February 13, 2018 | 2:01pm ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
DON’T BLAME ROB
LOS ANGELES, CA -- As the Los Angeles Kings continue their pivotal seven-game roadtrip in Raleigh on Tuesday, the NHL Trade Deadline is less than two weeks away. With his team among the streakiest in the League, the question is what, if anything, will General Manager Rob Blake do to stabilize his team?
Presuming a long-awaited Jeff Carter return in or around the close of business on Feb. 26, the team’s veteran core will be whole for the first time since October. Blake could invoke the clichéd mantra of trade deadline inactivity by saying Carter’s return is adding a top six forward/number two center if no further changes are made to the roster.
Even with Carter achieving his customary level of production, the Kings are a coin flip to make the playoffs. The strength of the Central Division will make the Pacific a “no wild-card” division and assuming the Vegas Golden Knights do not go into full collapse mode, Los Angeles will be in the mix of a 4 teams-for-2 spots post-season sprint. The Kings’ running mates (Ducks, Flames and Sharks) have fleas, but in no more quantity than themselves and I suspect all four will be playing games of consequence in the season’s final week.
If that does turn out to the be the case, the work that Blake and his rival GMs do during the next two weeks may be the difference in who plays a Game 83. Staying local, Los Angeles could use help at both forward and defense, but I doubt both areas will be fortified.
Along the forward wall, there’s the standing big bet that Carter gets both Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson back to consistent production. Pearson looks nothing like last season’s 24-goal scorer; his confidence is lacking and clearly hasn’t meshed with Carter’s stand-in, Adrian Kempe. As far as Toffoli’s unlucky-13 game goalless streak, give him credit for doing the one thing he’s supposed to do – keep shooting. When he eventually returns to his goal scoring ways, he’s capable of ripping off a 7-goals-in-8-games streak, but it’s difficult for Head Coach John Stevens to exercise the patience and support he has given all season with the importance of each game rising.
Fully integrated in the Carter return is the movement of Kempe, who has broken through as a scorer (16 goals in 54 games after two goals in his first 25 NHL games), but not as a bonafide NHL center. Despite his flashes of brilliance, he plays less than 14 minutes a night and has not reached the apex of his development curve. The gaps in his center play would logically suggest that a move to wing – alongside a reunited Kopitar and Brown partnership is in his short-term future. Fans envisioning his burst of speed off the wing with Brown clearing room in front would potentially make the trio among the most dangerous team.
To make room for Kempe, rookie Alex Iafallo, who has done everything he’s been asked and is finding the net with more regularly (4 goals in his last 10 games), would make for an ideal third line left wing.
As Lee Corso so aptly puts it on ESPN during Saturdays in the Fall: not so fast, my friend.
With Kopitar producing at more than a point per game clip (on pace for 88 points that would establish a career high), I’m not sure that inserting Kempe this late in the season makes sense. Kopitar and Kempe have played little together this season and now is not the time to experiment to see if there is chemistry when Iafallo’s forechecking skill (and now improving offense) has been a major ingredient in Kopitar’s success.
With Kempe currently playing the middle and with Los Angeles always looking to improve their depth scoring, you’d think that one tick down to the 3C position would be the obvious move on the chessboard.
Maybe. Maybe not.
When we dropped our latest version of the Top 30 Players Available List, a new player had an LA logo next to the “Teams Believed to Have Interest.” Moving from #22 to #11 with a bullet, it’s Ottawa’s Zack Smith, who plays both left wing and center for the Senators.
Don’t look at his numbers this season in the midst of a poor Ottawa season and don’t project him at the 25-goal scorer of the 2015-16 season (courtesy of a 20.7 shooting percentage) either, but think of him as a physical type with a decent touch who could alternate on an upgraded third line with either Trevor Lewis or the improving Jonny Brodzinski on the right side. He does possess a limited no-trade clause (10 team NTC per CapFriendly) and a $3.75M cap hit for three additional seasons, which is manageable for the trade deadline, but would necessitate a roster player subtraction in the off-season.
An addition like Smith would put Kempe in a better position to win in the middle as Stevens would have the luxury of swapping him with a more natural center when matchups are a challenge.
As for the defense, unlike the forwards where there is a definitive need to add, there are reasonable arguments to either add or stand pat. Statistically, the Kings are second in the NHL in goals-against and only a Vezina-worthy performance by Tuukka Rask in net has the Boston Bruins ahead of them. With Drew Doughty in the mix for the Norris Trophy, Jake Muzzin having a season that has silenced his legion of haters, and Alec Martinez always-steady play, the core three D have delivered what was needed for a rebound season. I still favor Brayden McNabb over Derek Forbort, but in fairness, Forbort’s play has been steady if not unspectacular. He still has issues with forechecking pressure and defending speed, but has earned his 20+ minutes per game.
As the season winds down, Stevens has settled into a 5-6-7 defensive rotation of Christian Folin, Kevin Gravel and Paul LaDue and those who argue for a deadline addition point directly at that trio and rightfully question if they can step up and deliver in a big spot.
The issue with adding to the blueline in the next 13 days is that the rentals on the market don’t fill the need. Based on discussions I had over the last week with various League scouts and others, neither Erik Gudbranson nor Mike Green is not the quality defender that would upgrade the defense, so a legitimate upgrade would have to come from a defenseman with term – a contract that has multiple seasons left and I’m not sure Blake has the appetite and resources to make that move now, and because of that, the possibility exists that the Kings you see now (plus Carter) could be the ones you see at 12:01 PM Pacific Time on Feb. 26.
Some fans might be livid, others calm with the deferral, but regardless how the Kings ultimately grade out on their deadline moves, there is one thing they should not do:
Don’t blame Rob Blake.
Let’s return to the recent past, the day that Luc Robitaille and Blake were anointed by ownership to get the listing ship up to speed again. From that opening press conference in April until today, the representations made have been held in three specific areas:
1. By choosing to stay in-house and selecting Stevens, Blake bet on bounce back years from his core, and despite missing a 30G, 30A center, he was right. A change in voice and attitude behind the bench has benefited all the core players except for Marian Gaborik, whose destiny appears to be an extra forward for the balance, assuming full health upfront.
2. Stevens promised quality over quantity on shot selection and that is supported the Kings being in the top-5 in rebound and tip-in goals this season (statistic courtesy of Hockey Night in Canada last Saturday). The five-man attacking offense hasn’t manifested itself as hoped but as the defense continues to transition away from size and strength and towards speed and skill, it may be realized sooner than later.
3. The commitment to youth has been upheld as well – Kempe was given a longer leash, Brodzinski was given a second chance and looks to have gained confidence this time around. Gravel and LaDue have the making of a solid third pair for seasons to come and should need to play in games of consequence down the stretch because they are not youngsters, both will be 26 next season (side note – despite LaDue’s productivity in his six games since his recall, he is not the second coming of Slava Voynov; he doesn’t have the physicality of the exiled defenseman. If he develops into a right-hand shot Alec Martinez, you sign for it right now).
With an eye towards the playoffs, the Western Conference looks no different than last season when the eight seed Nashville Predators rode a hot goalie and opportunistic scoring to a Stanley Cup Final berth. The Predators are clearly the deepest team in the conference and if GM David Polie gets another scorer at the deadline, they could be the Stanley Cup champions.
But funny things happen on the way to an odds-on favorite coasting to a title in the NHL when you must win 16 games to get there. To man, the Kings room thinks if they can secure a playoff position, their experience in the second season makes them far more dangerous than in an 82-game regular-season. What will likely prevent them from getting there is the lack of assets Blake possesses to pull a blockbuster deal. The current flock of prospects are with the team and they are not the types that rebuilding teams look for when unloading proven talent.
There’s a gap between the two waves of prospects due to the two trades former GM Dean Lombardi pulled off in a desperate effort to continue the championship run of 2012 and 2014. When you want a case study of the downside of rentals, the Los Angeles one occurred in a space of four months between February and June 2015 in which Lombardi surrendered a starting goalie who defeated him in a post-season series (Martin Jones), a depth defenseman who has produced at the level of Jake Muzzin this season for a divisional rival (Colin Miller) and two 1st round draft picks. And about those draft picks...
For years I’ve harped on the Kings decision to trade up and draft Forbort in the 2010 Draft ahead of Vladimir Tarasenko, but that might be supplanted by the 2015 Draft Day that both stripped and robbed the Kings of a significant part of their short-term future and offer into evidence the following:
Those players available with the 14th pick of the draft that was surrendered in the Milan Lucic trade. 20/20 hindsight? Perhaps, but with nine future NHL players to choose from even I could have made an influential pick. Imagine Boeser with Kopitar and Brown or Barzal slotting in the 2C for Carter and eventually partnering with Kempe, it would have been a sight.
Lombardi doubled down after Sekera trade flopped and while the 2016 NHL Draft does not have the emerging talent that the 2015 draft did, to skip two draft years places Blake in the Mother Hubbard predicament – the cupboard is bare. There is no bridge between the first-year players presently on the roster and the next generation of Kings led by Gabe Vliardi, Kale Clague and Jaret Anderson-Dolan are not NHL ready.
Vilardi could make the roster next season, but I advocate not moving for any of them for the available talent on the market, including Montreal captain Max Pacioretty. As a first year GM, Blake has the luxury of not having to manage to make the playoffs to keep his job. Surrendering the near-term future for the very short-term present is not a path the organization should re-visit and he should resist that temptation if the current road trip turns ugly.
If the Kings are on the outside looking in come the morning of April 9, don’t blame Rob Blake – he, along with assistant GM Mike Futa, have changed the franchise’s direction quickly by understanding that this league is evolving at light speed and what worked a few seasons ago is ancient history.
If there is some short-term pain by missing the playoffs with a team not deep enough to be a contender, fans need to understand that he is paying for the short-sighted sins of his former and yes, highly successful (credit where due) predecessor who lost his magic touch. With another solid draft day in Dallas in June – and this draft appears to be deeper than last year – Blake can continue the long-term vision necessary to move the Kings forward.
I’m not watching Olympic Hockey but if you do, keep an eye out for an under-the-radar prospect, Kings 2013 7th round pick Dominik Kubalik. Originally not thought of as a legitimate prospect, the 22-year-old left wing has had a solid season that was split between the Swiss and Czech league. He has size and strong shot that helped him secured a spot on the Czech National Team.
The Rangers were praised for being transparent in their White Flag Special last week, letter to the fans and all, but why should they? Privately, managers around the League have varying levels of dissatisfaction with the approach just points out of playoff spot and Henrik Lundqvist looking very motivated. I’m hoping management gets their feet put the fire courtesy of a nice winning streak leading up to the deadline.