Not All the Kings' Men The pieces on Dean Lombardi's chessboard may be very different for
the 2013-14 season.
LOS ANGELES, CA -- Like others before them over the past decade and a
half, the Los Angeles Kings came up empty in their defense of the 2012
Stanley Cup Championship.
Their exquisitely executed 16-4 run last spring is only a distant
memory; the Kings' record of eight losses in nine playoff games away
from Staples Center was stunning.
After registering a sterling 10-1 visitors record in the championship
season, somewhere along the way in the 2013 campaign this yearís team
lost their magical road powers. Saturdayís series-ending 4-3 overtime
loss made it nine wins out of their 34 matches in foreign rinks that
included triple 2-1 losses in San Jose and a likewise three game sweep
in the Windy City.
It showed that while most of the names on the backs of the jerseys
were the same, the chemicals between them were not a winning vintage.
Despite not capturing the ultimate prize, this season was not a
disappointment -- no one repeats anymore and few champions return to
the Conference Finals, but the combination of their road blues and
black and blue status insured that there will not be a second
consecutive parade down Figueroa Street at the end of June.
The Kings started the season behind the eight ball with the dual
losses of heat and soul defenseman Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene.
Mitchellís case was the curious one, a knee injury that he occurred
while training over the summer made him a ghost, rarely seen at the
teamís training facility and with the late season disclosure by GM
Dean Lombardi the ailment was career-threatening, weíve likely seen
good guy Mitchellís last day in Black and White.
Greene was thought to have the same destiny after suffering a
herniated disc in his back after the season opener against the Chicago
Blackhawks. Itís uncertain when the injury occurred and given Greeneís
warrior mentality, we was likely playing through pain for an extended
period of time before surrendering to the inevitability of the
surgeonís knife. He acquitted himself well when he finally returned in
the postseason, but the hit of their dual absences was something the
Kings struggled with the entire season.
The silver lining in the cloud was the development of rookie Jake
Muzzin, a rookie who showed flashes of NHL quality during a cup of
coffee with the varsity in 2010. Through the late season and playoffs,
he became the better, reliable option over the likes of Keaton Ellerby
and Alec Martinez, and while he still has a way to go defensively, his
heavy shot likely makes him a fixture in Los Angeles over the next few
While Greeneís absence cost the Kings a few wins this season, heís far
from owning the teamís MVB -- Most Valuable Back. The proud owner of
that spine is Jonathan Quick, whose surprising off-season procedure
put chills down the all the other spines connected to the team.
Quick revealed that although his start was sub-par, according to his
standards, he was fine from the opening whistle in January.
ďI felt 100 per cent going into the season, if I didn't feel 100 per
cent in January I would have told the coach,Ē he said. ďThe back
surgery wasn't an issue.Ē
He started off very slowly and despite winning the Conn Smythe Trophy
and holding a $58 million, 10-year extension that kicks in next
season, some were calling for his understudy, the soon-to-be-departed
Jonathan Bernier, to man the starting role between the pipes as the
season was drawing to a close.
While last postseason was a highlight reel film for Quick, this oneís
memory will endure with two lasting images. When the Kings had a
chance to level the series in Game 4 by taking an early lead, a
knuckler courtesy of this year surprise hero, Bryan Bickell, eluded
Quick and gave Chicago the opening it needed as Chicago returned to
the United Center to close out the series. The Kings played their best
game of the playoffs in Game 5 and if they have received better play
from Quick, there would have been another hockey game in Los Angeles
on Monday. Duncan Keithís opening marker canít go in if youíre going
to win a title and the lack of communication on Patrick Kaneís first
of the evening (Hawks Coach Joel Quenneville won this series by
reuniting Kane and Jonathan Toews) wouldnít have happened in 2012.
While those are contributing factors, the underlying reason for the
Kings failure to go the route this season is that the roster didnít
have enough finishers. At the season opening press conference, I asked
the combination of then-CEO Tim Leiweke (a loss that will loom larger
as time goes on) and Lombardi if there was a commitment to spend to
the salary cap to defend their crown. Lombardi offered the shortest
answer of his loquacious tenure in the City of Angels, a singular,
matter of fact, ďYesĒ that had the room chuckling. The laughter died
when Leiweke unexpectedly departed in-season as he was a staunch
supporter of this team and allowed Lombardi to bring in the long money
of Richards and Jeff Carter that realized the championship dream on
the corner of 11th and Figueroa.
I can only speculate what Lombardi could and couldnít do at this trade
deadline, but it was his incomplete work (unlike last season when he
guessed right on getting Carter and not getting Rick Nash) this March
that ultimately sealed his teamís fate.
Throughout the days leading up to the trade deadline, I consistently
said that the Kings were not one but two players short, in addition to
needing a puck stopping defenseman they were short a scoring forward.
They were in the running for Jarome Iginla at the start but faded to
third, they could have expanded the Regher deal to include Drew
Stafford or Jason Pominville, but deferred. They could have pushed
harder for Philadelphiaís Matt Read, but backed off because of the
refusal to deal one asset -- Bernier, a goalie who will suit up in a
different sweater next season.
Perhaps Lombardi didnít get the same blessing from the Leiweke-less
executive team, or maybe the specter of a big money deal for Voynov on
the horizon with a $64.3 million cap next season quelled his appetite
for another pricey contract. Bernier wound up playing in two, but only
started one, of the Kings' final 23 games and the difference in return
they will get in the off-season versus the help that the offense
needed against Chicago wasnít worth not pulling the trigger in April.
Ironically, the rosterís short term destiny is impacted most by its
strength, the blueline that rivals any in the league. The combination
of skill, smarts and toughness is primarily why the Kings got to the
third round. Youíd have to look into the record books to find a team
that won a seven game series by scoring 14 goals. As the calendar
approaches July 5 (the start of free agent frenzy), the status of
unrestricted and restricted free agents on the backline could have a
domino effect on all 23 rosters spots.
The circumstance around Rob Scuderiís tenure has taken a significant
turn since the trade deadline. Paired with Voynov, they shared a
team-high plus-nine rating for the post season and while it can be
argued that Slava had a large hand in Robís rating, you canít devalue
the veteranís effectiveness on ice and his influence in the locker
room. Heís calm, always gives honest, thoughtful answers to questions
and is a role model for the younger players. At the time of the Simon
Gagne trade, Lombardi said that the team had informal talks about an
extension that is both earned and deserved.
Regher changed all that when he arrived on the Pacific shores, in a
move that was foreseen weeks prior and had Darryl Sutterís
fingerprints all over it. Regher was acquired from Buffalo and was
installed on the top defensive pairing with Drew Doughty almost
Most were surprised when on May 30th the team announced a two-year
extension with Regher (reportedly $3 million per), a deal that likely
ends Scuderiís days in Los Angeles.
When asked about his future in a post-game interview Saturday night,
the Long Island native deferred, reinforcing the belief that another
coach will have the benefit of his skills in the fall. In a league
that is always looking for puck stopping defensemen, Scuderi need not
fret about finding further employment despite turning 35 next season;
the suitors will be plentiful and heíll likely stay in the $3.4
million per year range heís earned in Los Angeles.
Though there are far bigger names on this roster, Scuderi was the
tipping point for the Kings in their development as a contender as he
was the first championship player Lombardi was able to convince to
come to a then-floundering team. Though the GM stated that the door on
Scuderiís Royal Days is not closed, heíll have to do a great selling
job that will primarily consist of an appeal to the quality of life
and a still contending team to convince Rob that a deal in the open
market isnít the best one.
But sometimes, in professional sports, a franchiseís destiny is
affected by a move of others that even the savviest of GMs have no
control over. The specter of a game changer looms off in the distance.
. . .
In 1990, a Mr. and Mrs. Voynov, living in Chelyabinsk deep inside
Mother Russia, gave birth to a son named Vyacheslav Leonidovich.
Though they didnít know it at the time, he was destined to be a hockey
prodigy, eventually going to America and playing in the National
Hockey League. His trip to stardom wasnít in a straight line; he
started the Los Angeles championship season with the Kings' AHL
affiliate in Manchester and was not pleased about it. When recalled
after 15 games in the minors and a mindset that he was an NHL player
all along, he developed nicely and showed the offensive prowess that
made the Kings select him 32nd overall in the 2008 Entry Draft.
Voynov was a contributor throughout the 2012 playoffs and increased
his offensive output in the lockout shortened season, but it was the
2013 playoff drive when Slava established himself as one of the best
young defenseman in the NHL. He wound up being the teamís leading
scorer, but more importantly, his goals were timely, he had four of
the teamís nine game winning goals and stayed out of the penalty box
all 18 games.
Looking back on the Kings 2008 NHL Draft, itís now arguably the best
one in franchise history. Drew Doughty was a no-brainer in the two
spot behind Steven Stamkos, their second first-round pick Colten
Teubert was wheeled for Dustin Penner, and Voynov was selected with
the second round, showing again that the path to championships is
through drafting and development.
To get two No. 1 defensemen in the same draft is unheard of, some
teams canít find one in a decade, but with that success comes threats
and there are four words that Lombardi hopes he never has to see in
Slava. Voynov. Offer. Sheet.
If one team steps up and decides to set the market for the
23-year-old, it will have a domino effect on this Kings roster.
Late in the season, I chatted with a Western Conference executive
about what the market value of Voynovís next deal would be and the
answer was $5 million per season.
The next four weeks could be crucial not only for the status of the
defenseman, but other players like Justin Williams and Dustin Brown.
If Lombardi canít convince Voynov to take a short term deal like Jack
Johnson did a few years back or P.K. Subban last off season (a.k.a.
January), not-so-restricted free agency looms large on July 5.
If the Flyers canít wrangle Keith Yandle out of Phoenix, if the
Islanders want a top flight defenseman to enter the Barclays Center
with in 2015, or if the Red Wings pitch the ability to play with Pavel
Datsyuk, Lombardi could be staring at a $25 million to $27 million
deal over five years.
Lombardi minimizes this possibility, but isnít dismissive of it.
"The (offer sheet scenario) enters into the equation," he said. "You
donít see it a lot because I donít know how practical it is. The
(Shea) Weber one last year, that didnít work and the tendency is that
a GM will adjust (to having an offer sheet dropped on an asset).
"The bottom line is that youíre not letting good, young players go for
nothing. Itís always a concern, especially now that weíre a good
If a competing GM does step up, Lombardi could be forced to off load
Williams this summer for lower priced talent or picks to get to the
$64.3 million cap and would lose the $6 million per year slot Brown
will ask for to stay in Los Angeles.
Though the Kings captain wants to play his entire career in Los
Angeles, the fact he was paid under market on his last long-term deal
has not been lost on him. He realizes that teams like Buffalo (near
his home in Ithaca, New York) and Toronto (where former Leiweke now
rules and was the biggest Brown backer in the AEG organization) would
gladly pay top dollar for his services.
Given the organizational lack of depth on the left flank (thereís
continued chatter that rookie Tyler Toffoli will try to replicate
Dustinís feat on left wing), Brown is a more valuable asset at this
point than a second No. 1 defenseman.
Lombardi insists he will try to bring back the roster intact for a
second consecutive season and hasnít eliminated the return of Penner,
despite the numbers saying otherwise.
Lombardi concluded by saying the current NHL Collective Bargaining
Agreement is unforgiving and part of the reason heís facing a new
challenge to keep this roster together.
"It's unfortunate the way this CBA works. One of the bi-products of
going slowly in building this franchise is that we were able to keep
this group together," Lombardi said. "We were clearly on that track
with $6 million of cap space and bringing the whole team back.
"Unlike the NFL, I couldnít use that additional cap space to do a
contract early, I canít do it, itís not allowed. Weíre in a bit of a
vice here that you couldnít project that many contracts expiring (LA
has 11 free agents; 8 restricted, 3 unrestricted) and the cap coming
down. At the end of the lockout, the only consolation teams got was to
buy out bad contracts. We donít have any bad contracts! Thereís not
one guy I want to get rid of, so weíre being punished for not having
bad contracts. We have a challenge here, Iím confident we can meet it
and itís what make this summer so different."