The Los Angeles Kings have been a solid team in recent seasons.
There's no shame in coming third in the Pacific Division and losing to Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the playoffs, as the Kings did in both 2021-22 and 2022-23. But this season the team seems to have ascended beyond the ranks of the middleweights and into the realm of upper-echelon squads.
The Kings made the strongest statement of their season on Wednesday, defeating the defending champion Vegas Golden Knights 4-1. Not only was it just the second time the Golden Knights lost in regulation this season, it was the first time they fell by more than two goals since the second round of the 2022-23 playoffs. That's a span of 26 games.
The win itself wasn't utterly overwhelming, as the Kings needed a big game from goaltender Cam Talbot to keep Vegas at bay, but Los Angeles is now 1-0-1 against the NHL's top dogs, and 6-0-1 in its last seven.
The only teams to beat the Kings this season are four top-tier Stanley Cup Contenders: the Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins, and Golden Knights. Vegas and Carolina both needed a shootout to do so.
Los Angeles has steamrolled everyone else, leading to an 8-2-2 record and a goal differential that ranks third in the NHL (+17).
Those kind of results are tough to fake even in a relatively small sample, but a closer look at the Kings reveals there's nothing fluky about what they've managed so far. Los Angeles leads the NHL in expected goal rate across all situations (57.87%) and ranks fourth at 5-on-5 (56.74%). The team isn't relying on any massive special-teams outliers, either, as its power play is the 14th-most efficient unit in the league (20.8%), while its penalty kill is a reasonable ninth (85.4%).
Los Angeles may even have some room for growth with the man advantage considering it possessed the NHL's fourth-best power play in 2022-23 (25.3%).
The goaltending that seemed like the team's biggest issue entering the season has been solid with Talbot and Pheonix Copley combining for a .908 save percentage. That cumulative number is a bit misleading, as Talbot has overperformed (.930 SV%) while Copley has been dreadful (.788), but as the former regresses the latter should pick it up — and if he doesn't he's likely to be replaced by someone who can.
Although Talbot may not remain scorching hot, in overall terms this team's success hasn't been driven by goaltending it can't hope to replicate going forward. The 36-year-old might've been underrated coming into 2023-24 as well. Although his 2022-23 was rough, he entered this season with a .911 save percentage in his previous four campaigns combined, and he at least matched that mark in three of them. It's not outrageous to think he can give the Kings at least average production in the crease.
The only hole you could poke in the Kings' early success is that they rank second in the NHL with a 12.98 shooting percentage. That means the 4.25 goals per game they've managed isn't sustainable, but this was a top-10 offense last season, and there are plenty of reasons to believe it can be even better in 2023-24.
Pierre-Luc Dubois is the biggest individual difference maker the team added, but it's also seen some important internal growth. Former second-overall pick Quinton Byfield has already produced half of his 2022-23 point total (11) in 22.6% of the games, while skating on the team's first line at 5-on-5.
Arthur Kaliyev — the 33rd overall pick in 2019 — is also providing some solid secondary scoring from the third line and seems likely to obliterate his previous career-high of 28 points.
Rookie Alex Laferriere is still finding his feet at the NHL level, but the production the team is getting from its youth has helped solidify its top-nine and ensured offensive balance throughout the lineup. The Kings have 10 forwards with at least six points already this season, and not many squads have an answer for a forward group this deep:
Los Angeles has an excellent first line, a second line that could function as a top group on many teams, and a third unit with top-six skill. Even its last group could be a third line for a few NHL franchises.
When the shooting percentage comes down, the Kings' scoring numbers will get a little more reasonable but they should have no problem lighting the lamp this season.
The defense corps doesn't have the same level of quality throughout, but Drew Doughty is still a force and re-signing 2022-23 in-season addition Vladislav Gavrikov helped solidify the Kings' second pair.
Early in the 2023-24 season, it's become clear there isn't an abundance of great teams in the Western Conference, particularly with the Edmonton Oilers having such a terrible time in the early going.
The Vancouver Canucks have the results of an emerging powerhouse, but many of their underlying numbers suggest they're coming back to earth sooner or later. Believing in the Anaheim Ducks doesn't seem wise despite their respectable start.
As a result, the Western Conference has often been conceptualized as the Golden Knights, Avalanche, Dallas Stars and a bunch of also-rans. That's looking like a less and less reasonable way to view the situation, with the Kings proving their quality night in, night out.