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Kings’ rebuild: Where there’s hope, where they’re stuck

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings. 

One doesn’t have to strain to think of some rather dire scenarios for the Los Angeles Kings, especially when you look at a salary cap that’s just bursting with ugly contracts.

This post aims for something different by asking: where can the Kings turn things around, and where are they stuck?

Let’s break the situation down by categories.

[MORE: Three Questions | X-factor | Under Pressure]

Prospects waiting in the wings

Players like Alex Turcotte will be pushing for roster spots … eventually. In some cases (if Gabriel Vilardi gets unexpected health luck, maybe?), possibly soon. But for this exercise, let’s move along to the guys the Kings should phase out to open up space — roster and cap — for prospects.

The Pillars

If the Kings were ever going to move on from Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty — dubious at best, anyway — it was going to be before they signed either player to their current deals. Kopitar, soon to be 32, carries a $10M cap hit through 2023-24. Doughty, 29, has an $11M AAV through 2026-27.

That’s scary, but there’s a chance that 2018-19 was an anomaly, and both may age more gracefully going forward.

Probably not moving away from Quick quickly

Kopitar and Doughty share something in common with Jonathan Quick beyond being faces of the franchise: all three players see big salaries in 2019-20, while their salaries at least drop off – sometimes steeply – in future seasons.

That thought leads me to believe that Quick’s most realistic window to be traded would be after this season.

As much as I’d advise the Kings to trade the 33-year-old as soon as possible, another team would find him far more palatable in 2020-21 and beyond. Consider that 2019-20 is the final season where Quick costs more in actual salary ($7M) than his $5.8M cap hit. From 2020-21, his actual salary sinks to $3.5M, then $3M in 2021-22, and finally $2.5M in 2022-23.

A two-time champion goalie whose salary is lower than his cap hit? Now that’s a decent elevator pitch for a trade.

Trade bait

Speaking of players who were once important, the Kings might be wise to move on from contracts with limited term, much like they did with Jake Muzzin.

Tyler Toffoli is entering a contract year, and considering how ice-cold he was in 2018-19, he’d likely fetch the best return during the trade deadline after his production ideally stabilizes. Alec Martinez could be quite enticing as a defenseman who costs an affordable $4M in cap space for the next two seasons. Toffoli is 27 and Martinez is 32, so if the Kings are honest with themselves, they’ll likely both be a little long in the tooth by the time Los Angeles truly sorts things out.

There are players the Kings would more readily trade, but the difference is that other teams would actually want Toffoli and Martinez.

Unlikely to move

Jeff Carter‘s plummet in skill would already make it tough to trade him at his $5M+ cap hit (which runs through 2021-22, yikes). He’s also discussed possibly retiring if he were traded, making a trade even dicier.

Ilya Kovalchuk is equally difficult to trade for anything but a bad contract for bad contract swap, and that’s making the shaky assumption that he’d even waive a no-trade clause.

The bright side with Carter (expiring after 2021-22), Kovalchuk (2020-21), and Dustin Brown (2021-22) is that their contracts are expiring … reasonably soon. Ish.

And, really, with their salaries diving below their cap hits soon, they might actually be good filler if the Kings semi-tank.

***

The Kings have a lot of bad money on the books, so here’s hoping the Dion Phaneuf buyout lingers as a reminder of how costly it can be to go with a quick-fix approach. This team needs a rebuild, and while it doesn’t have the same ammo that the Rangers did with theirs, if you squint, you can see signs of hope.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Kings’ big money men are under pressure

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

The 2019-20 season was already slated to shine a harsh spotlight on the most expensive Los Angeles Kings players, particularly if they fail to rebound from a brutal 2018-19.

Already-high cap hits don’t tell the story, as the actual salaries could make management queasy. Between Drew Doughty ($12M), Anze Kopitar ($11M), and Jonathan Quick ($7M), the Kings are spending $30M on three players who are coming off of seasons that were absolutely disastrous.

Take a look at the rest of the Kings’ roster, and you’ll realize that, if this team hopes to be competitive next season, they’re counting on those three – particularly Doughty and Kopitar – to return to elite status, or something close to that. The Kings wisely stayed on the sidelines instead of spending big in free agency, yet this means that the Kings are crossing their fingers on improvement from within.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three Questions | Kings’ rebuild  | X-factor]

Now, the lack of free agent moves would make you believe that the Kings are acknowledging reality and settling for a wonky rebuild where they might not really be able to blow things up, but might at least be able to absorb some tough years to improve draft lottery odds.

Yet … the thing is, if you’re gearing up for a rebuild, are you really giving Todd McLellan this kind of money, or even hiring McLellan in the first place?

That hefty salary indicates that the Kings are banking on McLellan succeeding with Los Angeles in a way he rarely did with the Oilers: steering a flawed, top-heavy roster to contention. Considering the stuttered development of players like Jesse Puljujarvi, it’s tough to spin the McLellan hire as anything beyond a “win-now’ move.

With that in mind, the Kings still seem like they want to be competitive, and basically all of that rides on a $35M quartet of Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, and head coach McLellan.

None of them have an easy job ahead.

As tough as 2018-19 was for Kopitar, it’s not an accident that Dustin Brown had a career renaissance while playing almost 1,000 even-strength minutes and less than 100 minutes without Kopitar last season. Chances are, Kopitar will be asked to lug one or even two questionable wingers with him, and it’s up to McLellan to determine what is the most optimal combination. Should Kopitar stick with Brown and Alex Iafallo as the team did last season, or might it be helpful to mix in a little more talent? Could Kopitar + Ilya Kovalchuk work out better with another try? Would Kopitar rejuvenate Jeff Carter? In virtually every scenario, Kopitar will be asked to carry others. Not the easiest assignment for a guy who’s turning 32 soon.

Doughty may be asked to boost defensemen in a similar way, and McLellan must weigh the temptation to play Doughty a ton as one of their only needle-movers (especially if they eventually trade Alec Martinez) versus trying to keep Doughty fresh to avoid injuries and poor play from overuse.

Jack Campbell and Calvin Petersen were sharp where Quick was dull in 2018-19, but a lot still seems to ride on a 33-year-old “athletic goalie,” especially if McLellan’s system can’t hide the Kings’ poor defensive personnel beyond Doughty.

It’s not just the big-money players who need a rebound after having terrible seasons, as McLellan carries the ignominious mark of being fired mid-season, and also being a coach who couldn’t make things work despite having Connor McDavid on his team. As much as the Oilers’ struggles came down to terrible asset management by former GM Peter Chiarelli, McLellan has a lot to prove in his third head coaching gig — and a big salary to justify.

The scary thing is that the Kings probably need these four to do more than merely rebound to a place of “respectability.” They probably need Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, and McLellan to be worth pretty close to this $35M-ish collective investment, and that means that they’re all going to be under a lot of pressure. Probably too much, to be honest.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

What is Rob Blake’s plan to turn around the Kings?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings. 

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Los Angeles Kings.

1. What is Rob Blake’s end-game this season? 

The short-term outlook appears to be incredibly grim. Even if Anze Kopitar bounces back (and he better at $10 million a season for the four years) and Jonathan Quick stays healthy and improves upon his disastrous save percentage from last year, will it really move the needle in the right direction?

Blake’s ace up his sleeve, if he has one, is several should-be motivated players entering contract years. The likes of Tyler Toffoli, Trevor Lewis, Kyle Clifford and Derek Forbort will be looking for new deals (and likely not in L.A.)

Ideally, Blake and Co. would be promoting these folks so they can ship them out at the trade deadline for assets.

There’s not a whole lot else he can do. There are some contracts — Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Ilya Kovalchuk — that likely aren’t going anywhere, so Blake needs to get what he can for the players he can deal.

This season needs to be about prospect development and getting the most back from the trade deadline as possible. Give fans a reason to hope again after last season’s abomination.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-factor]

2. Is it time to usher in the next crop of goaltenders? 

Quick is coming off the worst season of his career and still has four years left on a contract paying him $5.8 million annually.

The days of him being worth that kind of cash seem behind him. Two of the past three seasons have been marred by significant injuries and with the team deteriorating around him, questions of motivation understandably have come into play.

It’s entirely possible that Quick bounces back this season. If healthy and rejuvenated under new head coach Todd McLellan, perhaps Quick can rekindle his Vezina-caliber play.

But even if everything falls into place for Quick, should the team run with it?

If this team is truly thinking of rebuilding, more time should be afforded to Jack Campbell — the one bright spot on the Kings roster last season — and Cal Petersen, who the Kings are very high on when it comes to leading this team in the future.

And perhaps that’s the direction the team should take, with Quick acting more as a high-priced mentor.

3. Can Todd McLellan start to fix the problems? 

The Kings aren’t expected to be relevant this year in terms of the standings, but can they at least ice a competitive team?

That’s the tall order that McLellan took on when he accepted the post in Los Angeles.

He enters a situation where the team had the second-fewest goals-for, fourth-most goals against and special teams that were hardly memorable. And he’s been given a cast of players, many of which are on the back nine of their careers.

A tall order, indeed.

McLellan should be focused on the young blood in the team while using the veterans he has to mentor them. He also needs to showcase the team’s pending unrestricted free agents to receive as much value as the team can get at the trade deadline.

McLellan isn’t going to be expected to win now, or at least shouldn’t be. But progress on the team’s future needs to be made.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Why Rangers should consider trading Chris Kreider right now

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The New York Rangers have undergone one of the most significant transformations in the league this offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and the good fortune that saw them move to No. 2 in the draft lottery where they selected Kaapo Kakko.

It has drastically changed the look of the team on the ice, both for the long-term and the short-term, and also significantly altered their salary cap structure.

With the new contracts for Panarin and Trouba adding $19.6 million to their salary cap number (for the next seven years) it currently has the Rangers over the cap for this season while still needing to re-sign three restricted free agents, including Pavel Buchnevich who is coming off of a 21-goal performance in only 64 games.

Obviously somebody is going to have to go at some point over the next year, and it remains entirely possible that “somebody” could be veteran forward Chris Kreider given his contract situation and the team’s new salary cap outlook.

Perhaps even as soon as this summer by way of a trade.

What makes it so complicated for Kreider and the Rangers is that he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and will be in line for a significant pay raise from his current $4.6 million salary cap number.

It is a tough situation for general manager Jeff Gorton and new team president John Davidson to tackle.

If you are looking at things in a more short-term window there is at least a decent argument for trying to keep Kreider this season, and perhaps even beyond. For one, he is still a really good player. He scored 28 goals this past season, still brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and is still an important part of the roster.

Even though the Rangers missed the playoffs by a significant margin this past season (20 points back) they are not that far away from being able to return to the postseason. Maybe even as early as this season if everything goes absolutely perfect. They added a top-10 offensive player in the league (Panarin), a top-pairing defender (Trouba), another promising young defender with potential (Fox), a potential superstar (Kakko), and still have a goalie (Henrik Lundqvist) that can change a season if he is on top of his game. It is not a given, and not even likely, but the window is at least starting to open.

Even if they do not make it this season they are not so far away that Kreider could not still be a potentially productive member of that next playoff team.

The salary cap situation will be complicated, but the Rangers can easily trim elsewhere in a variety of ways, whether it be utilizing the second buyout window or trading another, less significant part of the roster. As we just saw this past week, there is no contract in the NHL that is completely unmovable.

They COULD do it.

But just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, and that is the big issue the Rangers have to face with one of their most important players.

Should they keep him and try to sign him to a new long-term contract?

For as good as Kreider still is, and for as much as the Rangers have improved this summer, they still have to think about the big-picture outlook.

That means separating what a player has done for you from what that player will do for you in the future. For a team like the Rangers that is still building for something beyond this season, the latter part is the only thing that matters.

The reality of Kreider’s situation is that he is going to be 29 years old when his next contract begins, will be making significantly more than his current salary, and is almost certainly going to be on the threshold of a significant decline in his production (assuming it has not already started).

Let’s try to look at this as objectively as possible.

Kreider just completed his age 27 season, has played 470 games in the NHL, and averaged 0.29 goals per game and 0.59 points per game for his career.

There were 12 forwards in the NHL this past season that had similar numbers through the same point in their careers (at least 400 games played, at least 0.25 goals per game, and between 0.50 and 0.60 points per game). That list included Adam Henrique, Ryan Callahan, Wayne Simmonds, Ryan Kesler, Dustin Brown, Drew Stafford, Andrew Ladd, Tomas Tatar, Jordan Staal, David Perron, Lee Stempniak, and Kyle Turris.

This is not a perfect apples to apples comparison here because a lot of the players in that group play different styles and have different skillsets. They will not all age the exact same way or see their talents deteriorate in the same way. But what should concern the Rangers is that almost every one of the players on that list that is currently over the age of 30 has seen their production fall off a cliff. Some of them now carry contracts that look regrettable for their respective teams.

It is pretty much a given that as a player gets closer to 30 and plays beyond that their production is going to decline. Teams can get away with paying elite players into their 30s because even if they decline their production is still probably going to be better than a significant part of the league. Maybe Panarin isn’t an 80-point player at age 30 or 31, but it is a good bet he is still a 65-or 70-point player and a legitimate top-line winger.

Players like Kreider that aren’t starting at that level don’t have as much wiggle room, and when they decline from their current level they start to lose some (or even a lot) of their value.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Given the Rangers’ salary cap outlook, that is probably a risk they can not afford to take with Kreider long-term because it is far more likely that a new contract becomes an albatross on their cap than a good value.

You also have to consider that the Rangers have long-term options at wing that will quickly push Kreider down the depth chart.

Panarin is one of the best wingers in the league. Over the past two years they used top-10 picks in potential impact wingers (Kaako this year and Vitali Kravtsov a year ago). Buchnevich just turned 24 and has already shown 20-goal potential in the NHL.

As Adam Herman at Blueshirt Banter argued immediately after the signing of Panarin, committing more than $6 million per year to a winger that, in the very near future, may only be the fourth or fifth best winger on the team is a very questionable (at best) move in a salary cap league and gives them almost zero margin for error elsewhere on the roster.

Right now Kreider still has a lot of value to the Rangers for this season. He is probably making less than his market value, is still one of their best players, and still makes them better right now.

But when you look at the situation beyond this season his greatest value to them probably comes in the form of a trade chip because it not only means they can acquire an asset (or two) whose career better aligns with their next best chance to compete for a championship, but it also means they do not have to pay a soon-to-be declining, non-elite player a long-term contract into their 30s, a situation that almost never works out favorably for the team.

The Rangers have had to trade some key players and make some tough decisions during this rebuild.

They should be strongly considering making the same decision with Kreider.

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.

Kings’ 2019 NHL Draft crop gives much-needed hope

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Ever since Rob Blake took over as Los Angeles Kings GM, they’ve developed an interesting trend of being stuck in the past in some ways, yet showing far-reaching vision in others.

When it comes to their aging core players, the choices have been risky. Instead of making the painful decision to move on from Drew Doughty, they handed the 29-year-old an extension where his enormous $11 million cap hit runs through 2026-27. Anze Kopitar is already 31, and his $10M cap hit won’t expire until after 2023-24. That’s $21M that could really start to sour for the Kings, and they’re far from the only veterans who could look long in the tooth, and plenty already do.

In many cases, the Kings feel at least a little stuck, as it might not even be plausible to trade away problem deals like Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, or Ilya Kovalchuk, while the Kings haven’t had the stomach to wave goodbye to Jonathan Quick.

So … yeah. Let’s just say that Todd McLellan has his work cut out for him next season.

The good news, though, is that the Kings are soaring at the “rebuilding on the fly” portion of their plan. While the Colorado Avalanche arguably had the strongest crop of all, the Kings drew well-earned acclaim for their own work, and suddenly things aren’t as royally painful for a franchise that hit a big hole in the road this past season.

[2019 NHL Draft Results: Round 1; Rounds 2-7; Winners and losers]

At least, the Kings seemingly knocked it out of the park. As we’ve seen with health concerns for Gabriel Vilardi (11th overall, 2017), it remains difficult to truly tell how high school-aged prospects will actually pan out.

All we can do is make guesses that are as educated as possible, and consensus praise is usually a promising sign. That’s what the Kings received for their work in the 2019 NHL Draft, from some of their top picks, to the fuller picture of depth choices.

Let’s consider a few specifics, and then zoom out.

Alex Turcotte – It feels silly to call the No. 5 pick a “steal,” although Elias Pettersson (fifth before Vilardi in 2017) shows that it can sometimes feel that way, nonetheless.

Some penciled in Turcotte as the third overall pick, but the Blackhawks went for a different center in Kirby Dach. After the Avalanche lept to land Bowen Byram as the first defenseman pick at fourth overall, the opportunity opened up for the Kings to select Turcotte.

For a Kings team that seems to have been left behind in the dust as the NHL gets speedier and more skilled, Turcotte’s talent makes this pick appeal to me. But the Kings were a sandpaper plus skill team during their two Stanley Cup runs, so they likely are also enticed by the edge that also apparently surfaces in his game.

“He’s a beast,” Top overall pick Jack Hughes said of Turcotte, recalling their many days together in the U.S. NTDP, via NHL.com’s Mike G. Morreale. “He plays a hard, heavy, skilled game and that’s a tough combination to deal with. Not only does he score goals and make plays, but he’s probably the best face-off guy on our team. A lot of his goals are net-front tips, rebounds and shots in front, proving he’s not just a skilled guy who can score from the perimeter but a guy who goes to the net.”

Tobias Bjornfot: While Turcotte was described as a “home run” by the likes of The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler (sub required), some wonder if Bjornfot was a bit of a reach at 22.

Still, in a first round where teams really reached at times (see: Moritz Seider not even believing he went sixth overall), Bjornfot went around pick 32 on average by Habs Eyes on the Prize’s consensus collection of mock drafts. So, not the end of the world, and their next pick was almost as exciting as Turcotte at 5.

Arthur Kaliyev: Just about every sports draft has its one Aaron Rodgers moment: an expected first-rounder falls all the way to day two.

Kaliyev wasn’t the only expected Friday pick who needed to wait until Saturday, but his snubbing might have been the most shocking. Unlike Bobby Brink likely falling because of his size, Kaliyev is listed at 6-foot-2.

You have to really go deep into armchair psychology about perceived effort to talk yourself out of a forward who scored 51 goals and 51 assists in 67 games for the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs last season, especially since he has the size you’d like to see in a top prospect.

In praising the Kaliyev pick (sub required), The Athletic’s Corey Pronman passed along this great quote from acting Bulldogs head coach Vince Laise:

“Arthur is one of the most dynamic players I’ve coached in the OHL in my six years here,” Laise said. “I coached Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat. In my opinion, Arthur is just as good a player as either of those two.”

Kaliyev just turned 18 on Wednesday, too, so he’s one of the youngest players of the 2019 NHL Draft. Sometimes, when you see a player dominate at a level, there’s the worry that they might be taking advantage of being just a bit older than their competition, which absolutely matters in those crucial development years. In Kaliyev’s case, critics couldn’t even knock him for that.

High marks: Personally, the picks of Turcotte and Kaliyev bode well for the Kings, most of all.

Expanding out, experts also approved of their overall haul. People gave the thumbs up for other picks, including Samuel Fagemo at 50th overall. Both Manny Elk and Corey Pronman gave the Kings an ‘A‘ for their work last weekend, and I haven’t personally seen any outlet bashing the work of Blake & Co. Pronman ranks among those who think it’s a special run:

It’s a big weekend, and I’m as excited about this Kings draft class as I’ve been about any I can recall in recent memory.

Last August, Pronman had already ranked the Kings’ system as 10th overall. While a lot can change in a year (see: the health worries about Vilardi, and prospects like Pettersson blowing away expectations), it’s promising that the Kings added a stellar round of selections to a farm system that was already improving.

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Naturally, the Kings still have far more work to do.

If I were Blake, I’d move Alec Martinez. Much like Jake Muzzin, Martinez’s contract is likely to run out before the Kings are truly competitive again, so it’s better to try to snag something promising in return, particularly if Martinez nets a first-rounder like Muzzin did. I’d also trade Jonathan Quick while he still has perceived value around the NHL, as at 33, things could go downhill fast for a goalie who relies so much on athleticism.

Whether they make those courageous moves or not, the Kings must also develop the likes of Turcotte, Kaliyev, and Rasmus Kupari. Todd McLellan’s had a front row seat to prospects flaming out in Edmonton, if they need a reminder of development falling under the “easier said than done” category.

A lot can go wrong, and a lot more needs to be done, but it’s easier to picture better report cards when early exams come back with A’s and B-pluses. By most accounts, the Kings have passed their latest tests with flying colors, making their outlook far brighter today than it was even a full week ago.

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.