Kings are going to struggle this season, but future is very bright

Los Angeles Kings
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There were seven teams that did not qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team playoff field this past season. Over the next few days we are going to take a look at each of them to examine whether or not they are capable of bouncing back this upcoming season. We continue today with the Los Angeles Kings. 

The Los Angeles Kings are building something special.

You will not see the finished product this upcoming season.

You may not even see it the season after that.

But there is definitely a very bright light at the end of this tunnel.

The current situation in the short-term is obviously bleak. They have missed the playoffs in four of the past six seasons, while some of their core players that were major parts of a two-time Stanley Cup champion (Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick, Jeff Carter) have started to rapidly decline. Barring some kind of unforeseen development this is not even close a playoff team at the moment, let alone a contender.

But thanks to some great drafts over the past couple of years, and a rapidly improving farm system that is currently one of the league’s best, the Kings are back on the upswing and building toward a brighter future.

Owning the draft the past two years

In each of the past draft classes the Kings have had five of the top-90 picks.

During the 2019 draft they had two first-rounders, two second-rounders, and a third-rounder. In 2020 it was a first-round pick, two second-round picks, and two third-round picks. While the draft itself is a very inexact science (everything after the first 20 picks is basically a lottery ticket), the best way to maximize your chances of getting a return are to give yourself more lottery tickets.

The Kings have done a good job of that these past two seasons with so many high choices.

That haul also featured two top-five picks, including this year’s No. 2 overall pick, Quinton Byfield.

Between Byfield, Alex Turcotte (the No. 5 overall pick in 2019), Arthur Kaliyev, and Samuel Fagemo the Kings have four outstanding prospects with top-line NHL potential to build their farm system around. And it is not only a top-heavy system, either. There are potential NHL players littered throughout their top prospect list, including Gabe Vilardi, Rasmus Kupari, and Tobiais Bjornfoot.

They have rapidly built one of the league’s deepest farm systems, and while it may take time to see a return on that, the potential here is through the roof. This system is as stacked as any other system in the league.

Obviously, not all of these players are going to reach their ceiling. But the fact they have so many high-end prospects gives them more chances to hit a couple of home runs and find their next franchise cornerstones. Those are the most important — and most difficult to find — players to have, and the Kings already have some hope that they have them in place.

Turcotte and Byfield seem to be their best hopes, with the latter being the player that brings the most potential to the table.

They could be the players headlining the next contending Kings team.

More big decisions ahead?

The Kings have completely rebuilt their farm system and changed their long-term outlook without having to go through a complete scorched earth teardown.

Yes, they traded some significant players in recent years (Jake Muzzin, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli, Alec Martinez) but the main, core players have remained.

The question is whether or not that will eventually change.

It is really hard to envision a scenario where Anze Kopitar players for somebody else. His $10 million salary cap hit is significant, he is still an outstanding two-way player, even as he gets into his mid-30s. He is also THE franchise player. That is always difficult to move, especially given what he has meant to this era of Kings hockey and the fact he is still a very, very good player.

The more intriguing questions come with the other core players, specifically Doughty and Quick.

Doughty has not been the same player the past two seasons, turns 31 this December, and still has seven years remaining on a contract with an $11 million per year salary cap hit. Given those circumstances that contract might already be unmovable. Just in case it is not, he also has a full no-move clause on top of that. While he could certainly rebound from these past two years, his days being one of the league’s elite players are probably finished. That situation is probably the most concerning part of their long-term outlook. What if he doesn’t rebound and continues on this downward slide? That is a monster salary cap number to deal with.

Brown, Carter, and Quick are all signed for two-three more seasons and are at ages where they are not likely to be part of the next contending Kings team.

Exploring moves, if possible, with any of them should be on the table moving forward.

The outlook

This is not a particularly good roster at the moment.

The core players have aged and declined, the next wave of players has yet to fully hit the NHL, and outside of adding Olli Maatta and Lias Andersson (trade with the New York Rangers) they have not done much to change the current outlook of the roster for this season.

This is almost certainly going to be another non-playoff season for the Kings. And do you know what? That is okay. That does not mean the team is heading in the wrong direction. Quite the opposite, actually. This is a franchise that was at the NHL’s peak between 2011 and 2015, went through its inevitable decline, bottomed out, and is now back on the upswing thanks to the young talent it has assembled over the past two years.

They are not there yet. But they will be.

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.

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    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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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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    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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    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.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.