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February 13, 2017 | 10:26am ET
Realigning the Stars
A funny thing happened on the way to a mediocre Los Angeles Kings season.

LOS ANGELES, CA -- A little more than two weeks away from the NHL trade deadline and the only thing weíre awash in are denials by team executives that trade discussions for marquee players are taking place. If you choose to believe those statements, Iíve got some swampland in Arizona you should consider buying to develop the Coyotesí next home.

The reality is that itís the time of year that, except for an elite few, your favorite player has probably been in a conversation with a front office cat of another team. This year is a unique one -- the combination of the impending expansion draft and the word that came down from upon high (Commish Gary Bettman) that the salary cap isnít budging promises to keep the activity on March 1 close to the level weíve seen of the past few deadlines.

My pure guess is that weíll see a number in the high teens on deadline day and Iím willing to throw into the bargain that one player of significance changes addresses inside the next 10 days.

Here are a few shots on teams and players weíve heard chatter about over the past few days:

On the Dallas Stars

On the heels of the Stars blowing a three-goal lead in Nashville yesterday after ending a four-game skid with their continued mastery of the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday, General Manager Jim Nill should be waiving the white flag shortly to open the access to legitimate contenders his collection of pending unrestricted free agents.

The numbers say that Dallas still has a puncherís chance for a Western wild card spot, but the roster says something very different. The Nashville loss was Exhibit A: a meltdown the likes weíve seen before, the offense puts goals on the board (three power play goals in this one), the defense and the netminder (depending on the night) gives it back.

Running a team that is far more pretender than contender, Nill tried to resolve one weakness by considering the acquisition of Marc-Andre Fleury, but his unwillingness to pick up a substantial amount of Antti Niemi dollars killed the deal (for now). Even if the Stars were to catch fire on the seven games prior to the deadline, itís what remains beyond the final horn sounding at 1PM Dallas time on deadline day that should influence Nill to subtract and not add to this team.

After the March 1 trade deadline, 14 of Dallasí next 18 games are on the road and two of the home tilts are against the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks. Itís a schedule that would challenge a team presently in a playoff spot to maintain traction. For a team that needs to climb over teams like the Stars need to, it makes the reality of a post season berth distant.

Thatís the bad news. The good news is that, like the Arizona Coyotes, there are multiple assets to move to assist in creating the depth thatís not present, especially on the blueline.

Front and center is right wing Patrick Eaves, who is in the midst of a glorious career-year that ultimately pays off in a nice multi-year contract this summer. Eavesí two goal performance in Dallasí 5-2 win against the Canes raised his season total to 21, establishing a career high in goals, bettering the 20 he potted way back in the day in his rookie season with the Ottawa Senators.

Is Eaves the type of player that is going to join a contenderís first line and put up consistent numbers? Not likely -- heís truly a grinder in the midst of a fine season and has received offensive opportunity as Stars Head Coach Lindy Ruff continues to ponder if Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin should be together or apart. Heís also been a monster with the extra man -- his 11 powerplay goals is second in the NHL only behind Brayden Schenn (12).

With the gentle reminder of how forward depth won the Pittsburgh Penguins the Cup last June and how it has established the Washington Capitals as current Cup favorites, while Eaves isnít on the level of what Phil Kessel brought to the Pittsburgh third line, he clearly can be an impact player this post season. With the recent trade of one goal scorer Vernon Fiddler to Nashville getting the Devils a fourth round pick, thereís no excuse for Nill not to cash in on Eavesí career season and his oh-so-generous $1 million cap hit that makes him affordable to any team of interest.

So while Eaves is the clear-cut prize on the roster, there are six other pending unrestricted free agents of varying quality that should move, not for top dollar, mind you, but for assets that can be packaged in another deal.

Had Patrick Sharp had a healthier season, he could likely have been dealt for a first-round pick, but missing two long stretches due to concussions makes him a much more riskier acquire despite his proven ability as a post season point producer. Most likely Nill will have to hold him until close to the deadline so he can accumulate numbers and create a buyerís market.

Lauri Korpikoski is a veteran bottom-six player with some touch (7G, 12A) and is a responsible defensive player who could return is mid-round selection.

The biggest X-factor is defenseman Johnny Oduya, who would have provided quality depth for a contender if not for an ankle injury that has put his status in question. A healthy Oduya probably would have got Nill a couple of mid-round picks but now may be only worthy of a risk by a team that expects to be playing in late May.

In another year, Jiri Hudler and Ales Hemsky could get you a high pick, but this is not another year. Hudler has gone straight down since he left Calgary last trade deadline with an ineffective run in Florida than earned him a $2 million, one-year deal with Dallas that can be fairly judged as an overpayment. Hudler was a healthy scratch against Carolina and with a line of 2G/5A in 23 games likely returns a singular late-round pick for a team that believes his ability to play different forward positions could come in handy down the stretch. Hemsky still plans to play at some point this season, but like Oduya, the question of his effectiveness and availability coming off hip surgery coming off an injury in the World Cup puts his worth at a late round conditional pick at best.

While none of the above players compare to the likes of Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, the sheer quantity of assets at Nillís disposal should combine to eventually adding one player to his core.

Even if Nill were to execute this free agent strategy effectively, heís going to have a far better track record with his free agent signings (and heíll have room on July 1) to make Dallas dangerous in the Central.

On the Los Angeles Kings

As a plugged-in LA dude, probably 80% of my Twitter feed has Kings content and given the up-and-down performance of the team this season, there are still more questions than answers as the trade deadline approaches, some short term and other long term.

As far as their most pressing issue of adding a forward who can put the puck in the net, my impression formed over the past 7-10 days is that the closer we get to the trade deadline, the further we get from the General Manager Dean Lombardi finding a capable forward to place alongside Anze Kopitar.

While Kopitarís numbers have increased along the lines of what is expected from a No.1 center, he is simply not the type of player that can do it alone. Yes, his goal production must be better in the final weeks of the season (is Jeff Carter going to continue at a 44-goal pace?), but when Head Coach Darryl Sutter lines up Andy Andreoff next to him for Game 55, you simply cannot say this team is a championship contender even with a return of Jonathan Quick (your choice of the actual game he returns).

Lombardi waved the white flag on still another off-season acquisition with reported waiver wire move of Devin Setoguchi on Sunday, the poster boy for the lack of quality forward depth on this roster. The fact that a training camp PTO signing could stick through 55 games by producing only four goals is not only an indictment of the NHL roster, but an insight into the lack of NHL-ready forwards in the system as well.

The Setoguchi waiver makes room for at least one prospect and our guess is that itís right wing Jonny Brodzinski, who has posted solid numbers but his powerplay time influences his productivity so he may be more impactful on the Kings second powerplay than at 5-on-5.

At this point, the far more likely Southern California team to add Landeskog is the Anaheim Ducks, not the Kings.

Los Angeles is likely a ďrentals onlyĒ player down the stretch and the quality of that add is in question if they stick to the missive of holding on to their first-round pick. That doesnít mean they couldnít add a player of consequence to help an offense that sputters every third game -- think Detroitís Thomas Vanek or the aforementioned Eaves -- but what it likely means is that the next trade Lombardi makes wonít make anybody say, ďnow LA is legit.Ē

Regardless of what the Kings add, the coming weeks will answer a question that has hovered over this team over the past two plus seasons -- does their style still win games? Yes, they are among the finest in puck possession, but when you finally shoot the puck and the names on the back of the sweaters are King, Lewis, Clifford and Shore, isnít it more about quality of the player delivering the shot?

Iím going to suggest a factor that no one has offered into the trade chatter around the Kings: the assessment and quality of their prospect base.

The number of teams watching the Kingsí farm team in Ontario all season has been unprecedented; a recent visit by one scout equated the attendance to that of a World Juniorís tournament game. Even with all those eyes on their farm, Lombardi is on the record to the LA Times this week saying that he doesnít anticipate doing a big deal -- even though the Avalanche scouts spent so much time in Southern California this winter they should have bought a condo.

Is it possible that after such a detailed review, the Avalanche (and other teams) decided that the caliber of the talent in the L.A. pipeline is a cut below what is necessary to bring back a game changing player? Maybe it was Avs GM Joe Sakic who said Ďno thanks,í not Lombardi and thatís why discussions never got traction?

With a caveat that every scout has a varying view of talent, perhaps Adrian Kempeís top end is more likely to be Patrik Berglund than Jeff Carter, Brodzinski wonít add as much to the offense as Nic Dowd, and that Paul LaDue has NHL skills but isnít the top-four defenseman that would allow the Kings to trade Alec Martinez or Jake Muzzin.

As I told you a few weeks back, the shaking of their roster is with the Tom Gilbert and now the Setoguchi moves, so the final 27 games on the season (heavily weighted towards home games) should be a proving ground for their youngsters.

As for the longer-term issue, if youíve watched this team frequently (and maybe even infrequently), the issue of Marian Gaborikís status is one that may be coming to a head sooner than expected.

Things looked promising in the Fall when Gaborik looked both speedy and engaged during the World Cup as part of Team Europe. After being sidelined with a broken foot from a shot during the tournament, Gaborikís game has regressed to a point where he was moved down to work with Dowd on the bottom-six in the Kings impressive 6-3 in Florida ahead of their bye week. Gaborik offered little in the match, playing 11:02 and not figuring in any of the Kings six goals, their second highest goal production of this season. And while Gaborikís six goals in 33 games isnít a total disaster, his approach and effort has both his teammates, coaching staff and upper management concerned.

Just a few minutes after the Florida win, I received a text that read ďsee what happens when (Gaborik) goes down (in the lineup)Ē -- a distressing observation for a team that hadnít scored in three regulation games coming in and cannot solve the riddle of finding another goal-scorer.

Gaborik continues to play a lackadaisical east-west style on this north-south team that Iím told does not sit well with his teammates, coaching staff and front office (see a pattern?). But with four years remaining on a front loaded deal with a salary cap hit of $4.875 million, thereís little Sutter can do other than to shorten his time on ice in the hopes to spur him once playoff time rolls around.

If the Kings had more NHL-ready forwards in their system, I would take the drastic step of waiving Gaborik -- maybe you get a long shot payoff with a waiver claim or really get his attention by having him ride the same bus to Stockton and Bakersfield that Teddy Purcell, Gilbert and likely soon Setoguchi are presently enjoying.

Beyond this season, I will bet each and every one of my readers that Gaborik isnít LAís selection by the Vegas Golden Knights selection in the expansion draft, barring a miraculous Ďpick this guyí trade, so if Iím Los Angeles, I seriously look at a buyout on June 30 -- itís not as onerous as you might think courtesy of Cap Friendly:

The $3.75 million saving for next season would go a long way in the effort to re-signing either Tyler Toffoli or Tanner Pearson (they will also gain with departures of Purcell, Gilbert and Dwight King) and also create a roster spot for Kempe assuming he is not packaged for an established forward (one scout suggested he should have been recalled after the Toffoli injury and be paired with Kopitar to gather some points to prop up his trade value), while moving towards the speed and skill game the Kings need to more closely align to in order to become playoff dangerous again.

On the Coyotes and Avalanche

I wrote a few weeks back about the dual opportunity the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche have by being the only clear sellers this early in the trade market. Iíve seen both teams play at ice level over the past two weeks and Iím more convinced that Joe Sakic needs to move either Duchene or Landeskog now, but of the level of play delivered by the current roster.

I watched Dave Tippettís Coyotes battle the Sharks for every inch of ice in their 3-2 shootout win at the Shark Tank. Through 65 minutes, Arizona battled the Pacific leaders and showed an intensity of a team in the midst of a playoff race. So while General Manager John Chayka has to execute the movement of his pending unrestricted free agents well, he doesnít have to deal with a paradigm shift that faces Sakic.

Coloradoís lack of effort in a 5-0 loss in Los Angeles was stunning; the game was over inside the first eight minutes with two Kings goals. Iím not the clichť type, but the only way you can describe the Colorado effort was Ďgoing through the motionsí and it hasnít been a standalone effort this season.

While I understand Sakicís patience in executing moves that will define the long team future of the franchise, itís never too soon to change the teamís culture. If you want to hold either Landeskog or Duchene until the draft, thatís fine, but to delay the change in attitude needed now for the sake of getting a slightly better draft pick or a somewhat better prospect does the organization and more importantly, the patient Avalanche fans, a disservice.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.




Jan. 16, 2017 L.A. positioned for another run?

Dec. 29, 2016 A Few Parting Shots for 2016

Dec. 09, 2016 Kings still looking for a net presence

Nov. 30, 2016 Kingsmen: The Odd Man Out

Nov. 18, 2016 The Trickle-Down Effect

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