Los Angeles Kings: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

Los Angeles Kings: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
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The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Los Angeles Kings.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 21-28-7 (49 points); sixth place in West Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs, drafted Brandt Clarke with eighth pick of 2021 NHL Draft.
• Offensive leader: Anze Kopitar (56 games, 13 goals, 37 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Philip Danault, Viktor Arvidsson (trade from Predators), Alexander Edler.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Kurtis MacDermid (Kraken expansion draft), Matt Luff (Predators).

Kings’ biggest question

• Too much too soon?

No, the Kings didn’t totally mortgage their future this offseason. They didn’t spend a massive amount of money and/or draft capital to add a huge contract, like the Blackhawks did with Seth Jones. Their bolder moves aren’t so big that they’d necessarily sink their rebuild.

Even so, the Kings made the sort of moves that signaled they’re heeding Drew Doughty‘s advice about being more competitive in 2021-22.

The aging curve indicates that both Viktor Arvidsson and Philip Danault are exiting their peak years, both at age 28. No, that doesn’t mean that they’ll turn into pumpkins in a year. A heady player like Danault, in particular, might age gracefully.

The best bet is that they’ll deliver their best results in the next year or two, though, and it’s fair to wonder if the Kings are really in a good position to reap such opportunities in 2021-22 (or even 2022-23?).

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Danault and Arvidsson are worthy upgrades, but if the Kings truly make a leap in 2021-22, it will be thanks to growth from younger players. If the 2021-22 Kings seek more dramatic growth, they’ll need Quinton Byfield, and maybe some others (Gabriel Vilardi? Alex Turcotte? All of them?) to take big steps. Frankly, that might also hinge on someone like Lias Andersson seizing the opportunity.

(Truly, it could be a training camp to watch.)

Would those additions really just translate to a Kings team that’s too good to get one more great pick, but too bad to really make an impact in 2021-22? There are genuine concerns that Los Angeles jumped the gun. Maybe they should’ve just waited for the 2022 offseason’s versions of Arvidsson and Danault, instead?

What’s the salary cap situation?

It’s sobering that the Kings are allotting the same amount of cap space ($21 million, per Cap Friendly) for Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar that the Oilers are paying for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

If you haven’t checked up on Doughty and Kopitar in the last, oh, three years … well, let’s just say there’s a gap. Actually, a gulf might be a more appropriate word for it. Chasm?

At least some of the Kings’ tougher contracts are expiring somewhat soon. It’s a bit surprising that Jonathan Quick‘s $5.8 million remains on the books, but that dissolves after the 2022-23 season. Kopitar’s $10 million ends one year later, after the 2023-24 campaign. Relief is staggered, as this is the final year of Dustin Brown costing $5.875 million per season.

With Doughty, the Kings merely must hope that he’s worth closer to his bloated $11 million cap hit. For two straight seasons, Doughty’s contract ranked as the absolute worst in the NHL, according to Dom Luszczyszyn’s metrics (sub. required).

You can debate if it’s actually the worst, but if you’re in that discussion, you’re a problem for your team either way. The 31-year-old’s $11 million cap hit runs through 2026-27. With a no-movement clause, Doughty’s contract is scary, especially for a team that hopes to move this rebuild along.

(Frankly, there’s an argument the Kings should’ve ignored Doughty’s calls for improvement, and instead tried to nudge him out the door. There were also arguments about whether they should’ve signed him to another contract — even before his decline became so profound.)

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Beyond that lingering Doughty headache, the Kings’ slate is fairly clean for a team that gave key Stanley Cup-era players big contracts.

Ultimately, the key will be to time second contracts right. First and foremost, the Kings need to develop prospects like Byfield, Brandt Clarke, and Arthur Kaliyev properly. Saving money even beyond those gimme rookie contracts could really give them a competitive advantage. (When the Kings won their first Stanley Cup, Jonathan Quick carried a $1.8 million cap hit, Kopitar cost $6.8 million per year, and Doughty’s AAV was merely $7 million.)

The slate would’ve been even cleaner without Danault, Arvidsson, Matt Roy, and Sean Walker on the books, but maybe various windows will line up in a way that makes it all worth it for Los Angeles?

Breakout Candidate

• Quinton Byfield

By most accounts, it was a bumpy 2020-21 season for the second overall pick of the 2020 NHL Draft. Being limited to a single assist in six NHL games tells just part of Byfield’s story.

Really, the Kings should be careful here. The smarter long-term play might not be to rush him.

Even so, there’s that undeniable, siren-like temptation of watching Byfield blossom up close. Few players his size can move so well, and bring such skill to the table. At times, a lack of polish can show. The sky sure seems like the limit for a towering center who barely turned 19. Considering the developmental obstacles of this COVID era, it might also just be wise to keep such an important prospect closer.

If Byfield doesn’t break through, there are plenty of other candidates. For the most part, it seems like Vilardi put injuries behind him. Kaliyev’s mix of scoring and inexperience could be enticing, but it might also make for a short leash. It’s unclear if the Kings will see the benefits as soon as 2021-22, but their much-hyped prospect pool is shimmering with depth and potential.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Kings

During stretches of even these troubled times, the Kings have occasionally been subtly competent. Not always, but often enough to plant a seed of hope. If the Kings see huge growth from younger players, show courage in letting Cal Petersen being their go-to goalie, and Arvidsson returns to a first-line level, they could make some noise in a paltry Pacific Division. As great as it is to pile up prospects, you have to get to winning at some point. The best version of the 2021-22 Kings could make the playoffs, and then possibly pull off an upset or two.

Threading the needle between being competent and also winning the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery would be neat, too.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Kings

That “too much, too soon” question still lingers. The worst-case scenario would involve the Kings having a fairly miserable season, but keeping their heads above water enough not to get that one extra blue-chip draft prospect. If they linger in the playoff bubble, they might flinch at chasing a few extra wins. If there are teams that would cough up something for Brown and Quick at the deadline, the Kings should do it, even if it ruffles a few feathers. Meandering in the middle would translate to missing both birds with that one stone.

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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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