Kings’ big money men are under pressure

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

The 2019-20 season was already slated to shine a harsh spotlight on the most expensive Los Angeles Kings players, particularly if they fail to rebound from a brutal 2018-19.

Already-high cap hits don’t tell the story, as the actual salaries could make management queasy. Between Drew Doughty ($12M), Anze Kopitar ($11M), and Jonathan Quick ($7M), the Kings are spending $30M on three players who are coming off of seasons that were absolutely disastrous.

Take a look at the rest of the Kings’ roster, and you’ll realize that, if this team hopes to be competitive next season, they’re counting on those three – particularly Doughty and Kopitar – to return to elite status, or something close to that. The Kings wisely stayed on the sidelines instead of spending big in free agency, yet this means that the Kings are crossing their fingers on improvement from within.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three Questions | Kings’ rebuild  | X-factor]

Now, the lack of free agent moves would make you believe that the Kings are acknowledging reality and settling for a wonky rebuild where they might not really be able to blow things up, but might at least be able to absorb some tough years to improve draft lottery odds.

Yet … the thing is, if you’re gearing up for a rebuild, are you really giving Todd McLellan this kind of money, or even hiring McLellan in the first place?

That hefty salary indicates that the Kings are banking on McLellan succeeding with Los Angeles in a way he rarely did with the Oilers: steering a flawed, top-heavy roster to contention. Considering the stuttered development of players like Jesse Puljujarvi, it’s tough to spin the McLellan hire as anything beyond a “win-now’ move.

With that in mind, the Kings still seem like they want to be competitive, and basically all of that rides on a $35M quartet of Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, and head coach McLellan.

None of them have an easy job ahead.

As tough as 2018-19 was for Kopitar, it’s not an accident that Dustin Brown had a career renaissance while playing almost 1,000 even-strength minutes and less than 100 minutes without Kopitar last season. Chances are, Kopitar will be asked to lug one or even two questionable wingers with him, and it’s up to McLellan to determine what is the most optimal combination. Should Kopitar stick with Brown and Alex Iafallo as the team did last season, or might it be helpful to mix in a little more talent? Could Kopitar + Ilya Kovalchuk work out better with another try? Would Kopitar rejuvenate Jeff Carter? In virtually every scenario, Kopitar will be asked to carry others. Not the easiest assignment for a guy who’s turning 32 soon.

Doughty may be asked to boost defensemen in a similar way, and McLellan must weigh the temptation to play Doughty a ton as one of their only needle-movers (especially if they eventually trade Alec Martinez) versus trying to keep Doughty fresh to avoid injuries and poor play from overuse.

Jack Campbell and Calvin Petersen were sharp where Quick was dull in 2018-19, but a lot still seems to ride on a 33-year-old “athletic goalie,” especially if McLellan’s system can’t hide the Kings’ poor defensive personnel beyond Doughty.

It’s not just the big-money players who need a rebound after having terrible seasons, as McLellan carries the ignominious mark of being fired mid-season, and also being a coach who couldn’t make things work despite having Connor McDavid on his team. As much as the Oilers’ struggles came down to terrible asset management by former GM Peter Chiarelli, McLellan has a lot to prove in his third head coaching gig — and a big salary to justify.

The scary thing is that the Kings probably need these four to do more than merely rebound to a place of “respectability.” They probably need Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, and McLellan to be worth pretty close to this $35M-ish collective investment, and that means that they’re all going to be under a lot of pressure. Probably too much, to be honest.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

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