Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene are the bookends of our defense. Two defensive defensemen, one in the top pairing (with Voynov) and the other at the bottom (with Martinez, who is now also on IR).
But what about their impact on the team? From D through the neutral zone to O.
Willie Mitchell clears the front of the net. Matt Greene guards the crease with his size and strength. Their absence = rebounds on opposing forwards’ sticks.
Mitchell and Greene, while not necessarily “leading” the breakouts, do play a critical role in puck recovery in the defensive zone. Being in the position to dig the puck out and get it to Voynov or Martinez starts our breakouts. Without them, pucks stay in our zone longer, which leads to turnovers or the line spending more time playing defense. Their absence = longer defensive zone play and less effective breakouts.
The compromised breakouts adversely affect neutral zone play. Rather than turn and enter the neutral zone with speed with 1-2 passes, the puck ends up in skates and along the boards. That is why our neutral zone play looks sloppy and disorganized. This gives opposing forwards the ability to close the “gap” on us faster and more effectively, essentially keeping us from forcing them to play defense. This, in turn, places far more pressure on our forwards to stay back. Our centers’ ability to make plays and our wingers’ option to attack the blue line is affected. Their absence = less speed and offensive attack through the neutral zone.
The mess in the neutral zone means poor offensive zone entry. Darryl Sutter brought an aggressive forechecking style with him but the forecheck starts before you ever cross the blue line. What happens when an F2 and F3 are moving at half speed across the blue line? They don’t get to the puck as fast. When they don’t, you have an F1 that does without the benefit of supporting players to dig out the puck and take control. Even if the F1 gets to the puck first, to whom does he pass? The opposing team’s defense outnumbers our first forechecker. Without the puck in the neutral zone, our offense doesn’t get started with total puck control like we saw last season. Their absence = less aggressive forecheck.
The forecheck problem causes three other issues – first, our F2 and F3 have to work harder to recover the puck. Second, our defense cannot pinch as aggressively as they may want (without Mitchell and Greene, Voynov and Martinez have far less freedom to do so). Third, especially against a good defensive team with speed, a lot of time is spent along the boards. Remember that you are also dealing with a more tired line because of the additional and overall more time playing D on the other end. Impressively, the Kings have still managed to spend quality time in the opposing offensive zone. The problem has however been not getting the puck to those high percentage scoring areas. Their absence = lack of quality scoring chances.
Of course, the powerplay and penalty kill are impacted in the same way – the powerplay less so because the extra man gives us better breakouts and zone entry and the penalty kill far more so because puck recovery, clearing rebounds and breaking the puck out to a free forward for the clear can feel forced and often is.
Neutral zone speed.
Offensive zone entry.
Puck recovery and possession.