February 21, 2019 | 12:30am ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
KINGS OF THE DEADLINE
LOS ANGELES, CA — The Exodus from Los Angeles looks to be in full gear as the clock ticks down to Deadline Day on Monday at noon Pacific.
Kings General Manager Rob Blake continues the process that started with Tanner Pearson landing in Pittsburgh and saw trades of Jake Muzzin (big) and Nate Thompson (small) for the necessary recasting of the roster progresses.
The next four-to-five days stands to be an emotional roller coaster for fans not because their star players will move, but because some of their favorites, the born-and-raised character guys, have attracted attention from contending teams.
Both Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford are on opposing GMs radars, reliable players who would bring championship mettle and unquestioned character to any locker room. In the big picture, their statistics don’t tell the story of their importance to a winning organization. Their willingness to help younger players develop and adjust to NHL life is something you can’t quantify. Management resistance to move them for future picks or prospects is because of their influence inside the room and the respect they command.
From a financial aspect, either of the pair would fit snugly into any team’s salary cap scenarios – Lewis has one-year remaining at a $2 million cap hit, Clifford has a year remaining as well at $1.6 million.
If Blake could extract a second-round pick for either, would it be worth it for a roster that stands to be even younger next season? For a team that is sorely lacking skill forwards (Brendan Leipsic still logging 15 minutes a night, including second-unit powerplay time), are the “glue guys” more or less valuable to this organization? Does their presence and the ability to show players how to be physically and emotionally equipped to play in the NHL merit them a roster spot considering this team is 30th overall and holds a likewise standing in goals for per game?
I’ll venture a guess that because Lewis plays both center and wing and kills penalties it makes him more valuable in a post-season run, but that is not to minimize Clifford’s value. He is a player that never takes a step backwards, always answers the bell and in a League that had rapidly become all about speed and skill, Kyle has fashioned arguably his best season as a pro.
Through a season that has seen too many games that were done by the end of the first period and where it was apparent the majority of the group was going through the motions, Clifford has given maximum effort every shift. He should register career highs in goals and points this season, and as a bonus for the stat geeks, his advanced stats are quality. I am not slighting the leadership ability of their dwindling championship core (Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown are not leaving town), but are the Kings best served to have a rookie on an entry-level contract with more speed and skill usurp his roster spot?
The short answer is no, despite our reports that multiple teams see the intrinsic value of having a pro like Clifford on the roster – in fact, it’s a compliment to a player who has never reached double-figures in goals scored in a nine-year NHL.
When we reported the interest in Clifford early-Wednesday, the social media response was as close as unanimous as possible, “Cliffy can’t leave town,” was the cry (and yes, some did use the crying emoji at the possibility of his departure). And that’s the most difficult part of the job for a GM in professional sports, to achieve the proper roster balance between tangibles and intangibles.
Setting aside the destiny of the old guard, the building/rebuilding/retooling/reimaging job is reaching a milepost, Monday’s Trade Deadline.
You can expect Carl Hagelin to be gone by end of business on Thursday, but after that necessary move, it’s unclear if anything else occurs.
Alec Martinez’s injury woes have given pause to acquiring teams, our report of Ilya Kovalchuk’s willingness to waive his No Movement Clause garnered little interest, and Jonathan Quick’s February departure was a long shot at best.
If Jeff Carter’s plan to stay in Los Angeles was to play so poorly that interest would dry up, it appears to be working. At this time of year, things can change with one injury or scoring slump, but as we understand, there is very little interest in Carter – the downside of a team vying for the first-overall pick, trade values crater, so the expectations of a substantial move by Monday appears to be fading. If that scenario comes to fruition, set your calendars four months ahead to the NHL Draft in Vancouver.
The Kings’ organization is facing the most important off-season in a decade, some of it was expected as the transition from away from the Dean Lombardi era continues, some unexpected as no one in management projected this team finishing with 72 points.
Though the Kings’ defensive play has plummeted, the Kings have enough in the pipeline to prevent them from making major changes on the blueline even with Dion Phaneuf liabilities and question marks about their right side if Martinez is moved.
With the caveat that all bets are off if the lottery ping pong balls drop Jack Hughes in his lap, Blake must go all-in on The Bread Man Artemi Panarin, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent from the Columbus Blue Jackets, this summer. Given the organization’s inability to identify and develop high-end forwards over the past decade, the necessity to buy a game changer on July 1 is now a requirement.
My idea of going all-in is not the traditional max term deals given out to the top-of-the food chain free agents. I would not be concerned about being the highest AAV bidder when the opening bell rings for free agency because I would limit the term of the offer to five years. My suggestion would be a deal worth $55 million for five seasons that gives Panarin another bite at the free agency apple at 33 years old (he turns 28 at the start of next season), the tail end of his prime production years.
With Drew Doughty entering his new deal at 30 years old and knowing the Kings had no Plan B, going forward they have to rid themselves of the mindset of giving out deals that pays a 37-year-old defenseman $11 million down the line.
If the Kings are able to land Panarin (and yes, it is a big ask), the job still would not be done. Assuming Carter moves on, the Kings lack a legitimate second-line center – Adrian Kempe is not the answer and Jaret Anderson-Dolan could be the third line center for a decade but does not project as a top-six forward.
Brock Nelson, who appears to be heading to free agency, has awakened in his walk year and could approach the 60 points Carter was being counted on this season – again, I would not offer more than five years term for a player who like Panarin, will be 28 on Opening Night.
This must be the off-season of aggression for Rob Blake, even if it requires taking less than his desired ask for veteran players. He must clear the decks, trade the Carters and the Quicks, integrate the B level forward prospects the organization has, and because the roster is likely to be dotted with players on entry-level deals, he must go big-game hunting this summer.