The Los Angeles Kings remained one of the league’s best puck possession teams, yet missed the playoffs for the second time in the past three seasons, and they cleaned house, getting rid of GM Dean Lombardi and head coach Darryl Sutter.
Off-Season Game Plan examines a Kings team that will probably loosen the reins next year, because it would be hard to play any more restrictive than the team that has been the most stifling defensive team of recent seasons.
Rob Blake has taken over as general manager and named John Stevens as head coach, and the expectation is that the Kings are ready to make some changes, as one might expect from a team that has won one playoff game since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014.
There is still some talent here and the Kings probably want to make the most of these years while they still have Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, but they also need to get younger and faster because their grinding style appears to have lost its effectiveness, so adding some speed and skill doesn’t have to be so much a dramatic change as much as it reflects the direction in which the league has been going.
Jeff Carter – The 32-year-old center put up 32 goals and 66 points, his best since 2010-2011. On a team that struggled to score, Carter’s big season was somewhat lost.
Peter Budaj – The Kings took their AHL goaltender and not only made him the starter, but nearly made him the exclusive starter after Jonathan Quick was injured. He performed at an above-average level and was rewarded with a trade to Tampa Bay.
Drew Doughty – His season wasn’t quite as strong as the year before, but Doughty still performed at a high level for 27 minutes a night.
Anze Kopitar – Are there signs of slippage? The 29-year-old had just 12 goals and while his Corsi was pushing 55%, he had negative relative possession stats for the first time in his career.
Dustin Brown – Some of the Kings’ offensive woes can be traced to Brown still playing 16 minutes per game, and getting most of his ice time with Kopitar and Carter. Last year’s 36 points counted as his highest since 2011-2012, but his 2.19 shots per game was his lowest since 2005-2006.
Marian Gaborik – After suffering a broken foot in the World Cup of Hockey, the 35-year-old winger managed 10 goals in 56 games. His shots (2.20) and goals per game (0.18) were at career-low rates.
Rob Blake/John Stevens
FREE AGENT FORWARDS
Last season was the fourth time in his career that Jeff Carter scored at least 30 goals, and the 10th straight in which he surpassed 20 goals. A consistently productive player, he’s probably a little under-appreciated, but he’s been a major contributor to two Kings Stanley Cup wins and forms a strong 1-2 combination down the middle with Anze Kopitar.
Of course, that presumes that Kopitar’s decline last season was mostly due to career-low percentages (8.0 SH%, 7.7 OiSH%) and that’s certainly a part of it, but he also generated 1.97 shots per game, the second-lowest rate of his career. Kopitar can be better; he’ll turn 30 this summer, so he probably needs more help in terms of improving his quality of linemates.
Last season was a breakout season for Tanner Pearson, as he had a career-high 24 goals and 44 points. Increasing his shot and goal output is a promising sign for his ability to play a significant role as the Kings attempt to boost their offensive output.
Even when Dustin Brown puts up his most points (an admittedly modest 36) in five years, his contract status still hangs over everything. He’s signed for five more years, at a cap hit of $5,875,000 and that kind of investment requires more production than Brown has been able to provide. At 32, he can be a contributor, but at that price tag, he’s almost assured to be disappointing.
Veteran forward Trevor Lewis scored a career-high 12 goals last season, and he’s established that he’s a very reliable defensive player who doesn’t generate much offence.
A 26-year-old rookie last season, Nic Dowd played a limited role and had horrific percentages, but his puck possession stats and shot charts were excellent. Basically, he’s better than you think, which may not mean much because 38% of people surveyed mistake him for Nick Shore anyway.
While a broken foot hampered Marian Gaborik last season, he’s also not likely to be ready for the start of next season after recently undergoing knee surgery. In an ideal world, the Kings would get at least some production for the $4,875,000 cap hit, but Gaborik is a 35-year-old winger who has been battling injuries for the better part of the past four seasons, missing 108 games in that span.
Kyle Clifford is a big physical winger whose style of play meshed well with the Kings’ previous approach, and that included having the fourth line grind the other team down, maintaining solid possession numbers and probably not scoring very much. Clifford did manage six goals last season, one off his career high, but it says something (at least about the previous regime) that his level of production would still get rewarded with a multi-year contract commitment.
Another big physical winger with limited puck skills, Jordan Nolan has basically been a fringe player for the Kings all along; he’s never played more than 64 games in a season and never averaged more than last season’s 10:51 of ice time per game. He’s a capable 13th forward, but those assets are always replaceable too.
A first-round pick in 2014, Adrian Kempe made his NHL debut last season and had some nice moments in his small sample of games. He could be in line for a bigger role this season or (as can be seen in my projected lineup), he might be an asset to trade in order to get more immediate help.
After scoring a career-high 31 goals and 58 points in 2015-2016, Tyler Toffoli suffered through an injury-plagued season that saw his production dip, though most of that appears to be driven by atypically-low percentages. That might make his new contract more reasonable for the Kings, but expectations have to remain high for the 25-year-old winger to be one of the team’s top finishers.
Nick Shore has managed to score just 10 goals in 172 career games, yet he’s put up terrific possession numbers, and that in and of itself is enough to make him a useful fourth-line contributor. Now, if he could add some offence to that, then maybe Shore would be an even more significant player.
A gritty checking forward Andy Andreoff adds some toughness, and a willingness to scrap – he has dropped the gloves a dozen times, and scored 10 goals, in 114 career games. Looking at the Kings’ roster makeup, they don’t lack for the physical and offensively-limited fourth liner.
Given that scoring was such an issue for the Kings last season, it’s hard to figure that it will get better by simply maintaining the status quo. They could seek out a free agent like T.J. Oshie, Alexander Radulov, Patrick Sharp or Justin Williams (fond memories and all), or they could go bigger and bolder, with a trade for a skilled young forward. A couple of the names that come to mind are Jonathan Drouin, from Tampa Bay, or Alex Galchenyuk, from Montreal. They won’t necessarily come cheaply, but they are young enough to be part of the long-term solution.
An aging star like Jaromir Jagr or, potentially a deal for Ilya Kovalchuk, should at least be considered by a team desperate for more goals.
FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN
Drew Doughty is the anchor to the Los Angeles blueline, and last season’s 27:09 of ice time per game was lower than his previous two campaigns. Even while handling that heavy workload, and not always with top-quality partners, Doughty continues to put up outstanding possession numbers and his 141 points over the past three seasons ranks 11th among defencemen. He’s also exceedingly durable, having missed a total of four games in the past five seasons.
In the past couple of seasons, blueliner Alec Martinez has emerged in a bigger role, averaging more than 21 minutes of ice time per game, and he had a career-high 39 points last season. He’s shown that he can be a good fit as a second pair defenceman who helps to generate offence because he can skate and move the puck.
Few defencemen in the league have moved up the ladder as much as Jake Muzzin has over the past three to four seasons. In the past three years, he has tallied 109 points and has the best Corsi percentage (57.1 CF%) of any defenceman to play at least 4000 5-on-5 minutes. Early in his career, he was considered (in some circles) to be a product of playing with Drew Doughty, but Muzzin has proven that he’s legit in his own right. And as great as I think Muzzin is, he might be the best bait for the Kings to dangle this summer in an effort to acquire young high-end forward talent.
2010 first-rounder Derek Forbort finally stuck in the NHL last season, playing all 82 games, and while the physical stay-at-home defenceman played more than 20 minutes per game, a lot of it with Doughty, he also was on the wrong end of shot differentials (at least in relative terms) all too often, so either he needs to improve or perhaps play a lesser role.
A bruiser on the blueline, Brayden McNabb missed a bunch of time with a broken collarbone and then was a healthy scratch a number of times too, but he has put up excellent possession stats over the past three seasons, and if the Kings manage their expansion list, they may be able to keep McNabb around to allow the 26-year-old to get back on the right path.
Matt Greene has been through the on-ice wars, and the 34-year-old has missed 135 games over the past two seasons. He last played in mid-January, and it would be a stretch to expect him to be a factor next season, in the final year of his contract.
Paul LaDue split his first pro season between the AHL and NHL, and the 24-year-old was very effective in his first taste of NHL action. He both moved the puck and suppressed shots effectively, and should be due for a bigger role next year.
In a small sample as a rookie, Kevin Gravel looked pretty good in a defensive role, and he offers necessary blueline depth for the Kings, especially if McNabb or Forbort end up elsewhere.
Could the Kings go looking for help on the blueline? It’s probably not necessary if they keep Muzzin, but if we accept my premise that he could be moved, then there might be some desire for Los Angeles to wade into the free agent pool. If they do go looking for a free agent defencemen, it will probably be a more economical choice, maybe Brian Campbell, Brendan Smith or Matt Hunwick, and not Kevin Shattenkirk.
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2017-18 CAP|
A groin injury left Jonathan Quick on the sidelines for three-quarters of last season, and that potential for injury does present a challenge. He’s 31-years-old, and while he’s not necessarily as good as his reputation (Stanley Cup winners tend to have their value inflated in public perception), he has been an above-average starter for most of his career, and remains at that level, but an older goalie coming off a major injury probably needs a strong backup.
That brings us to Jeff Zatkoff, who only got eight starts last season, overtaken by Peter Budaj when Quick was hurt. Maybe the Kings would be willing to try Zatkoff in the backup role again, but if not, Anders Nilsson, Chad Johnson or Mike Condon would be among the free agent goaltenders that are quality backups who might be able to handle a starter’s workload in the event of injury. There will probably be some that come available via trade too, so if the Kings want a strong backup behind Quick, there will be ways to get one.
EXPANSION DRAFT TARGETS
Nic Dowd - He's something of a late bloomer, but is under contract at a bargain price and showed that he could play in the league.
Brayden McNabb - The Kings may be inclined to protect four forwards and four defencemen, which would make it easier to protect McNabb, but if he makes it through, Vegas would be grateful.
Derek Forbort - Probably not quite as appealing as McNabb, but an inexpensive option as a defensive defenceman.
KINGS TOP PROSPECTS
|Adrian Kempe||RW||46||12||8||20||-7||Ontario (AHL)|
|Kale Clague||D||48||5||35||40||-8||Brandon (WHL)|
|Paul LaDue||D||38||6||12||18||-1||Ontario (AHL)|
|Mike Amadio||C||68||16||25||41||+4||Ontario (AHL)|
|Michael Mersch||LW||48||16||17||33||-1||Ontario (AHL)|
|Jacob Moverare||D||63||2||30||32||+21||Mississauga (OHL)|
|Jonny Brodzinski||RW||59||27||22||49||+4||Ontario (AHL)|
|Alexander Dergachyov||C||31||0||3||3||+1||St. Petersburg (KHL)|
|Spencer Watson||RW||41||28||25||53||+27||Kingston (OHL)|
|Justin Auger||RW||61||11||9||20||-2||Ontario (AHL)|
|Austin Wagner||LW||64||30||36||66||+22||Regina (WHL)|
|Matt Roy||D||42||5||21||26||+6||Michigan Tech (WCHA)|
|Oscar Fantenberg||D||44||3||20||23||-3||Sochi (KHL)|
|Alex Iafallo||C||42||21||30||51||+22||Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC)|
|Kurtis MacDermid||D||58||6||14||20||+11||Ontario (AHL)|
The Kings don’t have a strong group of prospects. Beyond Adrian Kempe and Kale Clague, a lot of them are 22-to-24-years-old, an age range which does not typically provide high-end prospects.
11th – Martin Necas, Michael Rasmussen, Elias Pettersson
The Kings have approximately $62.2 committed to the 2017-2018 salary cap for 16 players.
Two top-six forwards, two defencemen
WHAT I SAID THE KINGS NEEDED LAST YEAR
One top-six forward, one defenceman, backup goaltender
Nic Dowd, Devin Setoguchi, Teddy Purcell, Derek Forbort, Jeff Zatkoff
Dustin Brown, Kyle Clifford, Jordan Nolan, Adrian Kempe, Jake Muzzin, Brayden McNabb, Derek Forbort
MY PROJECTED KINGS 2017-2018 DEPTH CHART
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Jonathan Drouin *||Anze Kopitar||Tyler Toffoli|
|Tanner Pearson||Jeff Carter||Sam Gagner *|
|Dustin Brown||Nic Dowd||Trevor Lewis|
|Kyle Clifford||Nick Shore||Jordan Nolan|
|Michael Mersch||Mike Amadio||Andy Andreoff|
|Marian Gaborik||Alex Iafallo||Jonny Brodzinski|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Brayden McNabb||Drew Doughty||Jonathan Quick|
|Derek Forbort||Alec Martinez||Jeff Zatkoff|
|Kevin Gravel||Paul LaDue||Jack Campbell|
|Oscar Fantenberg||Matt Tennyson *|
|Kurtis MacDermid||Matt Roy|
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com