Adrian Kempe

LA Kings hope late-season surge indicates brighter future

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings were the NHL’s hottest team before the coronavirus pandemic ended the regular season prematurely. They’re hoping they can eventually build on that success whenever they get back on the ice.

The team with the NHL’s longest active winning streak won’t get a chance to extend it this season, thanks to the league’s decision this week to limit its playoff tournament to 24 teams. The Kings’ seven straight victories before the stoppage comprised the franchise’s best stretch since December 2017, and it had even pulled them out of last place in the Pacific Division.

The Kings haven’t lost a game since Feb. 23, and their 10-3-1 surge prior to the pause suggests coach Todd McLellan’s work was finally paying off after Los Angeles mostly struggled through the first four months of a rebuilding season. The Kings’ only public comment on the abrupt end came in a statement from team President Luc Robitaille.

”It’s unfortunate that our season has concluded, but we fully understand this was necessary and support the decision,” Robitaille said. ”At the time of the pause, we had made considerable progress in the second half and were seeing positive results and encouraging signs for the future. We’ll now turn our attention to the NHL draft and player development so that we can continue building our organization for long-term success.”

Despite their late success, the Kings already were all but certain to miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2009.

Even after two straight disappointing seasons, Robitaille, general manager Rob Blake and McLellan all appear to be secure in their jobs and locked in on a long-term plan to return the Kings to Stanley Cup contention.

Los Angeles won the trophy twice in three years before entering a slow decline caused by massive veteran contracts and unimpressive talent development, culminating in the struggles that finally showed signs of ending before the coronavirus upended everyone’s plans.

”If we had a chance to finish the season, we’d want to finish the season,” Robitaille said earlier this month. ”Especially the fact that we have a lot of young players, it’s always good experience for them to play.”

CORE GUYS

A championship-winning veteran core remains in Los Angeles, but the Kings must decide whether to keep it together for another year. Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter are all still-productive players locked into big contracts, but Blake knows it’s time to repair the foundation of his franchise to rebuild a winner. Blake values the leadership and experience of those veterans along with longtime depth forward Trevor Lewis, who is the Kings’ most noteworthy unrestricted free agent. Los Angeles already parted ways with stalwart supporting players Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford in February, and while it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect big changes given the contract obstacles, Blake would be foolish not to consider more ways to get younger and more financially flexible.

FIND THE NET

The Kings were among the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams again this season, with Kopitar’s 21 goals and 41 assists easily leading the roster in both categories. Los Angeles had only five 10-goal scorers, while only Kopitar and Alex Iafallo topped 40 points. Despite their offensive struggles, Blake saw progress in the Kings’ implementation of McLellan’s system. ”Clearly we wanted to be a strong-shooting team, a team that got pucks to the net, recovered pucks well and generated offense off that,” Blake said. ”I think the year-end review showed that.”

PING PONG BALLS

The Kings have a 9.5% chance of winning the top pick in the complicated draft lottery this summer. For a franchise that hasn’t drafted a star since Doughty in 2008, a high pick would be an enormous boost. The Kings’ draft carries an added degree of difficulty with the departure of assistant general manager Michael Futa, whose contract expires in June. Still, Los Angeles is in prime position to add another elite talent to a solid pool of prospects including first-rounder Alex Turcotte, Gabe Vilardi, Arthur Kaliyev, Samuel Fagemo and Tyler Madden.

HIGHLIGHTS

Iafallo’s transformation from an undrafted free agent to a consistent NHL scorer in less than three years has been a rare bright spot for the Kings’ recent record of player acquisitions. Ditto for Sean Walker, an undrafted defenseman who played his way into a regular NHL role. Walker’s 24 points this season nearly matched the prolific Doughty, who had 28.

LOWLIGHTS

Carter has two more years left on his 10-year contract extension, but Blake said earlier this month that the 35-year-old veteran scorer wouldn’t have been able to return from his mysterious core injury even if the NHL season had continued for the Kings. And though Adrian Kempe was the Kings’ fifth-leading scorer, his inconsistency aggravated the front office and coaching staff. The Swede will strive for steadier production in the years ahead.

WATCH LIVE: Lightning visit Kings on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Los Angeles Kings. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning continue their post All-Star break road trip as they head west to take on the Kings. This is the second and final meeting between these two clubs this season. The first matchup came just over two weeks ago on Jan. 14 in Tampa, when the Lightning overcame a third period deficit before defeating LA in a shootout.

The Lightning have won their last seven games against the Kings. The last two matchups between Tampa and LA have resulted in a 4-3 shootout win for the Lightning.

This game will mark the first sports event held at the Staples Center since former Laker Kobe Bryant’s death on Sunday. The arena hosted the Grammy Awards on Sunday night and was scheduled to host a Clippers-Lakers game on Tuesday, but the NBA decided to postpone that game in the wake of Bryant’s death.

In their historically dominant 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning led the NHL with a 28.2% power play. This season the unit has been equally as strong, ranking seond in the league at 26.8%. However more recently it’s been a point of weakness for Tampa Bay. They went 0-for-4 with the man advantage in the loss to the Stars Monday, continuing a concerning trend over the last few weeks.

Kings captain Anze Kopitar continues to be the bright spot on the offensive end for Los Angeles. The 32-year-old leads the team in goals (17), assists (26) and points (43) as he appears on pace to top his numbers from a season ago (22G-38A-60P). Kopitar matched a season-high with three points (1G-2A) in the Jan. 16 loss in Florida but was held without a point in three of LA’s final 4 games before the break.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning at Los Angeles Kings
WHERE: Staples Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Jan. 29, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Kings stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Steven StamkosBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Ondrej PalatAnthony CirelliTyler Johnson
Alex KillornCedric PaquettePatrick Maroon
Carter VerhaegheMitchell StephensYanni Gourde

Victor HedmanJan Rutta
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Mikhail SergachevKevin Shattenkirk

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

KINGS
Alex Iafallo – Anze Kopitar – Dustin Brown
Nikolai ProkhorkinJeff CarterTyler Toffoli
Adrian KempeBlake LizotteAustin Wagner
Kyle Clifford – Mike Amadio – Trevor Lewis

Joakim RyanAlec Martinez
Ben HuttonSean Walker
Kurtis MacDermidMatt Roy

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick

Liam McHugh will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Anson Carter and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. John Forslund will call the action from STAPLES Center, alongside analysts Jim Fox and Brian Engblom.

Kings bench Kovalchuk, GM refuses to say for how long

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LOS ANGELES — Left wing Ilya Kovalchuk was a healthy scratch for the Los Angeles Kings in their 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, and the team wouldn’t say how long he will be out of the lineup.

Sportsnet Canada reported before the game that the Kings informed Kovalchuk he is being benched for an extended period. General manager Rob Blake and coach Todd McLellan refused to say whether it was for one game only or longer.

The 36-year-old Russian had two goals and four assists in Los Angeles’ first four games but has only one goal and two assists in the past 13.

“He was a healthy scratch, but tomorrow is a new day,” McLellan said after the game. “He is on board and has opportunities to go back in.”

McLellan said he is treating Kovalchuk the same way he would other players who are struggling. The coach cited right wing Tyler Toffoli being a healthy scratch for a game two weeks ago and left wing Adrian Kempe also being scratched on Tuesday. Those two players, though, don’t have the star power or $18.75 million, three-year contract Kovalchuk does.

“If they had to come out and watch one, then so does he. We treat them the same,” McLellan said.

The Kings are tied with Minnesota and Ottawa for the fewest points in the NHL with 13 and are 2-6-1 in their last nine games.

Blake said he met with Kovalchuk before the game, but the decision to bench him was made by McLellan.

“We’re in last place, right? We changed a lot of lineups,” Blake said. “We’re trying to find combinations that work, try to score some goals.”

This is the second straight year that Kovalchuk has found himself in and out of the lineup, which team captain Anze Kopitar said was not what anyone envisioned.

“It’s not a great situation,” Kopitar said. “Kovy is a good guy. There’s nothing wrong with the attitude or anything. For whatever reason, it is not working on the ice.”

LA Kings’ Adrian Kempe gets three-year, $6 million contract

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Forward Adrian Kempe has agreed to a three-year, $6 million deal to stay with the Los Angeles Kings.

The Kings announced the deal Wednesday with Kempe, a restricted free agent who turns 23 next week.

Kempe had 12 goals and 16 assists in 81 games last season for the Kings, the NHL’s second lowest-scoring team with just 199 goals.

The Swedish two-way center scored 37 points during the 2017-18 season, his first full NHL campaign. The Kings expect Kempe to increase his offensive productivity under new coach Todd McLellan, team President Luc Robitaille said.

Kempe has been playing center for most of his short NHL career, but has the versatility to move to a wing in the future. He has won just 41% of his career faceoffs.

Quiet offseason still has Kings stuck in neutral

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When the Los Angeles Kings traded veteran defender Jake Muzzin at the end of January it looked to be the beginning of a much-needed and long overdue rebuild.

Muzzin was a core player a championship winning team in Los Angeles, and with still one more year remaining on his contract he was one of the more valuable trade chips the team had to move in an effort to begin turning the page and beginning a new chapter. Because he still had term on his contract the Kings were under no immediate pressure to trade him, but it was still a very logical thing for them to do.

In the immediate aftermath of the trade general manager Rob Blake hinted that more changes were coming by saying, “I don’t want to get into specifics of players, but we are actively looking at making moves for the future of the organization.”

At the time the Kings were stumbling toward their worst regular season in years and on track to miss the playoffs for the third time in five years, a stretch that has seen the organization win just one playoff game.

What sort of changes did they make after that?

Almost none.

Other than hiring a new head coach — former Sharks and Oilers bench boss Todd McLellan — it has been a shockingly quiet offseason for the Kings.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

How quiet has it been? Here is a rundown of every major roster transaction the team has made since trading Muzzin in late January.

  • Traded Carl Hagelin, who had played only 22 games with the team after being acquired for Tanner Pearson, to the Washington Capitals for two mid-round draft picks
  • Traded Nate Thompson, who had played only 79 games with the team, to the Montreal Canadiens for a fourth-round draft pick
  • Traded Oscar Fantenberg, who had played only 74 games with the team, to the Calgary Flames for a conditional pick in 2020.
  • Bought out the final two years of Dion Phaneuf’s contract
  • Signed Joakim Ryan to a one-year deal in free agency

That is it. That is the list of changes.

They shuffled out a few inconsequential depth players that had almost zero history with the team and made almost zero impact, while adding a depth defender on a one-year, bargain basement deal.

In the middle of all of that the Kings did have, by most accounts, a strong draft with three of top 33 picks, but they are probably at least two or three years away from seeing some sort of a meaningful return on those picks.

In the short-term, the Kings have done next to nothing to move the franchise toward any one meaningful direction.

They are not any closer to a much-needed rebuild and are bringing back the same core of players that has clearly demonstrated over the past five years that it is not good enough to compete for a championship. Or even be a serious threat in the playoffs.

Not only are they lacking impact players, but their best, most talented, and highest paid players (Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jonathan Quick) are all another year older and, in most cases, in a continued state of decline.

Doughty is the “young” player in that group and will turn 30 this upcoming season. He is not only coming off the worst season of his career, but is signed for another eight years at $11 million per season. The Kings desperately need to hope this past season was a fluke and not a sign of what is ahead. The same can be said for Quick whose 2018-19 performance put him among the worst performing goalies in the league.

If they are still under the illusion that this core can somehow still compete, they have not done anything to complement them and build around them.

They have yet to make a meaningful trade and have been one of the quietest teams on the free agent market, not even dipping their toes into the pool.

Other than basically swapping out Phaneuf for Ryan on the blue line the Kings seem destined to bring back the same team that looked overmatched throughout the entire 2018-19 season and was one of the worst teams in the NHL.

Sure, it is possible that Doughty bounces back, and it would be nearly impossible for Quick to be as bad as he was in net over another full season. But would that be enough to make make up more than 20 points in the standings and take the Kings from the Western Conference basement and move them back to playoff contention?

Not likely.

They have some fresh faces and young players on the roster (Austin Wagner, Adrian Kempe, Carl Grundstrom), but there is probably not a difference-maker or All-Star among the group.

There are still a couple of months for things to change and the Kings to do something to alter the course of the franchise, but the longer they go without doing something the more this team is going to flail around in the state of irrelevance it has been stuck in for the past half-decade.

The short-term outlook remains bleak, and they still have not take enough steps to improve the long-term outlook.

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.