L.A. positioned for another run?
January 16, 2017 | 11:25am ET
A funny thing happened on the way to a mediocre Los Angeles Kings
LOS ANGELES, CA -- So, here we are, halfway home in the marathon that is
the NHL's regular-season and the home team has had a run that's been
more intriguing than any since I've covered this team.
That's a long stretch, it coincides with the opening of Staples
Center, which includes both bad nights of boring hockey (hello,
Ladislav Nagy) and culminated what many Kings fans never thought would
happen: two tours of Lord Stanley's Cup around the rink on the corner
of 11th and Figueroa.
The Darryl Sutter years in the days to come will be referred to as the
"Good Ole Days" as parity, salary cap hell and a continuing
progression towards speed and skill and away from the "big, heavy"
game that won twice here continues. While the style of hockey hasnít
been the most entertaining and when things are going bad itís boring,
Darryl has always added spice into the mix. Whether itís through an
endless procession of line combinations or enough press conference
sound bites to form a ĎGreatest Hits, Volumes 1 and 2,í the one thing
Iíve never experienced is inertia.
But this season, ah, this was the season where the Kingsí brain trust
was going to get their comeuppance. With annual expectations now
raised to ďCup or BustĒ in a town thatís all about winners (ask the
Los Angeles Rams and soon the Chargers), two seasons with one playoff
win was a sure sign the championship window was about to close in
Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi eschewed change despite being
dispatched by their archrival, the San Jose Sharks, in five games and
further embraced his proven winning formula. Itís no shock that in the
face of a game that appears to trend away from his formula, Lombardi
dug in his heels because the one trait that has made him a winner here
is his stubbornness. Even when itís been to his detriment (and itís
happened too many times to his liking), itís been Deanís Way or the
Highway -- and at times, heís been defiant in the face of criticism.
I keep going back to the conference call soon after the five-game
elimination by San Jose as the discussion tuned the question of if the
Kings style had seen its day. Teams had figured out that his team
couldnít hit what they couldnít catch and thatís why the Pittsburgh
Penguins, who were all about speed and not about size, had possession
of the trophy he had raised twice over his head.
ďIím not interested in the Flavor of the Month,Ē is when I feel he
chose to plant his puck possession flag into that Corsi Hill.
And as delicious as the Penguins flavor was, Lombardi wasnít going
Vegan; heís strictly a steak and potatoes man. Towards that end, he
chose to stick with essentially the same cast that failed him last
spring, starting at the top with Sutter returning via a two-year
extension, with a club option, after a minor bit of lingering once the
And thatís where this story starts...
The rollercoaster ride that defines this Los Angeles half-season (no
relation to the Royal Half Season) started with an epically messy
fail, the transition of power in the locker room in the form of the
stripping of the captaincy from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar. Itís not
exactly the way you want to stride into a new season, but letís set
that aside and go on to non-cosmetic issues.
The World Cup did the Kings no favors. Marian Gaborik, who looked fast
and motivated from the opening whistle playing for Team Europe when
paired with Kopitar, was felled by an errant puck that resulted in a
broken foot that robbed him of eight weeks of play as well as any
motivation to play hard if youíve watched him in recent weeks. His
absence from a depth chart that was shallow on the wing (Iíll get to
Devin Setoguchi in a few) left Sutter little choice than the start his
four-line Merry-Go-Round that still needs to be resolved.
And weíre just at opening night.
Jonathan Quick is one of the irreplaceable Kings because of their lack
of depth at the position (starting to see a common theme?) and when he
left the ice with a serious groin injury that will sideline him until
March, you couldnít blame anyone for saying this was a dagger that
would end the Kingsí season just 20 minutes from its start.
In some ways, Quick is the quintessential King: a former third-round
draft choice who battled and defied the odds to become one of the best
money goaltenders in the history of the game. Heís also quintessential
because he has few words and little time for the media, a preferred
trait of this regime.
But in another amazing turn this season, Lombardi can thank his
brethren, the other 29 NHL GMs from overlooking a potential waiver
claim on October 3. Thatís the date when a true Kings miracle, Peter
Budaj, could have been snapped up for nothing.
In the off-season, the decision was made that despite a strong season
for their AHL affiliate in Ontario, both his age and stature led to
the acquisition of not one but two goalies in the off-season, Jeff
Zatkoff and Jack Campbell. The J&J boys proved to be one of the
missteps of the off-season roster plays, and as Sutter does, he
decided to ride Budaj when it was apparent that he lacked a reliable
No.2 to go to.
And given the chance, Budaj has fashioned a season with statistics
comparable to the man who could have been in his skates, the venerable
Martin Jones, the once King and now a Shark who vanquished his old
mates once liberated by San Jose GM Doug Wilson with the help of the
Budajís play has risen to a level that warranted a legitimate
discussion of him being a selection for the All-Star Game. This effort
from a 34-year-old netminder, who had won 24 NHL games in his last
four seasons, has no playoff victories and the blemish of one AHL
season when he put up a 0-9-1 record. To go from that valley to this
hill in indeed a miracle. If Zatkoff can supply occasional adequate
goaltending when Budaj needs a rest, the Kings can manage Quick's
absence far better than any expected.
A second miracle of sorts has surfaced via the one player whose
performance has been nothing short of brilliant: Jeff Carter. And no,
the miracle isn't the hot streak that placed him second in goals
scored in the League behind Sidney Crosby. The streak that has kept
the offense aloft is the finest I've seen in covering the Kings and is
only second to the run Corey Perry went on in the final weeks of his
Carter has all the tools to be a top of the leaderboard every season,
the speed is still present in his 31-year-old wheels and you can argue
there's no a better wrist shot in the NHL, but that's not the most
stunning part of the season.
Jeff Carter: Visible Team Leader.
The metamorphosis of this side of Carter is the real revelation this
season considering what it was like NOT to talk to him in the early
days after his arrival.
Given the turbulence around him in Philadelphia and Columbus, it was
the correct move for the Kings to shield him from the media to such an
extent that on the nights he did speak with us it was considered
breaking news. But as life changes and matures us -- Carter is now
happily married and a father, and that addition is as responsible as
the subtraction of Mike Richards from the bromance that culminated
with them raising the Cup together in 2014.
After a recent loss on the Kingsí roadtrip, Carter brought forth a
cursed-filled tirade about the teammatesí effort that night that
affirms his status in the locker room and why Sutter has always
referred to his ďleadership groupĒ and rarely to the man who actually
wears the C.
As for the rest of the team, this is where the major decisions lie due
primarily to Lombardiís off-season that at best can be graded a D+.
If a couple of future roster moves break a certain way, we could see
five of the six acquisitions on the Ontario Reign roster in a couple
of weeks. Zach Trotman and Mike Latta never made the team, Teddy
Purcell has failed in his second time around in LA and Tom Gilbert and
Devin Setoguchi sit on the edges of the roster.
So when you wonder why Kopitar is sitting on a half-season long
scoring malaise, consider that the top two line combinations heís
played with this season have him paired with Tyler Toffoli/Dwight King
and Marian Gaborik/Trevor Lewis. I can think of only one team that
primarily surrounded a $10 million per year center with fourth line
talent. This one. And if it was a simple as pointing at Kopitar and
saying, ďheís the issue,Ē that would be fine, but with every forward
not named Carter underperforming, the offensive woes are an
Thereís still a long way to the finish, but for the first time in a
very long time it appeared the Kings could conceivably be a seller,
not a buyer, come the trade deadline. A sputtering, inconsistent
offense combined with a powerplay ranked in the bottom third places
the Kings outside the top three in the Pacific Division -- safe ground
for playoff qualification and the deeper waters of a battle for a
It would be easy to throw darts at this teamís deficiencies.
Itís been a very entertaining half-season in Los Angeles, weíve had
the occasional Sutter quip and only one explosion (ďAre you deaf?Ē),
but after the AM skate before the Winnipeg Jets match, Darryl left us
with the only quote that tells you what Lombardi needs to do in the
days leading up to the trade deadline.
When asked about the present line combination of Kopitar, Gaborik and
Lewis, his answer (courtesy: lakingsinsider.com) was more a swipe at
his GM then a calling out of his players:
ďThose guys (Kopitar and Gaborik) should be thankful theyíre playing
with Trevor Lewis right now.Ē
Thankful. To play with six-goal scorer. In the midst of a tight
This is not a swipe at Lewis; heís a solid citizen and good guy who
wanted to stay in Los Angeles the only professional home heís ever
known. When I spoke to him at the end of last season, the Kings had
never put a contract extension on the table, he wasnít optimistic and
was sad about it. But with Lombardi sticking to his guns on his
championship formula, Lewis was rewarded with a four-year deal
probably a little bit north on its average annual value ($2 million
per), but not outrageously overpriced.
But he was never slated to play on the top-six for a contending team.
So when I see the Scouts Row in the press box at capacity the last
couple of weeks and rumors surface about the possibility of Matt
Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog landing in LA, do I buy it?
You bet your ass I do.
Do I chuckle when I hear the Kings are more likely to make trades in
the off-season than now?
Do I shake my head when I hear that Adrian Kempe, with all of eight
goals in 30 games in his second AHL season, is untouchable? Or when I
hear sixth-round draft pick defenseman Paul LaDue, with who has four
goals and 11 assists in 29 games, isn't going anywhere?
Hereís the thing, weíve been inundated since July 1 about the Kings
salary cap issues, about how Kopitarís $10M cap hit and the Brown and
Gaborik contracts have handcuffed the team from making a deal. As the
season lengthened, weíve heard about how the Kings are not inclined to
swing a deal using a defenseman for a forward because theyíve finally
settled into a rotation with Brayden McNabbís return, so to deal Jake
Muzzin or Alec Martinez for a legitimate scorer doesnít improve the
team, it only fills a hole by creating another one.
The cold, hard facts are that if Dean Lombardi wanted to make an
impact deal, he can and if he winds up not making a deal itís because
Quick isnít returning at 100%.
As great a Cinderella story that Peter Budaj is, he simply isnít the
caliber of goaltender that wins Stanley Cups. But letís assume that
Quick does return prior to the March 1 trade deadline and remains
healthy, thereís nothing preventing Los Angeles from being an impact
player, or two, in the trade market.
One look at the competition in a Western Conference thatís taken not
one, but two steps backwards in strength this season, should encourage
not only Lombardi but any GM who thinks they have a puncherís chance
to get to the Cup Final to bolster his roster.
Chicago is always going to be there, but their cloak of invincibility
has been shredded (just ask the Washington Capitals). I still expect
them to be the Central Division representative in the Conference
Final, but theyíre beatable.
Bruce Boudreau has done an amazing job in the State of Hockey and Eric
Staal is arguably both the Comeback Player of the Year and the best
unrestricted free agent acquisition, but come Game 83 is anyone afraid
of a matchup against them given their lack of playoff success?
As for the Pacific, it would be great to see Connor McDavid in the
post-season and the Oilers are getting there, but not this season
because Peter Chiarelli has more heavy lifting to do on his blueline.
For the Kingsí intrastate rivals, San Jose doesnít appear to have the
quality of last seasonís Cup Finalist, despite Brent Burnsí
outstanding performance thus far, and if youíve figured out what kind
of team the Ducks are, please DM or email me.
So despite the Kings playing at a pace 15 points behind last season,
they still should be buyers and thatís why you see other teamís
charting line combinations and defensive pairings.
For those who make the argument that trading away Jake Muzzin or Alec
Martinez would create a hole in their top four, youíre absolutely
right. It does. But hereís a tip no one has bothered to mention
courtesy of our friends at Cap Friendly:
So you Kings fantasy GMs that want to make a Gabriel Landeskog for
Jake Muzzin deal, go right ahead. Wanna swap Alec Martinez for James
van Riemsdyk? Be my guest, because you donít even need to trade dollar
for dollar to make it work when youíre sitting on almost $7 million of
cap space to plug that hole you created on the blueline by the trade
Thatís right, $7 million of cap space. Who knew? Pesky details get you
every time, donít they?
So with marketable assets on the blueline -- whom Lombardi can also
replace, in the short term, thanks to LTIR -- and cap room to
navigate, the stage is set for the Kings to make multiple moves over
the next six weeks to make this team far more dangerous come playoff
time and thatís without an expected return to form from the likes of
Kopitar and Toffoli.
The real question is: given Lombardiís lack of success in the rental
trade market the last two seasons, will he saddle up once more in
search of Cup No.3?
The Kings are the second oldest team in the NHL (28.164, behind only
the Rangers per quanthockey.com), so if the window to get that third
trophy isnít closing, itís getting awfully close.
Your move, Deano.
Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.