After healthy scratch, what is Phaneuf’s future with Kings?

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Last season, the Los Angeles Kings took what amounted to a desperation chance that Dion Phaneuf still had some productive hockey remaining in his career and acquired him from the Ottawa Senators. The hope was that he could help their blue line.

One year later, it is becoming painfully clear that his best days are long in the rear view mirror.

Kings coach Willie Desjardins confirmed on Thursday that the 33-year-old Phaneuf will be a healthy scratch for their game against the Philadelphia Flyers. It was probably a long-time coming.

It has been, to say the least, a pretty a miserable year for Phaneuf as he enters Thursday with just a single goal, only two assists, a minus-16 rating, and a 46 percent Corsi rating, per Natural Stat Trick, in 46 games this season. His ice-time has also been reduced down to a career-low 14 minutes per night.

That alone is a concerning sign for his future with the Kings. Even more when you consider the Kings are clearly looking toward the future and looking to rebuild in what is now their fifth consecutive season of mediocrity.

The problem is they don’t really have any good options for what to actually do with Phaneuf as part of the rebuild.

If the Kings really are looking to the future they do not have much use for a mid-30s blue liner that isn’t even able to crack their current lineup.

He also still has two more years remaining on his current contract that pays him a salary cap hit of $7 million per season, per Cap Friendly.

That contract, combined with his declining play, is going to make him nearly impossible to trade unless the Kings throw in a useful asset to get a team looking to reach the salary cap floor in future seasons to take his contract (oddly enough, one such team could be … Ottawa … not that it would ever happen).

The other option is a buyout.

With two years remaining on his deal that would leave the Kings on the hook for some dead money through the end of the 2022-23 season. According to the CapFriendly buyout calculator, the cap hit would be $2.9 million next season, $5.4 million the year after, and then down to $1.4 million the two seasons after that.

That’s a big chunk of salary cap space going to a roster spot that is, literally, giving you nothing. But right now they have significantly more going to a player that has been so unproductive this season that they are making him a healthy scratch. So it is probably something that is worth considering.

Either way, it has become obvious based on his play, the new direction of the team, and Thursday’s decision that his future with the Kings should very much be up for discussion.

MORE: Muzzin trade should be start of Kings’ teardown

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.

Ilya Kovalchuk ready for cold reception in return to New Jersey

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“I wanted to go to the place where I have a chance to win the Cup, and the Kings are definitely one of the teams.”

Year One of Ilya Kovalchuk’s return to the NHL isn’t going as planned, with the Los Angeles Kings selling off pieces as they contemplate the future while eyeing the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery.

The NHL comeback continues on Tuesday as Kovalchuk returns to New Jersey for the first time since his shock 2013 retirement announcement. Only two players remain from that Devils team — captain Andy Green and Travis Zajac. They might have some friendly exchanges on the ice, but the Prudential Center crowd will probably have different feelings, ones still with them nearly six years later.

“I am pretty sure there will be a lot of booing,” Kovalchuk said, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, after LA’s overtime win against the New York Rangers Monday night, “but I love that, so it’s all good.”

Of course, it was only “retiring” from the NHL so he could go to the KHL for five seasons and also represent Russia (a.k.a. Olympic Athletes of Russia) during the 2018 Winter Olympics and win gold.

The controversial decision, which came three years after he signed a 15-year, $100M extension with the Devils, worked for both sides. Kovalchuk got to go home and New Jersey freed up cap space. The league did fine the team $3M and docked them a 2011 third-round pick and a future first-round choice, but the NHL then decided in 2014 to give New Jersey back the first-rounder and forgave part of the fine.

(Kovalchuk’s original 17-year, $102M contract signed in 2010 was deemed salary cap circumvention and the NHL and NHLPA went to arbitration where the deal was nullified.)

In 222 regular season games with the Devils Kovalchuk scored 89 goals and recorded 201 points. His production continued into the postseason where he scored 10 goals and recorded 25 points in 28 playoff games, which included New Jersey’s 2012 appearance in the Stanley Cup Final against the Russian forward’s new team in LA.

After years of speculation about a return, Kovalchuk was free to come back to the NHL after turning 35 last April. The Devils had held his rights since his “retirement.” With the Kings ponying up a third year, he signed in LA for $18.75M and there was plenty of excitement and intrigue about how he would play after so long away from the NHL.

Well, through 42 games, Kovalchuk has 10 goals and 25 points. Despite claiming he’s a “young 35,” the offense has been serviceable on a famously slow Kings roster, even as he missed a time with an ankle injury. His ice time is only at 16:40, not like the 20-plus minutes a night he played during his prime years. He’s been benched, put on the third line and played a net-front presence on the power play.

It’s been a weird year all around in LA.

Given the state of the Kings and Kovalchuk still showing he can be of service with the right useage, his name has popped up in the trade rumor mill ahead of the Feb. 25 deadline. But two more years with a $6.25M cap hit will probably dissuade teams from heavily pursuing such a move.

For now, Kovalchuk is focused on Tuesday night’s game against the Devils and the memories of his years in New Jersey.

“We had a great team,” he said. “We went to the Final. It was a lot of fun. I played with some great players there, a few Hall of Famers and some guys have their jersey retired. It was a great experience for sure.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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.

Maple Leafs bolster back end, trade for Muzzin

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They needed a defenseman, and they wasted little time in getting their man.

The Toronto Maple Leafs made a move to bolster their defensive core, acquiring Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings on Monday.

The move sent prospect left wing Carl Grundstrom, the rights to defenseman Sean Durzi and Toronto’s first-round draft pick in the 2019 NHL Draft out to the west coast.

The trade immediately makes Toronto’s defense better, for the rest of this season and next, too, as Muzzin has one year left on a deal that’s paying him an annual average value of $4 million.

Toronto has all the offense in the world and a goaltender in Frederik Andersen who will be in the Vezina conversation this year. Muzzin brings with him a wealth of playoff experience — 50 games — including a Stanley Cup win in 2014 and a player that can play big minutes in every situation on the ice.

And he will fit right in alongside Morgan Rielly, which in turn will allow the Leafs to move Ron Hainsey down to the third pairing to work with young d-man Travis Dermott in a mentor role while still providing a solid third pairing (where Hainsey belongs).

TSN’s Darren Dreger said both Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas and Kings GM Rob Blake had been discussing the deal for a couple weeks.

“I just thought it was a great fit for us,” Dubas said. “When he joined Los Angeles coming out of junior [in 2010], they were kind of at the same stage we’re in now, so he has that experience of seeing a team mature from being a team that wanted to contend to contending and ultimately winning, and he was a big part of their championship team in 2014.

“He’s going to be here for at least the next year and a half and two runs at the spring.”

Muzzin shared in the excitement.

“I was a little shocked to get the phone call,” he said. “You hear rumblings and rumors and stuff like that, and you just continue on your way until it actually happens.

“I was just thinking about it. Just playing them, how we got beat [4-1 and 5-1 this season], I was like, ‘Damn.’ And now I’m part of that team, so I’m real excited for the opportunity.”

For Los Angeles, they receive two top prospects in Grundstrom and Durzi, shed salary and, most importantly, get younger. The days of the Kings being Stanley Cup contenders are over with and the view ahead now has to be on the future and dismantling Jurassic Park.

Grundstrom, 21, was a second-round pick in 2016 and played with Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League last season. In 42 games with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League this season, Grundstrom has 13 goals and 29 points.

Durzi, 20, was taken in the second round in 2018 after not being selected in 2017. He is unsigned. Durzi has split time with the Owen Sound Attack and the Guelph Storm in the Ontario hockey league this season. He has eight goals and 28 points in 26 games.

The immediate reaction is that the Leafs won this trade. It’s a fair point, given they bolstered their blue line with a quality player. But don’t write off the Kings, who grabbed two quality prospects, including one in Grundstrom who could turn into a legit NHL player. These are two teams going in opposite directions, As far as the Kings adding to their stable of prospects and grabbing a first-round pick, they did what they set out to do (even if they didn’t get the roster player they wanted).

“We feel this trade was necessary for the future of the organization,” Blake said in a statement from the team. “Moving Jake was not easy as he has been a key player for us and a significant part of our most historic and memorable achievements. We are grateful for his contributions to the Kings and we wish him the best of luck in the future.”

The Kings are still right up against the cap, with $77.5 million devoted to their current lineup. This only appears to be the start for Los Angeles, however. Dropping cap space, trading some of the older pieces and snatching up prospects and draft picks is on the only direction the Kings need to head in.

Credit to Dubas, too, for getting in before the rest of the pack. Muzzin was reportedly on several teams’ shopping lists, including fellow Cup contenders in the Winnipeg Jets. The plucky, young GM isn’t afraid to throw his weight around.

Figuring out how to get all these contract’s under next year’s cap should be fun.


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