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Short on talent, Kings are in need of overhaul

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

With their teams falling out of the playoff race and the NHL trade deadline just around the corner the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators have sent the message to their fans that changes are probably coming to their roster.

The mindset is simple: The team’s aren’t good enough to win as currently constructed and it is probably time to hit the reset button and start over.  It might mean a step backwards in the short-term for what will — hopefully — be a stronger, more consistent and competitive organization in the not-too-distant future.

There’s another team in the NHL that should look into hitting a similar reset button.

The Los Angeles Kings.

This week they swapped undesirable contracts with the Ottawa Senators when they sent Marian Gaborik packing in exchange for Dion Phaneuf. Phaneuf might be able to give the Kings a little more than Gaborik would have over the next few years, but it is probably not enough to move the needle in any meaningful way.

[Related: Senators Trade Dion Phaneuf To Kings]

It’s not that the Kings are terrible. They are not one of the bottom teams in the league and even after losing in Pittsburgh on Thursday night they are still very much alive in the playoff race, sitting three points out of a playoff spot (both a Wild Card spot and the third spot in the Pacific Division) with a couple of teams ahead of them.

Even though they are still “in it,” this season just seems like a re-run over the past three. They’ve missed the playoffs in two of those seasons (and if they fall short this season would be three out of four without a trip to the postseason) and have not won a playoff round since 2014.

After falling short of the postseason a year ago the Kings made some significant changes off the ice by letting go of coach Darryl Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi. The organization said all of the right things about wanting to But the results on the ice are very much the same. A well-coached, well-positioned defensive team that is tough to score against that does a lot of things well but just doesn’t have the high-end talent throughout its roster to take advantage of it and win.

They can’t score. They do not generate a lot offensively. They seem to just lack … excitement. And creativity. And just anything that makes them even somewhat dangerous with the puck.

The big three that was the foundation of their Stanley Cup teams in 2012 and 2014 is still in place.

Anze Kopitar is still one of the great players in the league, but he can’t do it alone. At age 30 he is not getting any younger, either.

Drew Doughty is still a top-tier defenseman, but his contract is up after next season and it is not known if he will re-sign with the team. If he leaves a lot of what makes their defense work goes out the door and there is really no way to replace that.

Jonathan Quick is capable of going on hot streaks where he is unbeatable in net, but he also has stretches where his play dips significantly.

Beyond those three, what else is there here to really get excited about it you’re a Kings fan? Or the Kings as an organization?

You could point to Jeff Carter being sidelined for most of the season and how much his absence has hurt and you wouldn’t be wrong. But he also appeared in all 82 games last season and the Kings still missed the playoffs by eight points.

Dustin Brown had a nice bounce-back season at the start, but his production has cooled considerably in recent months and he’s still 33 year sold and signed for four more years at more than $5.5 million per season. This season will be the first time since 2011-12 he will record more than 36 points in a season. And that required a rather unsustainable hot streak of production at the start of the year to get him there that isn’t likely to be duplicated in future seasons.

Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli represented a next wave of young talent, and they are pretty good players, but now that they are both in the middle of their age 25 seasons this is probably the level of production (maybe 20 goals, maybe 45 points) that should be expected from them on a regular basis. Maybe they are capable of a bigger season on occasion, but probably nothing more than that consistently.

The NHL is getting younger, faster and more skilled every day and the Kings are lagging behind in all of those areas. They are one of the oldest teams in the league, they still try to live through “heavy hockey,” and they just don’t have enough high-end skill outside of their top two or three players. Even worse, there doesn’t seem to be much hope on the horizon that it will be any different unless they make some significant changes to the roster and the way they play.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be a scorched earth, Buffalo Sabres-style tank-fest for the next five years, but the current formula and structure in Los Angeles is no longer working with the current cast. They seem to be more than just one or two tweaks away from fixing it.

The longer they wait on hitting the reset button, the worse it is probably going to get.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.

PHT Morning Skate: Penguins need summer miracle again; Devils begin new chapter

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change. (Pensburgh)

• Maple Leafs almost certain to lose any trade involving Mitch Marner. (Editor In Leaf)

Zack Kassian to get his chance to play alongside Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Spooner heading to Switzerland next season. (Sportsnet)

• The RFA waiting game for big-name players is the norm now, in Winnipeg and the rest of the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Each team’s worst contract heading into the 2019-20 season. (Puck Prose)

• Biggest fantasy winners thus far in the offseason. (Yahoo Sports)

• Devils begin a new chapter with additions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

• Oft-Overlooked Hurricanes On the Rise. (Featurd)

• The oddsmakers are taking the Colorado Avalanche seriously, and so should you. (The Hockey News)

• NHL Network analyst believes Andre Burakovsky will score ‘a minimum’ of 20 goals next season. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Nashville Predators should go all-in and trade for William Nylander. (Pred Lines)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.