Tyler Toffoli

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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.

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

Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Loading up on the right

Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

***

Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

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.