Jake Muzzin

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Quiet offseason still has Kings stuck in neutral

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When the Los Angeles Kings traded veteran defender Jake Muzzin at the end of January it looked to be the beginning of a much-needed and long overdue rebuild.

Muzzin was a core player a championship winning team in Los Angeles, and with still one more year remaining on his contract he was one of the more valuable trade chips the team had to move in an effort to begin turning the page and beginning a new chapter. Because he still had term on his contract the Kings were under no immediate pressure to trade him, but it was still a very logical thing for them to do.

In the immediate aftermath of the trade general manager Rob Blake hinted that more changes were coming by saying, “I don’t want to get into specifics of players, but we are actively looking at making moves for the future of the organization.”

At the time the Kings were stumbling toward their worst regular season in years and on track to miss the playoffs for the third time in five years, a stretch that has seen the organization win just one playoff game.

What sort of changes did they make after that?

Almost none.

Other than hiring a new head coach — former Sharks and Oilers bench boss Todd McLellan — it has been a shockingly quiet offseason for the Kings.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

How quiet has it been? Here is a rundown of every major roster transaction the team has made since trading Muzzin in late January.

  • 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

That is it. That is the list of changes.

They shuffled out a few inconsequential depth players that had almost zero history with the team and made almost zero impact, while adding a depth defender on a one-year, bargain basement deal.

In the middle of all of that the Kings did have, by most accounts, a strong draft with three of top 33 picks, but they are probably at least two or three years away from seeing some sort of a meaningful return on those picks.

In the short-term, the Kings have done next to nothing to move the franchise toward any one meaningful direction.

They are not any closer to a much-needed rebuild and are bringing back the same core of players that has clearly demonstrated over the past five years that it is not good enough to compete for a championship. Or even be a serious threat in the playoffs.

Not only are they lacking impact players, but their best, most talented, and highest paid players (Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jonathan Quick) are all another year older and, in most cases, in a continued state of decline.

Doughty is the “young” player in that group and will turn 30 this upcoming season. He is not only coming off the worst season of his career, but is signed for another eight years at $11 million per season. The Kings desperately need to hope this past season was a fluke and not a sign of what is ahead. The same can be said for Quick whose 2018-19 performance put him among the worst performing goalies in the league.

If they are still under the illusion that this core can somehow still compete, they have not done anything to complement them and build around them.

They have yet to make a meaningful trade and have been one of the quietest teams on the free agent market, not even dipping their toes into the pool.

Other than basically swapping out Phaneuf for Ryan on the blue line the Kings seem destined to bring back the same team that looked overmatched throughout the entire 2018-19 season and was one of the worst teams in the NHL.

Sure, it is possible that Doughty bounces back, and it would be nearly impossible for Quick to be as bad as he was in net over another full season. But would that be enough to make make up more than 20 points in the standings and take the Kings from the Western Conference basement and move them back to playoff contention?

Not likely.

They have some fresh faces and young players on the roster (Austin Wagner, Adrian Kempe, Carl Grundstrom), but there is probably not a difference-maker or All-Star among the group.

There are still a couple of months for things to change and the Kings to do something to alter the course of the franchise, but the longer they go without doing something the more this team is going to flail around in the state of irrelevance it has been stuck in for the past half-decade.

The short-term outlook remains bleak, and they still have not take enough steps to improve the long-term outlook.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Kings’ 2019 NHL Draft crop gives much-needed hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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.

Bruins – Maple Leafs hits: Pastrnak bloodies Muzzin, Krug shaken up

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The Bruins left the Maple Leafs battered after the first period of Game 2 in taking a 2-0 lead, and not just figuratively speaking. (Live Stream Game 2 here; it’s also airing on NBC)

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin had an especially tough time in that opening period.

  • The first painful moment came when Muzzin flubbed a puck that the Bruins were able to retrieve, allowing David Pastrnak to set up Brad Marchand for a pretty 2-0 goal.
  • The second was a literal painful moment, and Pastrnak was once again prominently involved. Pastrnak was whistled for charging Muzzin after a hit in which Pastrnak elevated, leaving Muzzin bleeding. Pastrnak received a two-minute minor penalty for the check: was that too much, to light a punishment, or just right?

(You can see that hit in the video above this post’s headline.)

The Maple Leafs didn’t convert on the ensuing power-play opportunity, and need to rally if they want to win Game 2 and take a 2-0 series lead.

Moments before this post was about to be published, Muzzin got a measure of revenge. He delivered a hard hit on Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, who left the ice slowly and appears to at least be entering concussion protocol. Krug’s had a history of injury issues, during this season in particular, so this is troubling for the Bruins.

Boston responded with a 3-0 goal moments later, so this game could get really nasty. In fact, in the waning moments of the second period, Nazem Kadri was also shaken up by a collision.

Game 2 is airing on NBC. (Live Stream)

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.

Can Babcock, Maple Leafs get most out of Muzzin?

In my opinion, there’s really no question that the Toronto Maple Leafs improved by trading for defenseman Jake Muzzin. Instead, it’s a matter of: how much better does Muzzin make the Maple Leafs?

Without getting into the grittier details, it’s easy to look at this as a black-and-white thing: Muzzin’s a proven top-four defenseman (sometimes looking downright elite), and that’s the area where Toronto needed to improve the most. The fact that he’s locked up through next season, and at an affordable cap hit of just $4 million, makes the deal even sweeter. The Maple Leafs were even proactive in getting him about a month before the trade deadline, allowing Muzzin that much more time to get used to his new (and colder) surroundings.

That’s the thing, though: it might take some time to find the ideal fit.

[Kings trading Muzzin could be beginning of a teardown]

Lots of left, not much right

The Maple Leafs’ best three defensemen are all left-handed: Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Gardiner. Some might argue that Travis Dermott – another LHD – may rank as their fourth-best option. (If not, there’s Ron Hainsey as the fourth guy, a left-handed defenseman who’s played quite a bit on the right side.)

In a perfect world, the Maple Leafs would have a balanced mix of lefties and righties on defense, but instead the right-handed options stick out like sore thumbs: Nikita Zaitsev and Igor Ozhiganov have their issues.

So something has to give. The Leafs have initially announced that Muzzin will pair up with high-scoring blueliner Rielly. That makes beautiful sense from a stylistic standpoint – Muzzin’s both a versatile and sturdy defenseman – but will it work out when handedness is taken into account? Maybe just as importantly, will Mike Babcock be able to stomach the bad that comes with the good?

Such a process may require some experimentation, and learning the right dance moves could make for some offbeat, awkward moments.

Experience on the right

Former Kings coach Darryl Sutter told the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons that Muzzin has “never” played the right side.

“Anybody who says he’s played the right side isn’t watching the games,” Sutter said. “He’s played zero times on the right side in L.A. I know they’re looking for the perfect guy to pair with (Morgan) Rielly. He might be that guy, but maybe Rielly has to switch to the other side.

“Some guys are better rushing on their off-side. You see a lot of left guys playing the right side but you don’t see a lot of right (shooters) playing their off side. It’s just the way it is.”

One common critique of Muzzin is that he’s been propped up by right-hander Drew Doughty (although others would argue the opposite), yet Muzzin’s actually skated most frequently with fellow LHD Alec Martinez, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick. Martinez had been the one who had played on the right side, and it sounds like Rielly will at least start off that way.

In a breakdown of Muzzin’s fit, The Athletic’s James Mirtle also notes (sub required) that Gardiner never really became comfortable playing on his off-side, so it’s possible that Babcock will be best off seeing which defenseman (Muzzin or Rielly) ends up most comfortable in such a situation.

There’s the risk that Rielly’s red-hot season might cool if he’s placed in a less-than-ideal scenario.

Babcock’s certainly familiar with these questions, even beyond his time with the Maple Leafs. Such questions undoubtedly came up during his Red Wings days, and also during international competition:

Give and take

In case you’re wondering, there is some data to back up coaches’ misgivings about pairing up two lefties (or in less frequent cases, two righties), rather than the typical, Adam Oates-friendly scenario. Back in 2014, Matt Cane did a deep dive to find such a drop-off, although he also noted at Puck Plus Plus that defensemen on their off-side also tend to see a jump in shooting percentage.

It’s all logical enough: it might be tougher to make breakout passes/exit your zone with two lefties, yet there are certain one-timer opportunities that could also sprout up for the defenseman on that off-side.

Some of this stuff might make your brain hurt a bit, but the bottom line is that the Maple Leafs look stronger in their top four with Muzzin replacing one of Hainsey or Zaitsev, and they probably look a lot stronger.

Interestingly, the Maple Leafs’ situation really isn’t that much different from their rivals in Tampa Bay, either.

If you look at the Lightning’s top defensemen, most of them are LHD: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and as he progresses and earns Jon Cooper’s trust, Mikhail Sergachev. That’s especially true if Anton Stralman‘s lost a few steps, and since Dan Girardi‘s not really the sort of defenseman you want playing big minutes against the Marners and Matthews of the world.

For all we know, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas might even have another trick up his sleeve, such as landing potential RHD and trade target Dougie Hamilton, although that would be quite the trick considering Toronto’s limited cap space.

Either way, having “too many” strong, left-handed defensemen sure beats not having enough.

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.

Muzzin trade should be the beginning of Kings’ teardown

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When the Los Angeles Kings traded defenseman Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday evening they took an important step toward doing something that was probably a year or two overdue — turning the page on their past glory and starting to finally look toward the future.

It’s time. It’s beyond time. Waiting any longer would have put this team in an even deeper hole that would have taken even longer to get out of.

Since winning their second Stanley Cup in 2014 the Kings have been stuck in neutral in the NHL’s worst possible place — the middle ground — somewhere between a contender and a lottery team, desperately trying to squeeze out whatever is left of an aging core by adding more aging pieces to it (Dion Phaneuf, Ilya Kovalchuk, Carl Hagelin, etc).

Yes, they made the playoffs twice since that last championship.

They also managed to win only a single game in those two appearances, losing in five games to a Sharks team that went on to win the Western Conference in 2016, then getting swept by the Vegas Golden Knights a year ago in a series that wasn’t anywhere near as close as the scoreboard. The two teams were playing a different sport for the four games, and while the Kings didn’t give up much, they never even seemed like they were close to scoring or were capable of doing anything to make Marc-Andre Fleury sweat even a little bit.

[Related: Maple Leafs bolster back end, trade for Muzzin]

In between those two emphatic first-round exits were two non-playoff seasons. More than halfway through the 2018-19 season they are tumbling toward another spring that will be spent at home.

Big picture, this has been an alarmingly mediocre team for going on five years now. Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Kings are 17th in regular season wins, which is about as middle of the pack as a team can get.

The only two teams with fewer than the one postseason win the Kings have during that stretch are the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, and they only reason they have won fewer is because they haven’t actually made the playoffs.

It has become increasingly clear that there is a sizable gap between the Kings roster and the way it plays and the way the rest of the NHL is built. That gap is only widening, and the only way it’s going to get fixed is if management makes the painful decision to take a blowtorch to the roster.

Trading the 29-year-old Muzzin and his remaining contract ($4 million per year through the end of next season) is a start.

It can not be the end, and based on what general manager Rob Blake said after the trade it likely will not be.

“I don’t want to get into specifics of players, but we are actively looking at making moves for the future of the organization, yes,” said Blake, via the Los Angeles Times, when asked about trading more veteran players.

Quite honestly, there probably isn’t a veteran player on the roster that should be untouchable. Given that the only two key unrestricted free agents they have are Hagelin and Nate Thompson it seems reasonable to conclude that big-name, core players are part of those discussions.

The Kings are in a pretty dire situation here where they are not only old (the third oldest team in the league), but they have those players signed to long-term contracts. Looking at their current roster they have nine players already over the age of 30, with six of them age 33 or older. Almost all of those players are signed for at least the next two seasons at pretty sizable salary cap hits.

Kovalchuk, 35, has two years remaining on his current deal that pays him more than $6 million per season. Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, both in their age 34 seasons, are signed for three more seasons after this one at a combined salary cap hit of more than $11 million per season (though Carter’s contract significantly reduces in terms of actual dollars because it was so front-loaded when it was signed).

All of this is going to make a rebuild even more complicated because they don’t have a ton to trade.

It seems highly unlikely that Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty would ever go anywhere, not only because of their importance to the franchise but also because of their contracts (both of which contain no-move clauses).

Dumping Brown, Phaneuf and probably Kovalchuk would probably require significant amounts of retained salary, or perhaps even giving up something of value to dump what is left of those salaries.

The real value is probably going to be in trading players like Tyler Toffoli and Alec Martinez.

At 26 years old Toffoli is actually one of the “young” players on the Kings’ roster, and even though he is having a down year is still at least capable of being a 20-goal, 45-point winger. He is not a foundational piece or someone you would ever center a rebuild around, but a contender would absolutely find value in him especially at his $4.6 million salary cap hit the next through the end of next season.

Martinez is in a similar position in that he is still very good and has an attractive contract. There is no reason to think he could not fetch the Kings a package similar to what the Kings received from Toronto for Muzzin. Or at least close to it.

Then there is the elephant in the room that is starting goalie Jonathan Quick.

Quick is another one of those cornerstone pieces, along with Kopitar and Doughty, that helped bring two Stanley Cups to Los Angeles, and Kings fans should be forever grateful for that. But he’s also a player whose perceived value has probably almost always exceeded his actual on-ice value. He’s been great at times, and in the brightest spotlight when all eyes were on him. And that matters. But he’s also been just average at a lot of other times, and that matters, too.

The former always overshadowed the latter, and that still may be the case today.

He is 33 years old, has four years remaining on his contract, and given all of that is probably closer to the end of his career than his peak years. Given the potential enormity of this overhaul, it would probably be in their best interest to see if they can find a taker for that contract right now because they’re not going to be in a position to win in the coming seasons.

It might be painful, but it also might be necessary.

The Kings have been mediocre long enough. Now it’s time to take a step or two back because it is the only way they can actually move forward as an organization.

Trading Muzzin, a popular core player that helped win championships and was still signed beyond this season, was a start. It can not be where they stop.

More: PHT Power Rankings: 10 people that will impact the NHL playoff race

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.