Muzzin trade should be the beginning of Kings’ teardown

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When the Los Angeles Kings traded defenseman Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday evening they took an important step toward doing something that was probably a year or two overdue — turning the page on their past glory and starting to finally look toward the future.

It’s time. It’s beyond time. Waiting any longer would have put this team in an even deeper hole that would have taken even longer to get out of.

Since winning their second Stanley Cup in 2014 the Kings have been stuck in neutral in the NHL’s worst possible place — the middle ground — somewhere between a contender and a lottery team, desperately trying to squeeze out whatever is left of an aging core by adding more aging pieces to it (Dion Phaneuf, Ilya Kovalchuk, Carl Hagelin, etc).

Yes, they made the playoffs twice since that last championship.

They also managed to win only a single game in those two appearances, losing in five games to a Sharks team that went on to win the Western Conference in 2016, then getting swept by the Vegas Golden Knights a year ago in a series that wasn’t anywhere near as close as the scoreboard. The two teams were playing a different sport for the four games, and while the Kings didn’t give up much, they never even seemed like they were close to scoring or were capable of doing anything to make Marc-Andre Fleury sweat even a little bit.

[Related: Maple Leafs bolster back end, trade for Muzzin]

In between those two emphatic first-round exits were two non-playoff seasons. More than halfway through the 2018-19 season they are tumbling toward another spring that will be spent at home.

Big picture, this has been an alarmingly mediocre team for going on five years now. Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Kings are 17th in regular season wins, which is about as middle of the pack as a team can get.

The only two teams with fewer than the one postseason win the Kings have during that stretch are the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, and they only reason they have won fewer is because they haven’t actually made the playoffs.

It has become increasingly clear that there is a sizable gap between the Kings roster and the way it plays and the way the rest of the NHL is built. That gap is only widening, and the only way it’s going to get fixed is if management makes the painful decision to take a blowtorch to the roster.

Trading the 29-year-old Muzzin and his remaining contract ($4 million per year through the end of next season) is a start.

It can not be the end, and based on what general manager Rob Blake said after the trade it likely will not be.

“I don’t want to get into specifics of players, but we are actively looking at making moves for the future of the organization, yes,” said Blake, via the Los Angeles Times, when asked about trading more veteran players.

Quite honestly, there probably isn’t a veteran player on the roster that should be untouchable. Given that the only two key unrestricted free agents they have are Hagelin and Nate Thompson it seems reasonable to conclude that big-name, core players are part of those discussions.

The Kings are in a pretty dire situation here where they are not only old (the third oldest team in the league), but they have those players signed to long-term contracts. Looking at their current roster they have nine players already over the age of 30, with six of them age 33 or older. Almost all of those players are signed for at least the next two seasons at pretty sizable salary cap hits.

Kovalchuk, 35, has two years remaining on his current deal that pays him more than $6 million per season. Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, both in their age 34 seasons, are signed for three more seasons after this one at a combined salary cap hit of more than $11 million per season (though Carter’s contract significantly reduces in terms of actual dollars because it was so front-loaded when it was signed).

All of this is going to make a rebuild even more complicated because they don’t have a ton to trade.

It seems highly unlikely that Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty would ever go anywhere, not only because of their importance to the franchise but also because of their contracts (both of which contain no-move clauses).

Dumping Brown, Phaneuf and probably Kovalchuk would probably require significant amounts of retained salary, or perhaps even giving up something of value to dump what is left of those salaries.

The real value is probably going to be in trading players like Tyler Toffoli and Alec Martinez.

At 26 years old Toffoli is actually one of the “young” players on the Kings’ roster, and even though he is having a down year is still at least capable of being a 20-goal, 45-point winger. He is not a foundational piece or someone you would ever center a rebuild around, but a contender would absolutely find value in him especially at his $4.6 million salary cap hit the next through the end of next season.

Martinez is in a similar position in that he is still very good and has an attractive contract. There is no reason to think he could not fetch the Kings a package similar to what the Kings received from Toronto for Muzzin. Or at least close to it.

Then there is the elephant in the room that is starting goalie Jonathan Quick.

Quick is another one of those cornerstone pieces, along with Kopitar and Doughty, that helped bring two Stanley Cups to Los Angeles, and Kings fans should be forever grateful for that. But he’s also a player whose perceived value has probably almost always exceeded his actual on-ice value. He’s been great at times, and in the brightest spotlight when all eyes were on him. And that matters. But he’s also been just average at a lot of other times, and that matters, too.

The former always overshadowed the latter, and that still may be the case today.

He is 33 years old, has four years remaining on his contract, and given all of that is probably closer to the end of his career than his peak years. Given the potential enormity of this overhaul, it would probably be in their best interest to see if they can find a taker for that contract right now because they’re not going to be in a position to win in the coming seasons.

It might be painful, but it also might be necessary.

The Kings have been mediocre long enough. Now it’s time to take a step or two back because it is the only way they can actually move forward as an organization.

Trading Muzzin, a popular core player that helped win championships and was still signed beyond this season, was a start. It can not be where they stop.

More: PHT Power Rankings: 10 people that will impact the NHL playoff race

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.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

Mitch Marner
USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.