By almost any measure, making the playoffs earlier than expected is and was a fantastic development for the Kings.
Sometimes, when your legs start moving to a quicker tempo, you do risk stumbling a bit. With that in mind, it’s fascinating to watch as the Kings continue to accelerate away from their rebuild — and ascend the ranks where they’re not far away from the NHL’s biggest spenders.
Consider some of the fuel the Kings consumed to try to rocket up the ranks, and possibly put that rebuild totally behind them.
After acquiring and signing Fiala, Kings extend Kempe
In one of the splashier moves of this offseason, the Kings traded defensive prospect Brock Faber and the 19th pick in the 2022 NHL Draft for Kevin Fiala‘s rights. The Kings handed Fiala a bold seven-year contract with a $7.875 million cap hit in late June.
A couple weeks later, the Kings retained their in-house scoring threat, signing Adrian Kempe to a four-year contract with a $5.5M cap hit.
Now, these expenditures range between “reasonable enough.”
Adrian Kempe, signed 4x$5.5M by LA, is a top-six scoring forward who had a nice break-out season. Very effective player off the rush, even though it means giving some back defensively. #LAKings pic.twitter.com/sIpQPmeynK
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 9, 2022
And potentially quite nice.
Kevin Fiala comes in under market value at $7.9 million, on average, over the next seven years 💸 pic.twitter.com/Kma4hEyl6U
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) June 29, 2022
Yet, the combined cost (close to $13.4M per year for multiple years) of Kempe + Fiala really drives home a point. These aren’t your low-spending, rebuilding Kings anymore.
Are the Kings truly out of their rebuild stage, though? Well, they kinda have to be, barring a pivot or two. Let’s ponder a salary cap outlook for the Kings, and their place in the Pacific Division, Western Conference, and NHL.
Kings salary cap shrinking rapidly
Via Cap Friendly, the Kings possess almost $6.5M in cap space. That projection comes with 17 roster spots covered.
Sean Durzi headlines quite the bundle of RFAs, while the Kings also face decisions on veteran could-be unrestricted free agent defensemen in Alexander Edler and Olli Määttä.
With Drew Doughty and Sean Walker injured last season, young Kings defensemen Durzi and Jordan Spence handled elevated roles remarkably well. For the most part.
(Any defenseman’s going to struggle against Connor McDavid.)
Considering the emergence of Durzi and Spence, and the hopeful healthy returns of Doughty and/or Walker, the Kings may be able to say goodbye to a veteran blueliner or two.
At the forward level, they might also see a prospect or two make a jump — thus filling a roster spot cheaply.
With that in mind, the Kings don’t necessarily need to trade one of their two goalies Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen. Still, the duo costs a combined $10.8 million in salary cap space; Quick’s entering a contract year at $5.8M, while Petersen’s $5M cap hit lasts through 2024-25.
Trading one of the two might end up making at least some sense.
[And NHL teams in need of goalies may very well be better off going the trade route]
Barring a trade of Quick or Petersen, the Kings figure to enter next season fairly close to the salary cap ceiling. It’s quite the rapid ascension to a team that didn’t look ready for the throne as recently as last offseason.
(Although even then, they did make investments to get closer to a competent level in trading for Viktor Arvidsson and signing Phillip Danault.)
Bigger spending brings higher expectations, and larger risks. What if the Kings’ path is less of a straight line up, and instead a journey with ups and downs?
What if the Kings overachieved in 2021-22?
Sometimes, a team makes the playoffs earlier than expected, then overreacts.
The Kings merely need to look to Pacific Division opponent Vancouver for an example of getting too hasty.
After losing in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, the Canucks fell in the First Round three times, and missed the playoffs once. Then the real downfall happened, as the Canucks missed the playoffs four years in a row (2015-16 through 2018-19).
Yet, in 2019-20, the Canucks didn’t just survive the Qualifying Round in the strange playoff bubble setup. They beat both the Wild and Blues in series, then pushed the Golden Knights to a Game 7.
During the Jim Benning era, the Canucks always seemed to try to force the process to speed up. Sometimes, it meant adding the sort of veterans you’d hope were the last missing pieces before they actually had most of the actual pieces that matter in place. Heaving it down the field rarely worked for Vancouver, and at times, it seemed like the entire process actually hurt the development of young players like Elias Pettersson.
Now, the Kings haven’t blundered in Benning-like ways. Sure, there was some risk involved with the Danault contract, but he’s the sort of player who can really move the needle at a reasonable price. For a team that played structured hockey yet couldn’t really finish, a game-breaker like Kevin Fiala could be a godsend.
And the Kings still possess most of the pieces of a farm system graded among the best in the NHL. It’s not like they’ve “mortgaged their future.”
Maybe the point, then, is to practice a certain bit of patience. Or at least accept a degree of uncertainty.
An annual tradition: the post-draft, pre-free agency WAR Roster Builder standings projection.
UFA are NOT included, neither are non-LTIRetirement injuries. pic.twitter.com/iU1nmnW8m3
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 9, 2022
A lot of variables in the West
Look around the West, and you can talk yourself in and out of the Kings being a clear playoff team.
While the Avalanche look solid, others could go plenty of ways. The Flames may not be powers without Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, or both. The Canucks and Jets hope last season was just a hiccup, and the Golden Knights really hope that they’ll return to form.
All of those variables create a hazy outlook for Los Angeles. Maybe everything clicks, and a team that got a lot of the “process” part of being a successful team right …
… Will enjoy some luck in the form of scoring more goals on all of those chances?
On the other side, the Kings may also go through some growing pains. If that happens, and other West teams get a lot better, a playoff appearance is no guarantee.
That may seem gloomy, but it’s only a cause for concern if the Kings lose sight of what’s been an impressive vision during their rebuild. They’re entering that challenging stage where “potential” needs to result in production. Sometimes that’s not just a linear flight upward, but a journey with peaks and valleys.
Keep a cool head, and the Kings could really be onto something. Either sooner or later.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.