February 6, 2018 | 2:54pm ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
KINGS AT THE TURN
LOS ANGELES , CA -- The Los Angeles Kings have passed the halfway mark of the season and using a thoroughbred racing analogy, and enter the final turn in an up-and-down season.
This 2018 has been unkind to the team’s effort to return to the post season, as the Kings have won five of 13 games in the New Year to dash their dreams of a first Pacific Division title in franchise history (they have won a division pennant before, but back in the good ole days when they were Smythe residents). While another banner is likely out of their grasp short of a full Vegas Golden Knights collapse (it’s so weird to type those words), they are squarely in the mix for the second and third divisional seeds.
In the big picture, their present position is where most thought they would be when the seven-month sojourn started in October, battling for a post-season berth with no assurance they secure one. The playoff push has commenced and 30 regular season games remain when they face the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday – 16 at home, 14 on the road.
Those raw numbers look friendly, but the short-term optics are daunting. Both the Kings and Oilers will split town after the match with Los Angelinos embarking on a season-defining seven-game roadtrip that bookends with a pair of back-to-back games against Atlantic, Metropolitan and Central Division competition.
Short- and long-term themes have emerged as the Kings enter in the Final 30.
An intriguing feature of this team is its unique ability to turn on a dime with their efforts. Prior to the All Star break, they got dominated by a subpar Vancouver team and produced an emotionally charged overtime win in Calgary that included a third period rally. They clicked on all cylinders coming out of the All Star break with a powerful performance against Dallas and then looked nothing like a playoff team by the Nashville Predators. Some noted that the lineup changes by coach John Stevens after the Stars victory led to the loss (including going back to Jonathan Quick after Darcy Kuemper whitewashed Dallas), but sitting Michael Amadio, Jonny Brodzinski and Paul LaDue had no impact on the defeat. Suggesting the three rookies would have handled Nashville’s speed and tenacity on the forecheck that never let the offense breathe is not a point I am willing to concede.
While you can’t expect every game to match the emotional intensity of the Calgary win or the offensive explosion against a woeful Arizona club, there needs to be an expectation of effective execution and maximum effort every night. The change in systems are in fully in place, the leading voice behind the bench is no longer new and the youngsters have been integrated and makes it reasonable for the resulting 60 minutes product to have minimal variation from game-to-game.
The No.2 goaltending job rivals the backup quarterback as the best job in professional sports (ask Nick Foles) and fortunately for the Kings, Kuemper has delivered one of the best understudy performances of the season.
Los Angeles took a flyer on Kuemper off a poor 2016-17 season (8-5-3 record, 3.13 GAA and .902 save percentage) and like Peter Budaj before him, has fashioned a strong body of work that has been more impactful with Quick’s recent struggles and questionable health. In a case of “you never know with goalies,” the Saskatoon native has posted a 1.76 GAA, .942 save percentage and lost only 1 regulation game in 12 starts (8-1-3). In my view, those numbers are a meld of factors: he plays in a solid defensive system with Drew Doughty at the top of the lineup, plays a style that is the polar opposite of his creasemate (calm and judicious with movement vs. acrobatic and unorthodox) and maybe just, maybe the Kings possess a mentoring duo in Bill Ranford and Dusty Imoo who are modern-day goaltender whisperers.
At Game 53, it doesn’t matter what pitch count Stevens wants to give Kuemper if he continues at this level of play. If you want to give him the net until he loses and give him more of it than Quick’s liking down the stretch, I’m all for it because if get Kuemper into the 20-25 start range it means that a) the team continues to play well in front of him and b) you get Quick into 55-60 start territory that should lessen the physical and mental stress down the stretch in preparation of a tough opening playoff round matchup.
Regardless of how Kuemper plays, the reality is short of a significant injury, Quick is your starter if there is a Game 83. With the organization watching the development of Cal Petersen and the resurrection of Jack Campbell by the aforementioned coaching duo, it’s likely that Kuemper is a one-and-done in LA. He delivered exactly what you want in a number two, stepping up and performing when your starter falters, but unless Quick’s mediocrity extends into late March, this should not be a 1 and 1A situation. Kuemper is an unrestricted free agent at season end and with no talk of extending him – although inking him to a one-year deal would be a smart insurance policy, he’s bought himself a nice deal come July 1 (Budaj grabbed $2.05M for 2 years from Tampa Bay). I’ve received some suggestions about moving him at the trade deadline with his market value at an all-time high, but that thoroughly defeats the logic of having a proven veteran presence in the 2-slot.
Another week starts, another week close the biggest determining factor of this season – the return of Jeff Carter. He continues to skate after practices with progress towards an unspoken yet likely late February/early March return. That target runs concurrent with the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 26 and the company line continues to be “if Carter returns there is our top-six forward deadline acquisition.”
There is no disputing that claim and I’d be willing to bet Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are marking off each day on the calendar until the ‘That 70’s Line’ reunion. I’ve touched on the trickle-down effect of Carter’s return to the lineup and its effect on Adrian Kempe, the temporary fix at second line center. He has manned the 2C under duress in his rookie season and more than held his own, maintaining a pace for a 25-goal season and while grasping the nuances of the defensive aspects of the game with his biggest challenge being improvement in the faceoff dot as he efforts to get his season faceoff percentage win over 40 percent. Far more important than the tangibles, both strong and weak, he has proved to the veterans in the room that he has a command of the game at the NHL level. In the early season there were questions about his emergence this season, (perhaps needing another year of seasoning at the AHL level to bolster his confidence) but his offensive production while playing less than 14 minutes a night has fortified his status as a solid piece of the Kings future.
Since Kempe’s move to the middle, I’ve advocated that once his completes his temporary assignment he’s best suited for a slide to the left wing alongside Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown (assume Carter is reunited with Toffoli and Pearson). Kopitar has been a horse, fashioning a great comeback campaign with lots of help by Brown, who Stevens flipped with Toffoli to get Tyler out of a rough scoring draught (goalless in 10 games). Throughout Kopitar’s time in LA, only when Marian Gaborik was fully engaged and healthy did he have a winger with great speed and slick moves that a now-confident Kempe displays. To have him coming off the wing with speed taking feeds from Kopitar and with Brown clearing space at the net are the components of a legitimate first line.
Despite that logical advocacy, I’m not so sure that when a healthy Carter returns, that’s what we’ll see. Two primary factors have shifted my thinking that Kempe may see the wing later than sooner and the shift may not be up the depth chart to LW1 but downshifted to third line center. Since last summer, the Kings have been looking to upgrade left wing (they probably looked at Evander Kane under the new regime) and even with the unlikely breakthrough of Alex Iafallo, the chatter hasn’t lessened. If Kempe’s shift was to be to the left flank in the coming weeks, I wouldn’t continue to hear the whispers about them being in the mix on the Rangers’ Rick Nash (very likely to go) or Montreal’s Max Pacioretty (going if some GM is willing to pay the heavy tax).
While they are not at the top of the list on for either high-value target (they never really are) perhaps another less expensive rental, another Broadway Blueshirt rental in Michael Grabner (more of a Kings type of buy, a less expensive heady player who is a solid penalty killer) would be a nice fit.
The other factor is how and if Kempe can impact the bottom-six down the stretch. You can never say enough about the quality Trevor Lewis brings to the ice every night and maybe he’s finding his offensive stride at 30 years old with a career high 13 goals, but other than him, there is a lack of productivity with the biggest culprit being Nick Shore who has run out of chances to prove he is an effective offensive player in the NHL (3 goals, 9 assists in 46 games).
Even without a left wing acquisition, Kempe’s presence on the third line threatens to give more balance to the forward wall and if the trigger is pulled on a veteran left wing scorer, it’s an easy move for Iafallo to LW3 to LW1 (where his long term destiny likely lies) where Iafallo-Kempe-Lewis has the ingredients of an effective third line.
I’ve extracted Gaborik from the conversation because his effectiveness has diminished to the point where any contribution from down the stretch is a welcomed bonus. Is an Iafallo-Kempe- Lewis a perfect trio? Far from it, as mentioned Kempe’s faceoff aptitude is still a work-in-progress, but by spotting Torrey Mitchell (love his speed and faceoff skill, hate the penalty taking) on defensive zone starts can mitigate those deficiencies.
Additionally, while Kempe has made strides in multiple areas, he has not mastered the ability to be a facilitator. At this still early stage of his career, he is far more sniper than distributor as evidenced by the fact that he has gone 25 games without registering a primary assist, a major red flag for a 2C who plays alongside Toffoli, Pearson and Brown. To ask him to distribute effectively alongside less skilled players is a risk, but is balanced by the potential combination of Iafallo’s tenacity on the forecheck and Lewis’ headiness and newly found hands.
A BUYER’S MARKET?
As scouts around the League start to pad their frequent flyer miles, I’ll fire up the discussion of how busy the trade deadline will be.
The pessimists feel that it will be another dud of a Deadline Day and we’ll be reduced to watching Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger and Elliotte Friedman taking long looks at their phone as the majority of the content, but I see a ray of hope for more action than we’ve seen in recent years.
Despite the tight races we have for the top eight seeds, three weeks out from the deadline there is a clear delineation between contenders and pretenders with the latter having quantity. I count nine teams that should be legitimate sellers (eight teams lagging and one that has hung up a “For Sale” sign despite being points from the East 8 seed).
In the East, the Sabres, Canadiens, Senators, Red Wings, Panthers and Rangers should know better and look to make players available. In the West, the Coyotes, Canucks and the Oilers are your presumptive sellers.
In prior seasons, the line between contender and pretender was blurry up to the deadline, but that is not the case this season and accordingly more assets should be on the market which could drive prices down.
As an example, in most years if you want a power left winger, you’d be lucky to have one on the market, but this season, Kane, Pacioretty and Nash are movable. The straight rental market for defenseman ain’t much (Erik Gudbranson and Mike Green the best of a small pool), but the viability defenders with term remaining (New York’s Ryan McDonagh or Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson) moving isn’t as far fetched as it was in October.
At the top of the food chain, the teams with the most depth Nashville and Tampa Bay appears to be willing because they’re more than able given the organizational depth which could put pressure on a Winnipeg, Vegas or St. Louis to make a comparable move.
RADIO RADIO, PODCAST PODCAST
With Rick Ralph moving to the afternoon drive at TSN Winnipeg 1290, Kevin Olshewski is my new best friend to chat with the good people of Manitoba. I joined him on Monday to about the Pacific and greatly exaggerate the Ducks-Devils trade.
Mr. Ducks Calls himself, Josh Brewster and I powered through another DJ HockeyTalk podcast where we threw bouquets at Gary Bettman.
You can always catch me (and shame on you if you’re not already) on TSN 690 Montreal with Knuckles Nilan on Friday at 1:30PM Eastern and with Dave Pagnotta and Nick Alberga as TFP presents “Off the Rush” on Sirius/XM NHL Network Radio Saturdays from 11AM-1PM.