April 24, 2018 | 11:00am ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
KINGS BACK ON TRACK, BUT MORE TO BE DONE
LOS ANGELES, CA -- An exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs is painful no matter how the elimination takes place. From the off-season preparation to the grueling 82 game marathon and then to be asked to raise your level for Game 83 and beyond, the finality of the season when that final horn of defeat sounds is a stinging sensation.
If you think it’s tough for you, Kings fan, imagine what it’s like for your hockey heroes.
So, with good humor, let’s dive into the aftermath of what was a successful season for LA’s hockey team.
When they dropped the puck for real in October against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Kings were a bubble team. Some experts had them in the playoffs, others out due to the uncertainty a new regime brings. President Luc Robitaille and General Manager Rob Blake, who achieved the pinnacle as players by winning the Stanley Cup and being inducted into the Hall of Fame, were now at the top of the management food chain, unfamiliar ground for both. Though possessing hockey knowledge in abundance, neither one had ever possessed the final say when it came to hockey operations for an NHL team. Handed an underachieving and disinterested team last April, they were asked by ownership to breathe life into a squad that still had a championship pedigree but had lost its bark and bite over the past three seasons.
THE LOOK BACK
With a mix of old (John Stevens) and new blood (flipping the assistants and integrating younger players), this team found its way back into the post-season. In a league that gets more competitive each season, achieving a primary but not final goal is a one box that was checked.
Before I start on the whys that added up to a post-season appearance, let’s put something to bed:
“I always wanted to be an LA King and I want to stay an LA King” – Drew Doughty, April 20, 2018.
He’s not even from Toronto, he’s from London, Ontario, so easy, Leafs fans. Setting aside his ability to walk out of his home and onto the beach or be relatively anonymous when going out to dinner in Manhattan Beach, the extra year Los Angeles can offer him on his extension is the financial advantage no other team can offer and the security of locking it in on or near July 1 convinces me that the chirping (and Doughty does love to chirp) from last summer was done for his entertainment.
The trio of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Doughty registered career years and Jonathan Quick jumped on the bandwagon in the final weeks to silence his critics. Adrian Kempe showed early-season dash and while fading in the deep stretch, one can only be positive about his ability to contribute with more seasoning.
Stevens took a long view approach to Kempe season, favoring the 37 points he produced as Carter’s de facto replacement over the 30-game goalless streak he concluded with. The debate has continued about where Kempe ultimately projects at on the depth chart, but it’s a good bet he will start at center next season off Stevens’ thoughts during the team’s final media availability:
“We like him in the middle of the ice, faceoffs are a big priority for him. He has shown the ability to play against top players and be really responsible (defensively). He has the ability to get pucks in traffic, get to open ice and generate a lot of speed on the rush. He doesn’t just make your team faster he makes the people playing with him faster.”
This wave of Kings prospects produced mixed reviews – Alex Iafallo emerged from off the radar to create energy, time and space for Kopitar and Brown for most of the season, while Michael Amadio could be the eventual replacement for Jeff Carter down the road.
That was the good news. The bad news was that the two primary defenders the organization hoped would emerge simply did not. Kevin Gravel, who had shown well in 2016-17, never found his game (though an illness may have impacted his play) and was victimized on both goals in the pivotal Game 2 in Vegas.
As for Paul LaDue, who has been anointed by some as the next quality Kings defenseman, he showed little of the form needed to be rise above a bottom pair defenseman and to support all the chatter around him. He exhibited some offensive flair, but concerns still exist about his physical tools to be an NHL caliber defenseman. One scout during the Vegas series summarized the challenges he faces as a 26-year-old defenseman heading into next season: “It takes a quality NHL defenseman one push to get a forward off the puck in your own zone; it frequently takes him multiples.”
He will get another opportunity to prove me and the rest of the critics wrong next season. Blake suggested he is going in another direction from pending unrestricted free agent Christian Folin and named LaDue specifically as one who could fill the void. I suspect Blake will back his bet by exploring the free agent market for another out-of-favor veteran defender on a minimum deal as he did with Folin.
But you don’t want to really read about depth defensemen for the team that led the league in goals-against and won the precious Jennings Trophy for Quick. You want to know how the Kings will take another big leap (they went from 25th to 16th in goals per game this season) in offense next season. After all, three goals in four games against the Vegas Golden Knights demands something should be done. Some even suggested firing Stevens because there was no change between him and Darryl Sutter.
No. Not close. And for those that insist nothing has changed, the intangibles present around this team as opposed to the last few seasons are just as important as the talent in the room.
Like other professional sports, the NHL has become a player’s league – the iron-fisted bench bosses are a thing of the past, if you don’t get buy in from your players, especially the elite ones, you won’t be long as a coach in 2018 and if you don’t think the lighter mood around the organization didn’t help their performance, you’re kidding yourself.
Did Stevens construct a perfect offense? Far from it, this team was dogged by inconsistency that was a primary factor (combined with Carter’s 55 game absence) in preventing the Kings from winning its first Pacific Division title. The incredibly high positive goal differential in their third periods were a testament to their confidence and ability to close out close games but it was offset by their lackluster play in the opening 20 minutes.
This team’s signature was a maddening mix of third period prowess and first period flatulence. To Stevens’ credit, he and his staff commenced trend analysis in this area immediately following the series loss. The staff is exploring how and where goals were scored and which personnel was on the ice to balance out their 60-minute effort.
While discussing ways to improve the offense, Stevens answered his critics who say his approach was too similar to his predecessor.
“Kopitar, Doughty and Brown and Jake Muzzin all had career years, obviously it’s a style of play that worked for them,” he said.
Blake summarized the season by stopping short of calling the season a success. Despite the strides made and trends reversed, it’s clear where his focus will be this summer.
“I don’t think it is ever a success based off your end results. We’ve made some progress, but our stress for offense and how are team will produce it with our personnel will continue to grow,” he said. “We’re going have to learn how to score more goals. Our secondary scoring is a concern. There are two ways to look at it – personnel and a continuing push to be better.”
THE LOOK FORWARD
A year ago at this time, the newly-minted GM placed a big bet on his core to bounce back and get Los Angeles back to the post-season, but the circumstances of him getting the job gave him no alternative. Through injury and under-performance, the trade value of his assets was negligible and the double-dip of big risk rentals by Dean Lombardi in 2015 and 2016 gave Blake little room to operate with future assets.
A sign that things were improving came early when Gabriel Vilardi fell into his lap at the 11th pick in the NHL Draft - Vilardi burned up the Ontario Hockey League again this season and while I am a late adapter on prospects (rather be the last than first to fall in love), he appears to the real deal. But it’s a precautionary tale for those who think a Juniors star can be an immediately productive offensive NHL player, so I am discounting his contribution to next season’s offense.
When I wrote my preview of the Kings-Golden Knights series, as erroneous as the selection of LA 6 was, my two keys to the series were accurate. Marc Andre-Fleury had to rise up and revert to his form of his Pittsburgh championship days and he did it flawlessly. He had less to do with the Golden Knights first two victories as he was tested little, but in the Staples Center Sweep, it was Vintage Flower.
My Kings key was the one that raises the most questions about the path Blake will take from a personnel standpoint.
I don’t believe when he evaluates this season, he will choose to stand pat. He was unafraid to tinker with the roster early in the season and when it was clear that the team needed help defensively, he pulled off the Dion Deal – a substantial trade that if not executed wouldn’t have got him to the playoffs in his rookie season. Blake emphasized that unless a no-brainer deal comes his way, he will keep his 1st round pick (20th overall) and didn’t sound like he was inclined to deal any of his prospects.
Throughout the season’s final weeks, Stevens repeated asked for more from his “younger core” players, which I define as wingers Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, who will be forever linked in Kings lore. Their seasons were hampered by Carter’s loss, but even upon his return – granted Carter was a distance from being 100% - they simply could not find the range and the pair were non-factors in the Vegas series.
Both are on affordable contracts and while there is a valid argument that with a healthy Carter they could return to the 55-60 goal production needed on as second line wingers, it may be time for a different look. What supports keeping them in LA is that the true need for a top-six forward standpoint is the need for that elusive top line left wing. Iafallo, for all the fine work he delivered in creating havoc and space for Kopitar and Brown, is simply not the finisher needed alongside the pair. Nine goals in 72 games with no powerplay goals is depth winger production despite the assertion that he would lead the league in “third assists” if such a silly stat existed. You could tolerate a 15-17 goal season from Pearson if you have a 25-28 goal scorer above him – 24 goals from your top two left wingers was a stat few mentioned when criticizing the offense and needs to be significantly increased.
With the aforementioned unwillingness for Blake to trade his futures and likely not having the cap space in 2019-20 to sign a free agent this season with Doughty’s extension looming (it would likely eliminate a trade and a re-sign for Max Pacioretty, a UFA signing of James van Riemsdyk or Evander Kane, if he's not returning to San Jose), you are probably looking at a good old fashioned hockey trade (remember those?) if Blake wants a significant change to the roster.
While swapping Toffoli or Pearson is a legitimate move, the smarter move may be dealing from strength and moving a defenseman with the logical choices being Muzzin or Alec Martinez. Both have bargain deals (similar $4 million cap deals) with term remaining – Martinez three seasons, Muzzin two seasons – and would bring back a scoring forward from a team with defensive deficiencies. Despite his inconsistencies, Muzzin is the more talented of the pair and is a year-and-a-half younger, but the Kings defensive depth chart present state dictates that dealing Martinez, a right defenseman (Folin likely to walk, LaDue unproven, Oscar Fantenberg not a favorite of Stevens but did show signs in playoffs) further weakens the right side behind Doughty. What better time to maximize the return on a deal for a 20+ minute-a-night defenseman with two seasons remaining on a below market contract than when he is rolling off a career year? As for trading partners, there are several in need of defensive help with the short list and possible principal returns (mix and match other assets if you will):
- Detroit – Andreas Athanasiou (RFA who battled management over contract last summer), Gus Nyquist (rental/NTC)
- Islanders (contingent on John Tavares status) – Brock Nelson (arbitration eligible RFA at $2.5M), Anthony Beauvillier (1 year left on ELC)
- Columbus (losing 2 LD to UFA, Jack Johnson/Ian Cole) – Boone Jenner (arbitration eligible RFA at $2.9M), Sonny Milano (1 year left on ELC)
The one X-factor is a former King who helped the franchise win two titles by leaving town but remains popular to this day – not only to the fans but in the room and the front office as well.
Wayne Simmonds doesn’t make the Kings younger or faster and there are questions about his health after all the wars he has fought in front of the net. But if he is healthy, those shiny 11 powerplay goals he potted this season along with providing another net front presence player sure looks enticing with the downside losing one year of Muzzin if things don’t work out, a risk of 5 on a scale of 1-10.
If Toffoli sticks around, it would facilitate a move to left wing by Brown, a move that is a higher risk than executing the trade, but makes that line far more difficult to defend at the net, something that was lacking in abundance during the Vegas sweep.
I can’t guarantee any of my targets land in LA come the fall, but from the tone and nature of Blake’s answers last Friday I think you will see one significant trade made by the Draft in Dallas and if he executes it properly, I like this team to contend for the Pacific Division title next season.
But I did pick LAK 6 VGK.
NOT QUITE THE END
So while that puts a bow on the Kings season, we’re not going away just yet. There are plenty of radio appearances to do, TSN 690 Montreal has asked me to appear twice a week (1:30 PM Monday, 2PM Friday East) on the station with my Boston brother, Chris “Knuckles” Nilan and all-around good guy Sean Campbell on Off the Cuff. We’ll talk Cup playoffs and post-season moves as the NHL Draft and July 1 Free Agency Frenzy move closer.
The powers that be at SiriusXM NHL Network Radio have extended my co-hosting duties on Off The Rush (Saturdays 11AM-1PM East) with Nick Alberga and mystery co-host David Pagnotta through the balance of the post-season. We’ll tee up the night’s action with guests from around the NHL.
And finally, LA specific – The Mayor John Hoven and I have discussed our post-season video series, Kings of the Roundtable that was well received by local fans. Look for KOTR, Part 2 with some new and old faces in the coming weeks.