Sean Walker

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.

What is the Kings’ long-term outlook?

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 long-term outlook for the Los Angeles Kings.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Los Angeles Kings currently revolve around two cornerstone pieces, captain Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty.

They were central figures during two Stanley Cup seasons in 2012 and 2014 and remain vital to the organization. The Ilya Kovalchuk experiment ended when they placed the veteran winger on unconditional waivers for the purposes of terminating his contract in mid-December.

But now the focus has shifted, and general manager Rob Blake is tasked with finding new pieces to help usher in a different era of Kings hockey.
Blake and his staff aim to build through the draft and own 11 picks in the upcoming draft, including three in the second round, two in the third round and two in the fourth round. The Kings currently sit in the bottom five of the NHL standings and will have a premium first-round pick depending on the results of the lottery at the conclusion of the NHL season.

The Kings also made two selections in the first round of the 2019 draft and have a top-five NHL farm system, according to The Athletic’s prospect rankings this past summer.

Los Angeles won’t return to glory overnight, but they have the ammunition to rebuild their foundation and become a contender in the Western Conference once again.

Long-Term Needs

The Kings need to hit on their upcoming draft picks, simply put. The decisions made by the front office in the upcoming offseason could define the success of the franchise. It will be the difference between a three-year rebuilding process or 10-year absence from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Los Angeles also has to manage the salary cap over the next few seasons. Its patience will be tested, but the organization needs to wait until Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter’s lucrative contracts expire after the 2021-22 season. Goaltender Jonathan Quick’s deal expires the year after.

With new talent on the horizon, the Kings are in a position to clear out bad contracts but should avoid long-term commitments until a new core is established at the NHL level.

Long-Term Strengths

The good news is Kopitar and Doughty are still performing at a high level. The captain led the team in scoring with 62 points, surpassing his total from last season in 11 fewer games. Doughty leads the team in ice time, averaging a shade under 26 minutes per game and was close to eclipsing the 40-point mark for the sixth straight season.

In addition, Sean Walker secured a spot on the blueline with strong play in the first 70 games of his career. The undrafted defenseman also showed ability on the offensive side of the ice with 24 points, most of which came at even strength.

Most importantly, Todd McLellan looked to be making strides in his first year as head coach. The Kings finished (maybe) the season with an impressive seven-game winning streak and went 10-2-1 in the final 13 games.

The team has a lot of flexibility going forward and now it’s up to Blake to make the correct decisions, and McLellan to execute that plan on the ice.

MORE ON THE KINGS:


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.

NHL on NBCSN: Rebuilding Kings attempt to play spoiler against Pens

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings.  Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins and Kings are heading in very different directions right now. Pittsburgh is chasing a Stanley Cup and Los Angeles is chasing the top pick in the NHL Draft.

Heading into tonight’s game, the Penguins are four points behind the Washington Capitals for first in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh has two games in hand.

On Monday, general manager Jim Rutherford made a couple of moves to improve his roster. He acquired Patrick Marleau from San Jose, and Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary from Buffalo. They also made a splash earlier in the month when they acquired Jason Zucker from Minnesota. So the team looks pretty different than it did at the beginning of February.

Sidney Crosby is the beneficiary of these trades. He’s now skating on a line with Sheary, who he played with during his first stint with the Pens, and Zucker.

Speaking of Crosby, he’s been unbelievable since returning to the lineup from a core muscle injury. The Pens captain has eight goals and 16 assists in the 16 games he’s played post-injury.

“He’s just such an impactful player,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “We are a very different hockey team when he’s in our lineup. He’s been terrific. I think he’s getting better every game. I think his game is gaining more traction, and I think he loves playing this time of year.”

This will be the second game of a four-game road trip. The Pens got their trip starting with a disappointing loss in Washington on Sunday.

“It’s disappointing we didn’t get the result, but I thought we played a much better hockey game,” added Sullivan on Sunday. “It was a competitive game. They’re a good team. We’re a good team.”

As for the Kings, they didn’t really have much to play for between now and the end of the season. They’ll be reduced to playing spoiler between now and the end of the season.

GM Rob Blake managed to swing four trades over the the last few weeks. Here’s the moves they’ve made:

Traded Away: Jack Campbell (Toronto), Kyle Clifford (Toronto) Tyler Toffoli (Vancouver), Alec Martinez (Vegas) and Derek Forbort (Calgary).

Acquired: Trevor Moore (Toronto), 2020 third-round pick (Toronto), 2021 conditional third-round pick (Toronto), Tim Schaller (Vancouver), Tyler Madden (Vancouver), 2020 second-round pick (Vancouver), 2022 conditional fourth-round pick (Vancouver), 2020 second-round pick (Vegas), 2021 second-round pick (Vegas), and 2021 conditional fourth-round pick (Flames).

As you can see from the players and picks they acquired, they’re all about the long-term rebuild.

“We’re at that phase now where the next layer has to step up and contribute,” head coach Todd McLellan said. “The players that have come up from Ontario have shown to this point that they’re ready to go and they understand the structure, that they’re competitive like we thought they’d be, and they’re excited to be here. They give us a little spark, a little jolt of enthusiasm, which we need at this time of year. For as much as they help us out, we’re excited as well. It’s a good mix right now. Something our team dearly needs.”

Nikolay Prokhorkin, Blake Lizotte, Austin Wagner, Mike Amadio, Sean Walker and Matt Roy have all gotten an opportunity to play some more over the course of the season thanks to this rebuild. Cal Petersen has also made four starts since Campbell was shipped to the Maple Leafs.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Alex Faust and analyst Jim Fox will call the action at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, Calif.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Getzlaf, Tanev lead this week’s top adds

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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

Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks – C: The Ducks captain is one of the best known players out there, but he’s owned in a relatively modest 35% of Yahoo leagues. That’s understandable after he was limited to 14 goals and 48 points in 67 games last season, but he’s worth taking a look at now, at least in the short-term. He’s found the back of the net in back-to-back games and has four goals and five points in his last seven contests. Getzlaf has traditionally been more of a playmaker than a scorer, but he’s focused more on shooting the puck himself this season. Through 13 games, he’s averaging 2.38 shots per game, which is his highest rate since 2014-15 when he finished with 25 goals. His long-term value is still questionable, especially given his center-only eligibility, but at the least he’s worth taking a chance on while he’s hot.

Sean Walker, Kings D: Walker might end up being one of the bright spots in a difficult campaign for the Kings. He already has three goals and six points in 12 games. He finished 2018-19 with 10 points in 39 contests, but he was only averaging 15:26 minutes. This time around, he’s up to 18:36 minutes and it wouldn’t be surprising to see his role trend upwards as the season continues. One long-term thing to keep in mind is that Ben Hutton can become a UFA this summer while Alec Martinez is 32-years-old with a contract that runs through 2020-21. Both Hutton and Martinez are averaging over 20 minutes and it’s entirely possible that one or both of them will be dealt before the trade deadline, which might give Walker a late season boost.

Lars Eller, Capitals – C: Eller isn’t a great long-term pickup, but he’s hot right now if you’re looking for a short-term boost. He has two goals and five points in his last four games, which has pushed him up to four goals and 10 points in 13 contests. That’s quite the start for the 30-year-old who has never recorded more than 38 points in a single season. It’s certainly nice to benefit from while it lasts, just don’t expect him to maintain this pace.

Radko Gudas, Capitals – D: This is a bit of a different one. He has just four assists in 13 games and he can’t be expected to be a significant offensive contributor this season. However, he can potentially help you in some other ways. Gudas is tied for seventh among defensemen with 32 hits and is tied for sixth overall with a plus-nine plus/minus rating. He’s only owned in 28% of Yahoo leagues, so if you need help those categories, then he might be the solution. If you’re in a custom league that uses blocked shots, then Gudas has some utility there too. So far he’s gotten in front of 24 shots.

Joel Armia, Canadiens – RW: Armia is red hot right now with three goals and four points in his last three games, along with six goals and eight points in his most recent seven contests. He’s never recorded more than 29 points in a single season, but the 26-year-old has seen his role grow rapidly in recent years. He’s averaging a career-high 17:03 minutes in 2019-20 and it’s been climbing with him logging an average of 18:33 minutes over his last four contests. He’s regularly played alongside Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi is sometimes the third member of that line. We could be seeing the start of a breakout season for Armia.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Alex Goligoski, Coyotes – D: Goligoski has traditionally been good for around 35-40 points, but he dipped to 27 points in 76 contests last season. Arizona had a bottom barrel offensive team in 2018-19 though, so that played a role. This time around, the Coyotes’ offense is pretty solid and Goligoski has been able to rebound with a goal and seven points through 11 contests. It helps that the Coyotes are a much better team overall too, which translates to Goligoski not being the plus/minus burden he used to be. Back in 2017-18 he had a career-low minus-31 rating and even last season he finished at minus-seven. By contrast he’s plus-five this season. His improved worth hasn’t been noticed by all fantasy owners though, as evident by the fact that he’s only owned in 17% of Yahoo leagues.

Brandon Tanev, Penguins – LW/RW: I’m a little hesitant about this one, but Pittsburgh seems to be agreeing with Tanev. He set career-highs with 14 goals and 29 points in 80 games with Winnipeg last season and it on his way to top that in 2019-20. So far he has three goals and six points in 12 contests. Like I said, I’m hesitant about Tanev. I’m just not fully convinced he’s going to be a particularly valuable secondary scorer in the long run this season and his role with the Penguins hasn’t changed much from what it was with Washington. However, he is a great source of hits (49 already), so if you need help in that category to begin with, it’d make some sense to take a chance on him in the hopes that he keeps up this offensive pace.

Ilya Mikheyev, Maple Leafs – LW: Mikheyev has just adjusted remarkably well from the KHL to NHL. He already has four goals and 10 points in 13 games this season. He’s averaging 15:55 minutes per game and his role has been ticking upwards with him getting an average of 16:48 minutes over his last five contests. He’s still only owned in 23% of Yahoo leagues despite his hot start, so for a lot of owners, the opportunity to scoop him up remains.

Linus Ullmark, Sabres – G: The Sabres have gotten off to a superb 9-2-2 start and part of the reason for that has been some solid goaltending. Carter Hutton has been the leader in that regard with a 6-1-1 record, 2.21 GAA, and .926 save percentage in eight starts, but he’s also owned in 81% of Yahoo leagues, so odds are if you don’t have him yet, you can’t get him now. Ullmark isn’t a bad consolation prize though. For a backup, he’s played a fair amount, and he’s done well with a 3-1-1 record, 2.56 GAA, and .932 save percentage. The Sabres also have back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday followed by sets on Nov. 8-9, Nov. 16-17, Nov. 24-25, and Nov. 29-30. So even if they weren’t already using their backup regularly, they would need to in order to accommodate their November schedule.

Colton Sissons, Predators – C/LW: Sissons has gotten off to a terrific start with four goals and eight points in 11 games this season. He’s averaged a relatively modest 15:19 minutes per game, but it is trending upwards. He’s averaged 16:13 minutes over his last three games and has logged over 17 minutes in three of those contests. He’s still only owned in 7% of Yahoo leagues and at this point, he seems worthy of the gamble.

Players You May Want To Drop

Kaapo Kakko, Rangers – RW: Taken with the second overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, there was understandably a lot of optimism surrounding Kakko going into the season. He had an amazing season in the Finnish league and we’ve seen previous first and second overall picks enter the league with a bang. That hasn’t been the case for Kakko though, who has just a goal and an assist through nine games. He’s been quick to put the blame on himself too, saying recently that he’s been “playing bad hockey,” per the New York Post. If you’re in a keeper league, then you definitely want to hold onto him because in the long run Kakko will be an excellent player, but if you’re in a single season league then you may want to drop him while he continues to adjust to North American hockey in general and the NHL in particular.

Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks – C: The Blackhawks captain had 35 goals and 81 points in 82 games last season, but that’s something of an anomaly given his history. Prior to that, he had three straight campaigns in the 52-58 point range. It seems he’s dipping back into that kind of offensive play this season. He’s scored just a goal and two points in 10 games so far and has gone five straight games without a point. If he had eligibility beyond center then there’d be more reason to be patient with him, but as it is, there are a lot of alternatives out there up the middle.

Devan Dubnyk, Wild – G: Dubnyk is ready to return from an upper-body injury, but it remains to be seen if he can turn his season around. He’s off to a terrible start with a 3.92 GAA and .880 save percentage in seven contests. With the exception of Oct. 22nd, when he left the game early in the second period due to the injury, he has surrendered at least three goals in each of his starts. Meanwhile, the Wild have found some success with Alex Stalock this season and you have to wonder if that will lead to the Wild leaning more on him going forward. Part of the selling point for Dubnyk was that he was likely to start in 60-plus games, but if Stalock keeps this up, then that won’t happen.

Joe Pavelski, Stars – C/RW: Let’s close out with a pair of big name Stars players that you maybe should hang onto for now, but at least need to be under the microscope at this point. Pavelski had 38 goals last season and obviously has a long history of success, but his stint so far in Dallas has to give everyone pause. He has just two goals and three points in 13 contests. What’s even more concerning is that he’s only even managed 18 shots on goal this season. To put that in perspective, he averaged 2.51 shots per game in 2018-19 and now he’s down to just 1.38. If something doesn’t change, this will be by far his lowest shots per game rate of his career. I have to wonder if the 35-year-old is simply in for a bad season, but if you’re determined to stay patient with him, then there are some silver linings. Dallas as a whole has struggled, so maybe he’ll start to turn things around once the rest of the team does. Additionally, his IPP is extremely low, which might be an indication of some pretty bad puck luck on his part. So it’s not quite all doom-and-gloom even if it’s certainly looked that way so far. 

Alexander Radulov, Stars – RW: I mentioned the Stars’ early season struggles and Radulov has been another factor in that. After his back-to-back 72-point campaigns, he has just a goal and four points in 13 games this season. Like Pavelski, he might rebound along with the rest of the Stars, but one thing I’m particularly worried about with Radulov is his declining role. He averaged 20:08 minutes in 2017-18 and 19:47 minutes in 2018-19. So far this season he’s dipped to an average of 17:25 minutes, which is still good, but not nearly as impressive. As his struggles have mounted, he’s also seen his role decline further. He’s logged less than 17 minutes in each of his last four games and on Oct. 24th he got just 12:23 minutes. As is the case with Pavelski, all hope isn’t lost, but there are some concerning signs here beyond just a slow start.

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.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.