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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.