What went wrong: 2020-21 Los Angeles Kings

Los Angeles Kings v Anaheim Ducks
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PHT’s “What Went Wrong” series aims to analyze why each team missed the playoffs. The “What Went Wrong” series continues with the 2020-21 Los Angeles Kings.

Unless you’re, say, Drew Doughty, you probably had close to zero expectations for the Los Angeles Kings’ 2020-21 season. At least as far as the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs were concerned.

If anything, squeezing into the final West Division spot might have been counterproductive. Merely getting there and getting smoked by the Avalanche could have created two negative outcomes: 1) possibly inspiring the Kings to strain to add too much at the wrong time and 2) slow down the rebuild.

In a year of more stable scouting situations, maybe it would’ve been a mild disappointment that the Kings didn’t totally stay in the cellar in 2020-21. They were reasonably competitive, which translated to tepid 2021 NHL Draft Lottery odds, and ultimately being slotted in as the eighth overall pick.

[MORE: Sabres win draft lottery; Kraken pick second, and other official results]

But in a season of this much uncertainty? There really might not be a better time to make baby steps from a rebuild to something more credible.

The Kings still face the biggest hurdles as they try to climb from bad-but-savvy to something approaching good. But so far, they’re doing quite nicely under Rob Blake.

What went wrong before the Kings’ 2020-21 season

Generally speaking, the Kings have been shrewd in acknowledging their situation.

They’ve assembled a top-flight prospect pool, in part because they were willing to embrace a rebuild.

About the only beef might just revolve around sticking with holdover previous core players, and even that is nitpicking. Were there ever opportunities to trade someone like Jonathan Quick? Was it really wise to extend Drew Doughty, and to a lesser extent, Anze Kopitar? Dustin Brown feels like the sort of player who would’ve been moved by a franchise that was aiming to do more aggressive house-cleaning.

But it’s unclear how often the Kings really had reasonable opportunities to move any of those players. And there’s no denying that there’s a PR challenge when it comes to moving on from people who helped you break your Stanley Cup curse.

So, for the most part, gripes regarding the Kings boil down to being greedy about wanting even more from a rebuild. Not a bad path, all things considered.

What went wrong during the Kings’ 2020-21 season

From a quality of life perspective, it’s nice to … not be terrible. Tanking takes its toll.

So, kudos to the Kings for being OK in 2020-21, but they weren’t great, either. This is a team that just doesn’t have enough talent yet, something evident in their continued struggles to score goals. Luckily, it at least looks like help is on the way.

Again, if the Kings want to improve upon 2020-21, it might mean cutting some of the ties of the past.

Nostalgia might prompt Jonathan Quick to get some starts, but it’s clear that the net at least should be Cal Petersen‘s to lose going forward.

Some of the most important developments revolve around players who only spent some (or no) time with the 2020-21 Kings. Following the World Juniors, some might have cooled a bit on Quinton Byfield, for example — but other appearances inspired more confidence.

Bringing prospects along is an inexact science, and right now, there’s just not enough data to know if the Kings’ farm system can live up to the (justifiable) hype.

What went right

As much as the Kings’ future is about young players coming along, Los Angeles also hopes that the window won’t totally close on Doughty, Kopitar, and others being able to pass the torch.

So, it’s promising that Doughty’s underlying numbers looked a lot better. Doughty was pretty sore about the critiques of his game in 2019-20, but his Evolving Hockey Player Card showed warning signs of real problems. Even if you don’t hear the same criticisms of Doughty as you do for another expensive defenseman like Erik Karlsson.

*readies horror movie scream*

Again, his numbers are easier to digest in 2020-21:

Now, considering Doughty’s reputation and $11M AAV, you’d forgive the Kings for wanting quite a bit more. But that at least inspires some hope that he can bring positive value to Los Angeles.

That’s important, too, because Doughty sure seems to be on board with the Kings swinging for the fences during the offseason.

Now, “we” should probably translate to the older part of the Kings’ core. Prospects like Alex Turcotte (20 years old) and Byfield (18) have all the time in the world — by hockey standards.

So credit the Kings for blocking out dangerous pushes to recklessly accelerate their growth. At least so far.

While the greedy side might have called for more selling — and maybe not handing out recent extensions to the likes of Alex Iafallo, if the team really isn’t ready yet? — one of the Kings’ greatest 2020-21 successes is resisting the urge to splurge on short-term improvements.

Oh, and you know what really went right? These:

What’s next?

Again, the Kings are set to pick eighth overall in the 2021 NHL Draft. Assuming, of course, that they don’t trade up, or even out, of the 2021 NHL Draft.

If Doughty’s comments capture the spirit of certain veterans in the locker room, then this could be an interesting offseason. Will the Kings go after, say, Jack EichelShould they, especially if it meant gambling that it would be worth giving up someone like Byfield or Turcotte?

Whether the Kings attempt a leap or focus on going step by step, the toughest challenges await after this fairly straightforward 2020-21 season.

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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