Ilya Kovalchuk

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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.

Which Kings can bounce back from last season’s meltdown?

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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.

While every team hopes a few players can rebound from disappointing seasons, the Kings are hoping to evoke prime, funny hair-era Dennis Rodman by gobbling up plenty of rebounds next season (or to be more sport-appropriate, like peak Espo?).

Let’s consider the biggest X-factor for the Kings: can these players rebound in 2019-20?

Anze Kopitar: In 2017-18, Kopitar was a Hart Trophy finalist, scoring 92 points and being an all-around demon. A year later he, uh, finished 38th in the Lady Byng voting and only managed 60 points.

Maybe the Kings just need to admit that Kopitar is no longer Superman. Yes, he dragged Slovenia to an impressive run in the 2014 Winter Olympics, or was a force during two Stanley Cup victories, but he’s about to turn 32 on Aug. 24. It’s time to start easing his burden, like fellow perennial Selke candidate Patrice Bergeron. Instead, the Kings kept asking for more and more from Kopitar, including having him start 58.6 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone in 2018-19, easily his career-high.

The aging curve is cruel, but the Kings should at least look at ways to dull its sharp edges.

Drew Doughty: Doughty experienced a Kopitar-like trajectory: better-than-ever offensive numbers in 2017-18, then just about everything plummeted in 2018-19.

Personally, I compare Doughty’s struggles to that of P.K. Subban; it’s just difficult to believe that Doughty’s fallen this far from being Norris-caliber. He won’t turn 30 until December, and while Doughty’s (and, to an extent, Kopitar’s) contract is absolutely terrifying over the long haul, I expect a healthy rebound in 2019-20. Also like Kopitar, I don’t expect a rebound to 2017-18 levels, however.

Jonathan Quick: The good news is that Quick has a decent chance of bouncing back from an abysmal .888 save percentage. The bad news is that it’s possible that his improvement might be offset by Jack Campbell (.928) and Calvin Petersen (.924) sinking closer to average.

Most signs point to Quick’s 2018-19 meltdown being an outlier. Then again, Quick does rely heavily on athleticism, so what if that’s slipping at age 33?

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three Questions | Kings’ rebuild | Under Pressure

Tyler ToffoliIt’s not perfect, but a shooting percentage far below 10 is usually a sign of a forward who’s had especially bad luck, while something above 20 shows that they were on a hot streak they won’t duplicate.

That thought explains why Toffoli is the easiest rebound to point to, as he should shoot at a much higher rate than last season’s dismal 5.8 percent. Toffoli is also entering a contract year, so motivation shouldn’t be in short supply.

Jeff Carter and Ilya Kovalchuk: These two (once?) highly skilled players are tougher to feel optimistic about.

With Carter, it’s simply hard to believe that he’s healthy. Honestly, it’s surprising he suited up for 76 games last season. If his lower-body (full body, really?) issues are behind him, who knows? Still, I can’t help but be troubled by how rarely Carter shot the puck last season.

Then again, Toffoli was the only King with more than 200 SOG last season (226), so this is one of the many cases where it’s tempting to throw out all numbers from that miserable 2018-19 campaign.

Ilya Kovalchuk would probably sign off on the “let’s just forget last year” idea.

It’s tempting to give Kovalchuk a mulligan, as he sometimes found himself a healthy scratch last season as part of the head-scratching Willie Desjardins era. On the other hand, Kovalchuk didn’t score anywhere near enough to justify lousy all-around play, and at 36, he simply might be done.

***

The 2018-19 disaster makes a lot of Kings’ numbers difficult to weigh, and 2019-20 a challenge to predict. Yet, even an optimist would struggle to get too excited about the mess Todd McLellan has been asked to clean up.

Ultimately, rebounds (or a lack thereof) stand as a big X-factor for the Kings.

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

It’s Los Angeles Kings Day at PHT

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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. 

2018-19
31-42-9, 71 points (8th in Pacific Division, 15th in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Joakim Ryan
Martin Frk
Todd McLellan — head coach

OUT:
Dion Phaneuf
Brendan Leipsic
Peter Budaj
Willie Desjardins – head coach

RE-SIGNED:
Cal Petersen
Michael Amadio
Alex Iafallo
Matt Roy

2018-19 Season Summary

As far as seasons go, they don’t get much worse than the one the Los Angeles Kings just endured.

They couldn’t score (30th in goals-for), not even on the power play (27th at 15.8 percent) and they couldn’t stop much from going in (22nd in goals-against), and certainly not on the penalty kill (29th at 76.5 percent).

Ilya Kovalchuk‘s NHL return couldn’t save them — he was simply a massive bust.

Their highest goal-scorer had 22 goals, only two players had more than two goals and just one had more than 60 points. And Anze Kopitar‘s season paled in comparison to his 90-plus point campaign from the year previous.

Jonathan Quick forgot how to stop the puck, posting a tremendously ugly .888 save percentage, by far the worst numbers of his career.

John Stevens got fired early, they hired Willie Desjardinsan act that didn’t work out — and then went out and got Todd McLellan to lead them into an uncertain future.

The pain extended all the way to the draft lottery in June where the Kings could have selected, at worst, Kaapo Kakko, if the odds would play out to their 30th-place finish. Instead, they fell three places to the fifth-overall pick… one final kick in the pants.

[MORE: Three Questions | Kings’ rebuild | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

And it hasn’t been much of an offseason, either.

Rob Blake has essentially done nothing over the summer. PHT’s Adam Gretz wrote about quiet Kings a month ago and little has changed since the team shipped out Jake Muzzin to Toronto.

Here are the moves that have been made since the beginning of the year, per Adam’s story:

  • 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

The pessimist fan will tell you it’s all doom and gloom right now and they’d be right. The Kings are used to being juggernauts in the Western Conference. Those days are long gone. Next season isn’t going to be pretty.

The optimist, meanwhile, will say the upcoming season — while nearly lost before it even has a chance to begin — is about the kids coming up and a lot of assets coming the team’s way around the trade deadline.

Pending free agents Tyler Toffoli, Trevor Lewis, Kyle Clifford and Derek Forbort could all be on different teams before the season is through. If a team gets really desperate for, say, a goaltender, shipping out Jonathan Quick may become a possibility, too.

That would all add up to cap space to be used up next summer, even with Phaneuf’s buyout hitting it for just over $4 million.

That should offer a glimmer of hope, at least, because there’s not much to suggest this coming season will be any better.

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