A team that crashes out of the playoffs the year after winning the Stanley Cup should look more broken than the Los Angeles Kings do.
The Kings still have a strong core featuring an elite two-way centre and one of the finest defencemen in the sport. They have superb goaltending. They have an appealing blend of youth and experience. What they lack in footspeed they more than make up for in players ready to play a “heavy” game, and they are the apple of the analytics fraternity’s eye for their strong possession game.
Throw in stability and experience at ownership, the managerial level and coaching, and what’s not to like?
Problem is, 95 points wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs this year, which constituted a disaster for a team that has two Cups, one from 2012 and one from 2014. L.A. had walked this regular season highwire before, however, and this time the Kings took a tumble.
GM Dean Lombardi, one of the best in the game, has said he’s not expecting “major moves” this off-season, which seems sensible. Lombardi says he’s more concerned with players using this extended off-season to enhance their conditioning and be prepared to deliver more for 82 games next season and make sure this early vacation doesn’t re-occur.
In other words, he doesn’t need to necessarily change this group, led by centre Anze Kopitar, defenceman Drew Doughty and goalie Jonathan Quick. He just has to make it perform to its potential.
Now, if that doesn’t happen, things could change quickly, and there are some worrying signs around the club.
On the backend, the uncertain legal future of Slava Voynov means the Kings don’t really even know what they may have. Robyn Regeher retired, and Lombardi is trying to re-sign UFA defenceman Andrej Sekera, acquired from Carolina at the trade deadline. Lombardi was canny enough to make sure the first round pick sent to the Canes along with defence prospect Roland McKeown was lottery protected if the Kings missed the playoffs, and so L.A. will at least have the 13th pick next week. Carolina will take the Kings’ first-rounder next summer.
L.A. also has Colin Miller and Derek Forbert as possible grads from the Calder Cup champion Manchester Monarchs as affordable blueline possibilities.
Kopitar, meanwhile, is an interesting issue. He’s currently a $6.8 million cap hit, but the Kings have the right to start negotiating an extension next month that could significantly increase that number and keep him from getting to UFA status next summer. The Slovenian pivot, while still excellent defensively, is coming off a sub-par 16-goal season, numbers that the Kings would have to be comfortable knowing were an aberration in order to up that cap hit to $8 million or more.
Right now, L.A. is in fairly good cap shape. But locking into a long-term deal with Kopitar, if he can’t put up close to point-a-game numbers, could be the kind of deal that becomes problematic.
Already, Lombardi still has $22 million in salary over the next five years tied up in Mike Richards, who spent time in the minors this past season. The Kings would likely love to trade him, and have tried, but even if successful they could face cap recapture penalties down the line.
Captain Dustin Brown had 27 points, nowhere near enough production for a player who is locked up until 2022 at a $5.875 million cap hit per season. The Kings are also likely facing the loss of valuable winger Justin Williams to free agency, while Jarret Stoll’s legal problems likely mean he’s not coming back.
So there are holes for Lombardi to consider, and he’s got to find the right number to sign RFAs Tyler Toffoli and Martin Jones, as well as Kopitar.
He could move Brown, or try to, and if he were to put Jones on the market, there could be significant returns. He could still trade that first round pick, although a player like USHL speedster Kyle Connor could really help add the wheels L.A. covets. There were discussions with Toronto involving defenceman Dion Phaneuf, but the Kings want to send Richards the other way to keep the money sensible.
It took years for the Kings to build up the talent inventory to win the Stanley Cup, and they’d like to think they’ve got a good shot at winning at least one more before Kopitar, Doughty and Quick age beyond their best years.
Nothing major may be needed, but small, meaningful decisions surely are. Tricky ones.