Alex Iafallo

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.

Roundtable: Which non-playoff team has the brightest future?

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Which non-playoff team’s future do you feel most confident about?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: The Senators’ future could be real bright if they’re allowed the resources to develop their prospect pool and manage to keep them in Ottawa.

What the Senators have been able to do over the last few years is build up a prospect cupboard that could form an extremely talented core down the line. Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, and Colin White have established themselves as roster regulars under age 22. Drake Batherson, Erik Brannstrom, and Logan Brown were given decent looks this season, but there’s more coming.

Alex Formenton and Josh Norris were named to the AHL’s 2019-20 All-Rookie Team and were First (Norris) and Second (Formenton) Team All-Stars with Belleville. Vitaly Abramov also had a strong year with the Baby Sens, while Jacob Bernard-Docker could be an offensive weapon from the blue line in the future.

One of the Senators’ biggest areas of need will be in net. Filip Gustavsson and Marcus Hogberg look to be next after Craig Anderson‘s time comes to an end.

That’s a decent amount of names we could be seeing in Ottawa over the next few seasons. But wait — there could be more! GM Pierre Dorion has managed to stock pile up to nine picks in the opening three rounds of the 2020 draft. Not to mention four in the first two rounds in 2021. Some of those picks could be used in trades to bulk up the roster, of course, which shows the Senators are pointed in the right direction. They just have to follow the correct route.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: When in doubt, go with youth, so I lean toward the Devils.

First and foremost, they already have two really good young forwards in fellow first overall picks Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. The Devils recently extended Hischier to a reasonable deal, while they get to enjoy the luxury of Hughes having two more years on his rookie contract.

Such saving means that P.K. Subban‘s $9M price tag doesn’t hurt quite as much.

Beyond that, the Devils also have a lot of ammo to improve. They currently own three first-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, and at least two of those figure to be pretty good choices. The Devils could either add to their crop of prospects, move those picks in creative deals to get better sooner, or do a bit of both. New Jersey has cap space to either seek free agents or trades, too.

Now, the Devils have a lot of work to do, including deciding if Tom Fitzgerald gets to take “interim” off of his GM title. Goaltending and defense remain massive problems, and they sure could use more scoring depth, as well.

But at least the Devils have some building blocks in place. Also, the Senators have similar opportunities, yet they also have Eugene Melnyk as their owner. I’ll take the Devils in that duel, even if I can’t help but wonder about their ownership situation, too.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The pause couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Kings, for two reasons. First, they had won seven games in a row – the league’s longest active winning streak. Second, the streak had pushed them down a couple spots in the lottery race. So they lost the chance to build even more momentum heading into the offseason, while also hurting their chances to win the No. 1 overall pick.

All that said, there should be serious optimism about the direction of the team. At the NHL level, there appear to be prime years left for Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and yes, perhaps even Jonathan Quick (from November on, he posted a 2.38 GAA and .916 SV%). Unheralded younger players like Alex Iafallo (17 goals, 43 points) and Matt Roy (team-leading +16) are becoming legitimate contributors. A big question was answered when oft-injured former first-rounder Gabe Vilardi finally made his NHL debut, and looked like he belonged scoring 7 points in 10 games. In small sample sizes each of the past two seasons, Cal Petersen has showed starter-level talent between the pipes.

With no key players on expiring contracts, GM Rob Blake has plenty of cap space (north of $23M) to work with this offseason. Could Los Angeles be a darkhorse destination for Taylor Hall?

But the biggest reason for confidence: the loaded prospect pool. The Kings have arguably the best non-NHL talent of any organization. They sent nine players to the 2020 World Juniors – most of any team – and from that group came the tournament’s leading goal and point scorer Samuel Fagemo, as well as Canada’s golden goal scorer Akil Thomas. Plus, with 6 picks in the first 3 rounds this year, things only stand to improve.

The big question for Kings fans: can enough of these prospects develop into quality NHL players while Kopitar and Doughty remain top-end talents? If so, LA may have what it takes to contend for a Cup once again.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Los Angeles Kings: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Los Angeles Kings.

Even-strength improvement, winning streak rank as biggest surprises for Kings

For a significant chunk of the season, the Kings lingered as sneaky-competent based on their respectable-to-strong underlying stats.

Making that argument in April ended up being a lot easier than advancing it in, say, February. The Kings ended the season/entered the halt on a seven-game winning streak, the longest remaining active one in the NHL.

No doubt, the Kings dug themselves far too big of a hole to make that streak anything more than a curiosity. Still, seeing that snakebitten team rattle off that run ranked as one of their biggest surprises. Well, among the pleasant ones at least.

(Kings fans likely found it a pleasant surprise to see the Sharks and Ducks also far out of the playoff picture this season, by the way.)

Not much help for Kopitar

Credit Anze Kopitar with scoring more points (62) during this paused season than he did in leading the Kings last year (60). It becomes more impressive when you realize that Kopitar scored 19 more points than the team’s second-leading scorer (Alex Iafallo, 43), and that IaFallo was the only other King to reach 40+ points.

(Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty tied for third with 35 points, while Tyler Toffoli had 34 before being traded to Vancouver.)

Any hope that Ilya Kovalchuk might enjoy a clean slate in 2019-20 quickly evaporated. Seeing Kovalchuk seem semi-revitalized in other locales pointed to a possible scoring malaise for Los Angeles, if the stats didn’t already make that obvious.

The Kings needed to work harder than other teams to score. One could often see that effort in those formidable fancy stats, but the standings argued that this rebuild remains justified.

For Kopitar’s sake, here’s hoping he still has some gas left in the tank for whenever that rebuild accelerates.

Quick failing to rebound among biggest disappointments for Kings

Jonathan Quick suffered through a disastrous 2018-19 season. That said, so did almost all of his Kings teammates.

In 2019-20, Quick couldn’t blame his fellow Kings so easily. After suffering through a horrendous .888 save percentage in 2018-19, Quick lifted his numbers … to basically the level of a backup. His stats don’t look much better when you try to correct for context, such as Evolving Hockey’s Goals Saved Above Expectation, as visualized by Charting Hockey:

You can wedge a pleasant surprise under the subheading of Kings goaltending, though.

Jack Campbell didn’t enjoy much better luck than Quick this season. Despite that, the Kings managed to extract a decent trade package from the Maple Leafs for Campbell (and Kyle Clifford).

I’m not sure you’d consider the Kings committing reasonably well to a rebuild a surprise. If so, consider that one of their biggest positive surprises of 2019-20, though. There’s some hope for what the Kings are (re)building.

Getting a strong trade return for Quick seems less and less likely to be a part of said rebuilding efforts, though.

MORE ON THE KINGS:

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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Parise, Laughton among this week’s top adds

Fantasy Hockey
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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Dustin Brown, Kings – RW: With 17 goals and 35 points in 64 contests, Brown is probably going to end up falling behind his 51-point 2018-19 campaign. He might end the season on a pretty high note though. He excelled on Saturday, scoring a hat trick and registered an assist and has been pretty hot lately with eight points in his last six contests.

Zach Parise, Wild – RW: Parise had a really rough start to the season with three goals and no assists in his first 13 contests, but if you just ignore that then you’ll find that he’s otherwise had a pretty strong campaign. He has 22 goals and 43 points in 56 contests dating back to Nov. 2nd. Over that span he also hasn’t been held off the scoresheet for more than three games in a row, so he’s been pretty consistent. Despite that, he’s only owned in 37% of Yahoo leagues, so if you’re lacking on the left wing then he’ll probably be an option for you.

Alex Iafallo, Kings – LW: Iafallo has a goal and 10 points in his last 11 games, so he’s been very effective lately, but he’s been excelling for a while now. From Dec. 21st onward, he’s scored 11 goals and 26 points in 31 contests. It’s taken Iafallo a little while to get going, but he’s very underrated at this point given that he’s only owned in 6% of Yahoo leagues.

Scott Laughton, Flyers – C/LW: Like Iafallo, Laughton is another young-ish forward who is coming into his own. With 13 goals and 27 points in 48 games, this is by far his best campaign from a points-per-game perspective. He’s particularly hot lately, scoring three goals and nine points in his last seven contests. So he’s a decent player to gamble on right now, but he also isn’t such a bad player to hold onto for the rest of the season.

Pavel Buchnevich, Rangers – RW: The Rangers in general have been red hot lately and Buchnevich is among those leading the charge. He’s on a five-game point streak, scoring a goal and seven points over that span. He’s been a consistent for a while now too. Dating back to Jan. 21st, he has eight goals and 19 points in 19 games. This is his best season to date with 15 goals and a career-high 44 points in 66 contests, but that makes sense given his continued development and the fact that he’s averaging 16:52 minutes, which is a meaningful boost from his previous campaigns.

Andrew Mangiapane, Flames – LW/RW: Mangiapane had 10 goals and 19 points in 56 games through Feb. 12nd, but he only averaged 13:04 minutes over that span. The Flames have given him a much bigger role lately, putting him out there for an average of 16:38 minutes in his last 12 games. He’s rewarded them with seven goals and 13 points in those 12 contests. He’s an interesting pick up given how hot he is and how the Flames have been using him lately.

Luke Kunin Wild, C/RW: Kunin had a prolonged cold spell from Jan. 22-Feb. 15, registering just two assists over the span of nine contests. Lately though, he’s been a regular contributor with three goals and five points in his last six games. He has 15 goals and 31 points in 63 contests, which is decent, but not good enough to warrant owning him all the time in standard leagues. That said, he’s worth a situational pickup while he’s hot.

Richard Panik, Capitals – LW/RW: Panik will attempt to extend his four-game point streak when the Capitals face Buffalo on Monday. He’s scored two goals and six points over that run. He’s not a good player to hold onto at all times. He has nine goals and 22 points in 58 games this season, which is actually pretty solid given his average 11:20 minutes per game. So don’t hesitate to drop him once he slows down, but in the short-term he has some value.

Zack Kassian, Oilers – RW: Kassian has a goal and three points in his last four games, so he’s doing good right now, but that’s not the only reason to own him right now. First off, he’s a significant contributor in terms of hits with 152, so he brings more to the table than offensive contributors. The Oilers in general are also a solid team to have players for at the moment. Edmonton has four games slated for this week and they’ll play in eight contests from March 9-20. With that full schedule, there are a lot of opportunities for the Oilers players to contribute and he’s one of the better ones whose available in most leagues. Kassian is owned in just 19% of Yahoo leagues.

Jordan Staal, Hurricanes – C: While Staal has enjoyed some good offensive seasons, for the most part he’s been at best a solid secondary scorer. This season has been a step back for him though with just eight goals and 27 points in 67 contests. Perhaps he can finish on a positive note though. He’s certainly trending in that direction with a goal and eight points in his last 11 contests.

Players You May Want To Drop

Logan Couture, Sharks – C: This has been a disappointing season for Couture. After setting a career-high last season with 70 points, he’s been limited to 16 goals and 39 points in 52 games. Given that he only has center-eligibility, which makes him a rather borderline option in standard leagues. On Sunday he was unfortunately struck in the head and evaluated being evaluated for a concussion. Given his struggles this season and with him now potentially being injured with so little of the campaign left, I think it’s fair to drop him. That said, if your alternative centers are lacking, then it would be worth it to wait until more information about Couture’s injury comes out before coming to a decision.

Alexandar Georgiev, Rangers – G: Igor Shesterkin missed a couple weeks because of a ribs injury stemming from a car accident. During that time, the Rangers were leaning heavily on Georgiev, but now that Shesterkin is back, Georgiev is going to be used significantly less. Georgiev has been an okay, but not great goaltender this season with a 17-14-1 record, 3.05 GAA, and .910 save percentage in 33 contests.

Andreas Athanasiou, Oilers – C/LW/RW:  When Athanasiou was acquired by the Oilers, the hope was that he would be a good match for Connor McDavid. Athanasiou is a speedster and the prospect of pairing McDavid up with someone who can actually keep up with him was an exciting prospect. Perhaps that will still work out next season, but it seems that pairing hasn’t found chemistry early on. Athanasiou has just a goal and an assist in seven games since being acquired by Edmonton while averaging a mere 12:36 minutes. He did get a chance with McDavid, but at this point he’s primarily skating on the third line.

Nick Foligno, Blue Jackets– C/LW/RW: Foligno was great from Feb. 20-March 4, scoring four goals and seven points in seven games. He’s been held off the scoresheet in each of his last two contests though and he hasn’t scored a goal in five straight games, so the hot streak is probably over. Foligno isn’t an ideal player to hold onto when he’s not hot. His 10 goals and 31 points in 67 contests is fairly mediocre when it comes to standard fantasy leagues.

Andre Burakovsky, Avalanche – LW/RW: Burakovsky hasn’t played since Feb. 28th and it’s not clear when he’ll return. He missed his sixth straight game on Sunday and he wasn’t even with the team in San Jose. Because he hasn’t been traveling with the Avalanche, he obviously won’t play on Monday in Los Angeles either. He was enjoying a breakout season, but without much time left and no clear timetable for his return, it might be best to investigate your other options.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

The Buzzer: Predators building momentum; Eichel nets milestone goal in loss

Matt Duchene #95 of the Nashville Predators
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Three Stars

1) Alex Iafallo, Los Angeles Kings

Iafallo scored the opening goal, the game-tying goal and eventually the game-winning goal as he recorded his first career hat trick in the Kings’ 3-2 overtime win against the Arizona Coyotes. Los Angeles outshot Arizona 16-3 in the third period but couldn’t tie the game until Iafallo connected at 17:06 of the final frame. Kings captain Anze Kopitar added two assists as the Kings snapped a five-game losing streak.

2) Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators

Duchene recorded a goal, an assist and the game-deciding tally in the shootout to help John Hynes and the Predators capture a 6-5 victory against the New Jersey Devils. The 29-year-old broke a six-game goal drought when his shot deflected off a Devils defender in the third period. Duchene also converted a slick forehand-backhand maneuver in the extra session as the Predators overcame a third-period deficit for the second straight game.

3) Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

Eichel reached the 30-goal milestone for the first time in his NHL career with a short-side snipe in the Sabres’ 3-1 loss against the Montreal Canadiens Thursday. The Sabres captain is quietly putting together an impressive season but is correctly left out of the Hart Trophy conversation due to Buffalo’s position in the standings. Rasmus Dahlin and Eichel are excellent building blocks, but the remainder of the Sabres roster leaves a lot to be desired.

Highlights of the Night

Pavel Zacha mesmerized the crowd at the Prudential Center with this forehand-backhand-forehand deke early in the first period.

The six-game absence didn’t affect Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher as he recorded the go-ahead goal with a clever backhanded shot.

Roman Josi won’t receive credit for the assist but he showed off his terrific vision with this beautiful cross-ice pass. Filip Forsberg would eventually net his first goal of the game following the play.

Injuries

  • Kyle Okposo exited Thursday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens after sustaining an upper-body injury early in the first period. Sabres coach Ralph Krueger told the media following the loss that Okposo did not suffer a concussion.
  • Oliver Ekman-Larsson suffered a lower-body injury midway through the second period after a knee-on-knee collision with the Kings’ Dustin Brown. Arizona’s captain finished his shift but then went to the dressing room and didn’t return.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Montreal Canadiens 3, Buffalo Sabres 1

Nashville Predators 6, New Jersey Devils 5 (SO)

Los Angeles Kings 3, Arizona Coyotes 2 (OT)


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.