Alec Martinez

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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’ 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.

***

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.

In-demand Futa ‘will remain a Los Angeles King,’ says Lombardi

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LA Kings VP of hockey ops Mike Futa, considered to be in the mix for Toronto’s vacant GM gig, isn’t going anywhere — at least according to GM Dean Lombardi.

“Mike Futa is still a Los Angeles King and will remain a Los Angeles King,” Lombardi said, per LA Kings Insider. “You don’t think the guy could jump ship now, right?”

Lombardi’s comment came while Futa prepped and continued scouting for the NHL Entry Draft, which will go later this month. Scouting is how Futa established such a strong reputation across the league — in his eight seasons with the Kings, he headed up a department responsible for drafting the likes of Drew Doughty, Kyle Clifford, Alec Martinez, Slava Voynov, Dwight King, Jordan Nolan, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. (Jake Muzzin, an undrafted free agent, also came aboard under Futa’s watch.)

As mentioned above, Futa’s been tied primarily to the vacant GM gig in Toronto. But according to TSN, teams have tried in the past to lure him out of Los Angeles — Buffalo and Calgary during their GM searches — and the Kings responded with a promotion, new contract and stipulations about what jobs he could seek out.

Which probably explains why Lombardi was so adamant Futa wasn’t going anywhere.

“There’s a big challenge ahead of us,” he explained. “I don’t think [Futa’s] had time to think about it. He’s been going a hundred miles an hour.”

Get your game notes: Kings at Rangers

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Tonight on NBCSN, it’s the New York Rangers hosting the L.A. Kings on Rivalry Night at 7 p.m. ET. Following are some game notes, as compiled by the NHL on NBC research team:

TOP STORYLINES

• Stanley Cup Final rematch…The Rangers host the Kings tonight in the first meeting at Madison Square Garden since the Rangers staved off elimination in Game 4 (2-1 win) of last season’s Stanley Cup Final. The Kings won the series in Game 5 in LA (3-2 in 2OT; series-clinching goal by Alec Martinez) to capture their 2nd Stanley Cup in the last 3 seasons.

• This is the 2nd and final meeting of the season…In the first meeting, NYR won 4-3 at LA back on Jan. 8th during a stretch where the Rangers had ultimately gone 13-1-0 including a California sweep, winning at ANA, LA & SJ in the same season for the first time in franchise history.

• Contrary to the series last postseason, it was New York, not LA, who overcame a deficit in their first meeting this season for the win…down 2-0 in the 1st, NYR scored 4 unanswered goals…Martin St. Louis is credited with the game winner (LA overcame a 2-goal deficit to win Game 1 & 2 of SCF).

• Presidents’ Trophy outlook: No team in the NHL has more points than the New York Rangers…No team has played fewer games than the Rangers…The Blue Shirts are on the verge of being the first team to reach 100 points this season (their first 100-point season since 2011-12; 109 pts).

• Since the inception of the Presidents’ Trophy in 1985-86, New York has won the award twice, most recently in the 1993-94 season, when they went on to win their last Stanley Cup.

• The last 2 Presidents’ Trophy winners had different postseason fates: the Bruins lost in the second round last season while the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup back in 2013.

• Ultimate goals…The Rangers & Kings each look to become the first team to reach the Stanley Cup Final in consecutive seasons since the Red Wings & Penguins met each other in the Cup Final in 2008 & 2009.

• Late-season surges have been the identity of LA in recent years. In each of the past 3 seasons, they have not clinched a playoff spot until the very end
of the season.

• With 10 games to go last season, LA had 88 points and sat 3rd in the Pacific Division.

• What’s also at stake for LA…The Kings can become the first repeat champ since DET won in 1997 & 1998…on the other end of the spectrum, they could become only the 4th team since the 1967-68 expansion to miss the playoffs the season after winning the Cup, joining CAR (2006-07), NJ (1995-96) & MTL (1969-70).

• Best start in franchise history…The Rangers are challenging their best regular season in franchise history…

• For NYR, the last time they won the Stanley Cup (1993-94) was a record-setting regular season in both wins (52) & points (112), both marks still stand as franchise bests. Here is NYR through 71 games in club history:

• Division title…New York needs 12 points to clinch its 1st division title since 2011-12, when they reached the conference finals, and only 2nd in the last 20 seasons.

• With 4 more points, (potentially a win tonight and at OTT on Thursday), the Rangers would secure their 5th straight postseason appearance – their longest such streak since making 10 consecutive trips from 1978-1987.

• Crunch time for LA: Though the Kings are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, they remain on the outside of the playoff picture with 10 games remaining.

• LA opened its challenging 5-game road trip with a 3-1 win vs. NJ last night.

• Though LA has a poor overall road record this season (13-14-7), they have improved of late going 8-2-1 in their last 11 road contests. The Kings only have 3 home games remaining out of their final 10.

• Rangers rolling…Teams might have longer active winning streaks than the Rangers but the Blue Shirts very well may be the hottest team in the league right now…New York has earned a point in 9 of its last 10 (8-1-1).

• During this 10-game stretch, the Rangers have still yet to allow more than 2 goals in a game and have only allowed 2 twice. This is the first time they have accomplished that since Feb. 20 – March 18, 1971 (12 GP).

• NYR in last 10 games: 11 total goals allowed

• Rangers offensive outburst…The Rangers scored a season-high 7 goals against the Ducks on Sunday night (after scoring 6 total goals in their previous 4 games and only 13 over their previous 8).

• The 7 goals at home were the most by NYR at The Garden since Mar. 6, 2011 (vs. PHI).

RANGERS TEAM/PLAYER NOTES

• Injury alert…The Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, who suffered a vascular injury in his throat on Jan. 31 vs. CAR (and last played on Feb. 2 vs. FLA), was medically cleared to practice with the team last Tuesday.

• The next step in his recovery was skating with the team this morning, his first organized team skate since the injury. If all goes well, Lundqvist will dress for a practice on Wednesday and fly with the club for a 2-game road trip to OTT & BOS. The Rangers return home for a Sunday matinee game against Washington. It is unclear when he will make his first start back.

• Martin St. Louis (NYR) was originally expected to miss 10-14 days after suffering a lower-body injury on Mar. 15 vs. FLA. No update on his status has been given.

• Another variable in the mix which caused Lundqvist to miss practice on Friday is the fact that his wife, Therese, gave birth to their 2nd child, Juli (both girls), that day…Lundqvist posted to his Twitter account after:

“My little girl is here!!…Everyone is doing great. She did not get the memo of me returning to practice today so we’ll try that again. …”

• Rick Nash on Lundqvist, “For sure it will be great to have our leader back. He’s so competitive; that’s why he’s one of the best goalies in the world. Family comes first; that’s for sure. But now we know he will be back.”

• The Rangers have gone 17-3-3 without Henrik Lundqvist

• Winning with Cam: 27-year old undrafted goalie Cam Talbot, in his 2nd NHL season, has started 21 of the 23 total Rangers games since Lundqvist has been out. Sunday night vs. ANA, Talbot stopped 36 of 38 shots
including all 21 in the 2nd & 3rd period.

• Talbot has gone 7-1-1 in his last 9 start: 1.21 GAA, .961 SV%

• Talbot played in the LA game earlier this season: 3 GA on 31 shots

• Talbot this season: 19-7-4, 2.13 GAA (4th in NHL), .929 SV% (2nd in NHL)

• The Rangers lead the league with 11 shutouts on the season, including 5 by Talbot & 5 by Lundqvist. No other Ranger team has had two goalies each record at least 5 shutouts in the same season.

• Jennings Trophy…awarded to goalie (s) of the team with the fewest goals scored against on the season…the Rangers trail the Canadiens by 2 goals in this category for the league lead…

• Typically shared by 2 goalies (min. 25 GP necessary)…oddly enough, since Henrik Lundqvist entered the league in 2005-06, only in his rookie season has another Ranger goalie even played 25 games in a season (Kevin Weekes; 32) – Talbot has played 32 games this season.

KINGS TEAM/PLAYER NOTES

• Marian Gaborik had 2 assists last night in New Jersey. Now in his 14th season, the 33-year-old was the 3rd overall pick in the 2000 draft by MIN. After 8 seasons in MIN, Gaborik played for the Rangers for 3+ seasons (229 pts in 255 games). He has played for the Kings since March of last season when he was traded from CBJ.

• Gaborik led all players last postseason with 14 goals in 26 games, including 2 in the Stanley Cup Final.

• Mike Richards was recalled from Manchester (AHL) over the weekend, and he played for the Kings last night (0 points, 11:41 TOI) for the first time since Jan. 21st (missed 24 games).

• Richards was waived and subsequently sent to the minors in late January (14 points in 16 AHL games). His last game for Manchester was March 8, and he had since been in Southern California for on and off-ice tests to establish a baseline for his conditioning.

• Richards is in the 7th year of a 12-year/$69 million deal through 2020 (cap hit 5.75M).

• Richards, a 2-time Cup Champion with LA, has been with the Kings since the start of the 2011-12 season.

• LA has struggled to get goal-scoring from captain Dustin Brown. The Ithaca, NY, native has seen his goal production decline in every season since scoring 28 goals in 2010-11.

• He has just 10 goals in 72 games this season (on pace for his lowest total since his rookie season in
2003-04), including 15 straight without a goal (only 1 assist in that span).

• Anze Kopitar factored in all 3 Kings goals last night with 1 goal & 2 assists. He has led the team in scoring each of the past 7 seasons & once again leads LA with 57 points this season.

• Kopitar has points in 3 straight games and 12 points overall in his last 10 games.

• Andrej Sekera scored for the first time as a King last night – he opened the game’s scoring with a goal in the 1st.

• In 12 games w/ LA since being acquired from CAR, Sekera has 3 pts (1G-2A) while averaging 18:42 TOI/G.

• Alec Martinez (concussion) played his first game since Feb. 7th last night (missed 19 games). He had 3 shots on goal and registered 16:23 TOI.

• Martinez scored the Stanley-Cup winning goal last year against the Rangers in double overtime of Game 5.

• Jonathan Quick ranks t-2nd in the NHL with 62 starts this season. Since Feb. 7, his numbers are far more impressive than they were over the first half of the season including 19 saves on 20 shots last night at NJ.

NHL on NBCSN: Kings’ crucial road trip continues tonight in New York

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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2014-15 campaign tonight as the New York Rangers host the L.A. Kings at Madison Square Garden, starting at 7:00 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game and pre-show online.

The New York Rangers will look to add to their lead in the Presidents’ Trophy race Monday night when they play host to the L.A. Kings in the second and final meeting between last season’s Stanley Cup final participants.

New York (46-18-7) won the only other meeting between the two clubs 4-3 on Jan. 8.

The Rangers enter the game winners of seven of their last eight games while Kings (35-23-14) snapped a two-game skid with a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils Monday night.

Tonight is the second of a five-game road trip, which could make or break the Kings’ playoff aspirations.

The Kings currently sit outside the playoff picture trailing the Calgary Flames by two points for the third seed in the Pacific Division. L.A. is four points back of the Winnipeg Jets for the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.

L.A. is looking to avoid being the first team since the 2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes to miss the playoffs the year after winning the Stanley Cup.

Mike Richards returned to the Kings’ lineup for the first time since Jan. 21 on Monday. The 30-year-old was a minus-1 in 11:41 of ice time in the win. Monday also marked the return of Alec Martinez to L.A.’s lineup. Martinez had been sidelined since Feb. 7 due to a concussion.

The Rangers are coming off a 7-2 thumping of the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday night at the garden.

New York is 16-4-5 against the Western Conference and 11-1-1 against the Pacific Division.

The Rangers are 17-3-3 in 23 games since starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was sidelined due to a vascular injury. Cam Talbot is 15-3-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average in Lundqvist’s absence.

Jonathan Quick made 19 saves against the Devils last night. He is 6-3-2 with a 1.86 GAA and two shutouts while making 11 straight starts. Quick owns a 1.97 GAA while winning six of nine meetings with New York, including spring’s Stanley Cup final.