attacking with a quick strike before sitting back again.

It’s a style that even Kings defenceman Drew Doughty had to admit he wasn’t enthused to play, even as he called Zadorov’s comments “absurd.”

“When we brought the system…I wasn’t too keen on playing it, to be honest with you,” said Doughty. “But as we’ve continued to play it, seeing how successful it is and how frustrating it is for other teams…I think a lot of these people are just saying it out of frustration because it’s working.”

Still, there’s an argument to be made that even if it works, the Kings’ style is bad for hockey — an ugly, boring style that harkens back to the worst tendencies of the dead puck era of the late nineties and early 2000s that saw goalscoring rates drop into the abyss. 

But here’s the thing: unlike the trap teams of that era, the Kings still score a decent amount. They’re right in the middle of the pack in goalscoring this season — 18th at 5-on-5 and 16th overall. They’ve got the talent to take advantage of their quickstrike counter attacks and at least bring their own fans out of their seats with excitement.

The Canucks are as stingy defensively as the Kings

Here's a dirty little secret that Canucks fans might not like to hear: in terms of defensive results, the Canucks have been almost identical to the Kings this season.

When Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet was asked about the King’s tight-checking game, he was quick to say, “We’re a tight-checking team too” and he’s right. While they don’t play the same style of game, the Canucks and Kings’ opponents get almost exactly the same results against them.

In each of these analytics, the Canucks and Kings are near the best in the league. They’re fourth and fifth in corsi (shot attempts) against, second and fifth in shots against, and fourth and fifth in expected goals against. 

In fact, the Canucks have actually allowed fewer goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than the Kings, thanks to some outstanding goaltending from Thatcher Demko and Casey DeSmith. If any team should be getting complaints about being stifling to play against, maybe it should be the Canucks.

Here’s another thing: the Kings actually create more shots and chances than the Canucks do — a lot more. 

The Kings have the fourth-highest rate of corsi (shot attempts) at 5-on-5 in the NHL; the Canucks are 23rd. The Kings also have the third-highest rate of shots on goal at 5-on-5; the Canucks are 26th. In terms of expected goals, the Kings are fifth in the NHL; the Canucks are 19th.

Canucks = Exciting; Kings = Boring — but why?

So, what’s the difference? Why do the Kings register as boring, while the Canucks register as exciting?

There are a few reasons. One is certainly that the Canucks score more on fewer shots, with an 11.03% shooting percentage at 5-on-5 that leads the league. Goals are exciting and the Canucks have scored a lot of them.

Another is that the Canucks are focused on creating grade-A scoring chances rather than just shots on goal, which shows up in the analytics. The Canucks may be near the bottom of the NHL in shot attempts and shots on goal but they’re sixth in the NHL in high-danger chances at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick.

So, while the Canucks may create fewer shots than the Kings, they arguably create more grade-A chances, which makes for a more exciting game.

But beyond how the Canucks and Kings produce offensively, there’s a distinct difference in how they get similar defensive results. 

Both the Canucks and Kings are among the league leaders for the fewest rush chances against per game but they get those results in different ways. The Kings sit back in their 1-3-1 with incredible discipline, giving few opportunities for teams to break through for a rush chance.

The Canucks, on the other hand, take a more dynamic approach. They’ll send two forwards in to forecheck aggressively, as long as the third forward — F3 — stays above his man, ensuring that the Canucks will always have three players back to defend the rush. Meanwhile, the two forechecking forwards — F1 and F2 — are expected to backcheck hard, providing back pressure to make it easier for the defence to keep a tight gap.

On top of that, Tocchet has repeatedly emphasized all season that he doesn’t want his forwards skating backwards through the neutral zone to defend the rush, but to instead be skating forward to meet pressure with pressure. He wants to see his forwards “surfing” the opponents, attacking on a curving path, like a surfer carving into a wave, which guides the opposing players into the lanes they want them to go. 

The end result is that the Canucks play a more dynamic, aggressive defensive system than the Kings that is both more exciting to play and more exciting to watch.

The Canucks' approach also comes with a bit more risk. If the Canucks’ F3 isn’t in the right spot, it opens up opportunities for opponents to counter-attack on the rush. That's why you’ll often hear Tocchet talk about the importance of that F3 in postgame press conferences. Also, if F1 and F2 don’t backcheck hard, that can leave the trailer open for a scoring chance.

It's up to the Canucks to figure out how to break down the 1-3-1

The 1-3-1 carries less risk than the Canucks' defensive approach, especially for a team as disciplined and experienced as the Kings. It would be great if more teams around the NHL played a more dynamic defensive game but as longas the 1-3-1 works, there will always be teams that lean on it.

The onus, then, is on the Kings’ opponents figuring out how to break down the 1-3-1. That will be particularly important for the Canucks, who could end up facing the Kings in the playoffs.

The Canucks had some success in their second game against the Kings, using quick ups to catch the Kings before they can get back into their 1-3-1 or creating speed underneath the puck carrier to attack with pace when the Kings did get settled back into their 1-3-1. 

“I think inevitably, when they can’t get in their structure, we have a little bit of an advantage,” said J.T. Miller after that game. “They’re so well-structured through the neutral zone and how they break the puck out. The second period is a period where we can take advantage of teams like that and not let them get off…They’ve got a longer change, so we want a quick up as much as we can and we played very fast and held onto pucks and had a lot of good looks, so we took advantage of that.”

The Canucks were also far more patient and methodical in avoiding mistakes on which the Kings could capitalize.

“I mean, you have to [stay patient], otherwise it’ll bite you in the ass,” said Elias Pettersson after that game. “They’re a well-structured team.”

If the Canucks — and the rest of the NHL — can more consistently break down the 1-3-1 and prevent it from becoming a winning strategy, it will be better for the league and the sanity of hockey fans. The worst thing that could happen is the Kings winning the Stanley Cup with this boring style and spawning a crowd of copycats.