January 12, 2019 | 9:27am ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
KINGS AT 45: IT’S A CRUEL WINTER
LOS ANGELES, CA -- In a season that was supposed to build on the foundation Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake established in their first go-around, it took less than 30 games to produce a cruel winter for Kings fans. Instead of rooting for a divisional contender, the faithful have been reduced to hoping for the highest possible pick in the 2019 NHL Draft over six months away and gazing at the prospect depth chart for a glimmer of hope.
The number of bright spots can be counted on one hand – the professionalism of Kyle Clifford (who’s found some goals in his stick), the emergence of a pair of young goaltenders, Cal Petersen and Jack Campbell, which makes the once-unthinkable, a Jonathan Quick trade possible, and Jake Muzzin quieting his critics (and enhancing his trade value) by fashioning the best performing by a defenseman through 45 games (including one named Doughty). If you want to add the flashes of solid play by Matt Luff, Austin Wagner and Sean Walker, please do, but the list ends there.
The season has gone so far south it’s now possible that all three members of the second line that opened the season against the Flyers could leave Los Angeles by the trade deadline. During the “Kings of the Roundtable” preseason video series, I said the key to the season was the reemergence of That 70’s Line and they needed to produce in the neighborhood of 60 goals to put the team in contention for a divisional title.
Fast forward to today... there goes the neighborhood and some cats have already left the state.
Tanner Pearson is skating up and down Geno Malkin’s wing in Pittsburgh and the only thing the 15 combined goals produced by Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli has accomplished is to land the duo on TFP’s Top 30 Trade Watch List. You can debate about how the coaching change after 13 games affected the one major off-season play, Ilya Kovalchuk, but you cannot minimize the failure/inability of a second forward line to pose an offensive threat as a significant factor in a to-date 17-win season.
The lack of a secondary scoring has impeded the development of younger forwards; instead of easing Luff or Wagner into the lineup, it placed unreasonable expectations upon them to produce with limited ice time. Their failing to provide offense that should have come from established scorers finds them on either the fourth line or in the press box while non-productive veterans gobble up ice time.
The instillation of Willie Desjardins has not improved any facet of the team’s game. The lack of effort shown against Ottawa in a 4-1 loss Thursday demonstrates the lack of engagement between coach and this roster and as losses mount, resignation has replaced anger in what was once a prideful room. Given the inability of interim coaches to turn around any NHL team this season, WD-40 has not moved the needle he was set up to lose. Parachuting into an NHL team without the benefit of a full training camp and limited practice time in-season makes a very difficult task virtually impossible.
But maintaining, as I have, that the John Stevens dismissal for Desjardins was premature and the wrong move, this season clearly rests with the players.
Instead of maturing into a consistent offensive threat, Adrian Kempe’s development is in full reverse; he is a man without a position despite possessing as much skill as any on the team. He was one of the young veterans whom Stevens asked of more from late last season and failed to deliver – crystallized by a season-ending 33-game goalless streak. His lack of offense has continued throughout this season and it remains unclear if he is a center or wing at this level.
As Kempe approaches his 200th NHL game played (my benchmark with respect to emerging talent), it’s fair to question if he should be part of the solution going forward.
Instead of getting commitments to better their play to vacate themselves from the nether regions of the NHL standings and to keep this core intact, players are privately asking for trade rumor updates. In the particular case of Jeff Carter (disclosure: he does not have a relationship with me or any of the local media), the rumor floated about potential retirement if a trade destination is not to his liking is the last thing you want to hear or read about a player who wears a “A” on his chest and was rescued from obscurity in Columbus to win two Stanley Cup championships. He deserves full credit for arriving in Los Angeles with a tarnished reputation, repairing it and becoming a vital force in two championships, but right now, in the moment, that’s not leadership, it’s the antithesis of it.
Clifford, who went on the record in the post-game locker room on Thursday night and delivered the truth – “That’s awful. It’s just embarrassing, to be honest. Not much to say other than that” – that is the character I want on my team. It’s very easy to defer to your teammates when you’re winning Stanley Cups, it’s far harder to take responsibility when you’re last in the NHL and your team is going through the motions. In a league that is increasingly about speed and skill, you can’t win with grinders alone, but I’ll gladly give one of my 23 roster spots to Kyle Clifford.
In the very short term, although Blake’s hands are tied with respect to a substantial move, the 60 minute “effort” against Ottawa cannot go without a response. There needs to be accountability for the lack of fire and commitment on a night that landed his franchise back in the basement, perhaps a quick shuttle to Ontario or a seat in the press box, but it should not go unanswered and to be frank, the players should expect it.
The clock is about to start on the evaluation of the Luc/Rob regime, the “this is Dean Lombardi’s team” take is expiring. A miss on the coaching move is on their permanent record and though I’ve laid the failure of the season on the players, they have to hit the bullseye on the selection of the next coach. For those that want a taskmaster along the lines of Darryl Sutter, it’s a fair ask, but the next “non-interim” coach must do a far better job engaging the locker room and getting its respect.
As for the roster, both Blake and Robitaille need to hit the weight room because there will be substantial heavy lifting reconstructing this roster. Sometimes fate takes a hand in the course of building a franchise; the moves you don’t make could have been the right one(s), and this is not a second guess but consider these two off-season moves that did not occur:
How does this trade scenario look now – Tyler Toffoli and Gabe Vilardi for Max Pacioretty, then signing Pacioretty for $28 million over four seasons?
Passing on Jeff Skinner, who wound up going to Buffalo for a 2019 2nd round, 2020 3rd and 6th round pick and a guy named Cliff Pu.
I could give you more what-if scenarios (Kempe, Roland McKeown and Alex Lintuniemi all selected before Brayden Point in 2014), but it’s time to look ahead not behind.
The better news is that the core of this team is small, I view it as the top line of Alex Iafallo-Anze Kopitar-Dustin Brown with Doughty and Muzzin on the blueline. That does not mean that 18 of the 23 rosters spots will change this summer, but it does give management a wide array of assets to offer the marketplace.
As for the “Lose for Hughes” contingent that advocates bagging the final 37 games in pursuit of the first overall pick, your prayers may be answered over the coming weeks. I do not align with the strategy of losing games to better your draft position because losing can be a long-lasting virus with no cure. But if the exiting of core players commences soon, schedule that lies ahead should hasten the path to the bottom.
After Saturday night’s Pittsburgh contest, the Kings play nine of their next 10 and 13 of next 17 games on the road leading up to the trade deadline on February 25. Assuming the return on significant roster players is in the form of developing talent or future picks, a less talented roster than the present one will pile up the Ls. The path should be cleared for a Robitaille/Blake 1.0 roster, but the failures of this season have left no margin for error.
They must guess right at the draft table in June.
They must guess right on who stays.
They must guess right on who goes and what the return is on those players.
Those decisions will determine if this cruel winter will be a one season anomaly on the road back to contention or the norm along the jagged path of multiple seasons of mediocrity.
I joined Sean Campbell Friday on TSN 690 Montreal’s Off the Cuff show and took a deep dive into trade possibilities bout in LA and around the league. Have a listen.