December 10, 2018 | 9:30pm ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
KINGS AT 30: VULTURE TIME
LOS ANGELES, CA -- Despite playing in a division where the performance defines the word “mediocrity,” the Los Angeles Kings have managed to play themselves out of playoff contention after only 30 games. While the math says they have a remote chance for a post-season berth, the optics scream that only 52 regular-season games remain in what’s become a stunningly lost season.
In a league with a framework that rewards players for winning championships but challenges General Managers to maintain a contending roster with a hard salary cap, ebbs and flows are unavoidable and the best managers avoid the deep and long valleys of non-contender status. Instead of anticipating what deadline additions need to be made in late February, Los Angeles’ brain trust of President Luc Robitaille and General Manager Rob Blake are tasked with having to pivot and determine who stays and who goes from a core that was crafted by former President and GM Dean Lombardi.
Though more than half the season still remains, there are definitive answers that will affect the short-term future of this franchise:
WD-40 APPLICATION NO BUENO
For those who were screaming for the dismissal of John Stevens as early as the final buzzer of Game 4 against Vegas last April, the results of the team under Willie Desjardins has injected a dose of seller’s remorse into the franchise.
Without question, the team was horrible in Stevens’ unlucky 13 games, but the drastic move needed an immediate response that was not delivered. Not only is there a lack of results, but the lack of fire and passion most games under Desjardins supports the notion that there are too many comfortable players in the Kings dressing room.
Holding season tickets at Staples Center, I sat at ice level for two November matches against Toronto and Colorado. In both contests, the opponents scored early and easily, I could feel the lack of energy and bore witness from the stands to the lack of anger and pushback as they were physically outclassed and mentally beaten. You would have to go back over a decade to witness a product like this in Los Angeles.
I can’t see a scenario where Desjardins lasts more than the remainder of the season behind the bench. Even with the return of Dustin Brown – one of two possible Kings’ representatives (Drew Doughty) in the All-Star Game in San Jose, the offense has manufactured less than with Stevens and the penalty killing is below 70 percent. I have been asked the question, “can you fire two coaches in one season” on more than one occasion, which provides guidance on the future of the bench boss. It’s far too early to tell if Marco Sturm has the chops to lead the team next season but as the consensus around the team is “he’s good but he’s green.”
Regardless of who is the next non-interim coach, one trait they must possess is the ability to connect with the players, a necessity for any professional coach in 2018. An incumbent with some NHL experience is always preferable, but communication style has become paramount for success in guiding this generation of hockey players.
Though crowds are dwindling at Staples Center and that often causes front office types to lose their jobs, there is no sign that ownership won’t allow Robitaille and Blake to affect the transition of the roster. Though lacking the immediate pressure regarding job security, the duo is under greater pressure to make the right calls on decisions whose results will affect this team well into the next decade.
With the admission that the coaching has been subpar, the overarching reason for the Kings situation is the failure of this roster to produce. Despite having a home-friendly schedule and the benefit of some of the worst divisional play in recent league history, with rare exceptions, the players have failed individually and as a group.
The clock was running out on this core and the hope that with the addition of unrestricted free agent Ilya Kovalchuk, one more competitive season could be squeezed out of this group, but these 30 games is the proof needed to write the final chapter of the platinum era in Los Angeles hockey history.
In the coming weeks, I suspect the exodus will start and there will be blood, but Blake needs to use a surgical scalpel rather than a grenade as he begins to make this team his own.
The messy saga around Kovalchuk’s lack of playing time and subsequent injury/surgery has to be cleaned up immediately upon his return. Kovalchuk’s stated reason for selecting Los Angeles was his belief that the Kings would contend for a Stanley Cup (yes, over $6 million per for three seasons would motivate you and me too) so both player and organization need to align on his status. If there is a trade, the risk that was attached to a 35+ contract with a no-movement clause means Kovalchuk needs to be dealt to a contending team he will be happy to play with for the next two seasons.
Beyond that, fans who want to see immediate movement in substantial numbers, you will need to exercise more patience. While you’re waiting, here’s the home version of “LA Kings Fantasy GM” you can play – select five players that you envision as the next group of players to lead this team back to post-season. I’m not suggesting 18 players between now on next summer’s training camp will be gone from the roster, but only a select few will be the keys and the others will be made available.
The trade deadline is over two months away and the market hasn’t formed for this season’s crop of available players. Add to the fact the team’s performance has cratered the value of viable trade targets like Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter, significant moves should come closer to the trade deadline.
More specifically, with the Tampa Bay Lightning blueline facing health issues and pending free agency departures, they are exploring how the reliable Alec Martinez would help them in a Stanley Cup run. Martinez, in his 10th season in Los Angeles and one of the best interviews in the room, embodies the frustration of a core that have no answers why this team has failed.
His demeanor during interviews has grown sullen as the losses mount – likely from the increasing trade whispers – and his over-the-top celebration of his game winner in a meaningless (and boring) 2-0 win last week at Staples appeared to be a release of from the unexpected level of losing.
The Lightning have been scouting for the better part of a month with a contingent that includes Assistant GM Pat Verbeek and the Blackhawks and Stars have had multiple looks with more than one rep listed within the past two weeks.
As I see it, the process to recast this roster should be in two steps – moving significant players by the trade deadline and then continuing the reformatting in the off-season (example – a buyout of Dion Phaneuf’s contract).
The key to Step One is determining what the next core operates with the assumption that Anze Kopitar and Doughty have no interest in waving their NMCs. But as the losses mount in this downward spiral, it would not shock me if management didn’t hang up the phone on an inquiry for either one. From there, feel free to have your choice of 3-4 additional players and then have Open Phones Los Angeles for the balance of the roster.
The invisibility of the Los Angeles second line is an undersold factor in the decline. Both Carter and Toffoli are on pace for less than 20 goals and the inability to find a consistent third option (Tanner Pearson dealt, the Kovalchuk saga, Kyle Clifford and Brendan Leipsic not the answers) has ground the production to a halt. Maybe Carter isn’t 100% healthy and maybe Toffoli is going through a long stretch of bad luck, but maybe it’s time to go and it would not shock me if both were gone by March.
With respect to the blueline, I can’t see both Martinez and Jake Muzzin remaining after the process is complete; there is some depth along the blueline (Dan Brickley, Kale Clague). Muzzin has been their best defenseman this season – a simultaneous tip of the cap to Muzzin and a “let’s get going” to Doughty and the remaining term on his deal is shorter, a fact that shouldn’t be lost during the transition.
The most controversial player to discuss is the one who has been the backbone of this franchise, goaltender Jonathan Quick. An unheralded kid from Connecticut, former Kings GM Dave Taylor and staff made the best third round pick in franchise history when they plucked him from the U Mass-Amherst in 2005. At the time the Kings goaltending situation was a revolving door and Quick battled his way to the top and has remained there to this day.
Dogged by multiple injuries the past two seasons but now healthy and playing well, you can argue that Quick would yield the greatest return in a league where there is always a need for goaltending. Both Cal Petersen and Jack Campbell have done well but with 29 combined games of NHL experience under the duo’s belt, a seismic move like Quick is smarter in the off-season.
I covered Los Angeles’ different options during the TFP Rumour Mill segment last Saturday on our weekly “Off The Rush” show on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio. The entire highly informative and entertaining segment can be heard here.
If the resurfacing of this roster is to be done by moving established stars, the return has to be younger and cheaper talent (preferably on entry-level contracts) so they can simultaneously align with the type of talent needed to win and give them more cap flexibility (example – receiving Mathieu Joseph or Anthony Cirelli in a potential Tampa Bay deal.)
LOSING IS FOR LOSERS
While on the topic of roster reconstructing, I want to address the current sentiment among a faction of Kings fans:
Yes, the notion that the Kings should intentionally lose games in an effort to finish 31st and secure a 18.5% chance at this year’s next generational player, Jack Hughes in June’s NHL Draft.
Hughes, the across-the-board No.1 draft prospect, is potentially the player who can make the Kings situation a retool, not a rebuild. Those arguing staying at the bottom of standings for a better but not guaranteed shot at him are forgetting some basic facts:
The coach is attempting to show he is an NHL caliber coach. There are players like Leipsic and Nikita Scherbak attempting to continue their NHL careers and rookies like Matt Luff and Austin Wagner attempting to start theirs.
Robitaille and Blake are Hall of Famers and Stanley Cup winners. The idea of intentionally losing games is foreign to the them. Their goal, as the roster changes, should be to win more, not lose more, and the balance of the season should be about building off better play in the final 50 games. For the teams who possess newer elite talent like Toronto and Buffalo, it’s been a very long and painful ride to obtain that talent and return to contention. Like winning, losing is infectious and it’s a slippery slope to tolerate it in any form.
A real example of tanking – Kings recall Brett Sutter and Kurtis MacDermid and scratch Kopitar and Doughty. That’s a tank job. That’s not happening.
Even in a rebuild, you have to sell tickets and a losing team in this city is an impossible sell. We’re about championship and rings, not first overall draft picks. With season ticket renewals being sent in the coming weeks, there is pressure to ice a team that if not winning, can entertain and keep fans engaged. I posed the rhetorical question to my friends along press row on numerous nights lately, “imagine this was your first NHL game, would you return?”
And yet despite the unexpected ugliness of a season few saw coming, there is hope Kings fans can hang their hats on.
With the right maneuvering, the state of the Pacific Division could allow this to be just a one season LA dip as it lacks a budding powerhouse that would dominate over the next few seasons. It is a big ask to guess right on every bet the Kings front office will make over the next nine months, but if they do, it will be a shallow valley of non-contention for the Kings.