jUne 26, 2018 / 3:45am ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
NOT YOUR DADDY'S KINGS
LOS ANGELES, CA -- I’m back from a fun, productive and informative week on the road covering the NHL Awards and NHL Draft in Las Vegas and Dallas, respectively, Though the two events are in proximity with respect to time, they couldn’t have been further distanced with respect to tone.
The Awards are a culmination of the season and but this televised event carried an emotional tone we won’t see again. The tragedies of 1 October and Humboldt were respectfully and appropriately addressed and to revisit them was mind-numbing for me. Every previous time I’ve attended the show it was a vessel to celebrate achievement and accomplishment. I hope I never get to witness another program highlighted by tributes to innocent lives lost and posthumously presented awards.
As a voting Awards member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, I was one of those who chose to be fully transparent in my vote, I believe that the privilege granted to help determine the history of the game is coupled with accountability. Other than leaving Connor McDavid off my Hart ballot (as 47% of the voters did), my choices were aligned with the results from the aspect of having no outliers (or erroneous selections), and if you’d like to review any of the voters ballots, please check the PHWA site page.
Going wheels up from the blazing Nevada desert to the sweltering Texas heat not only provided a steep climb in humidity but a major shift in attitude.
As we hit downtown Dallas, everyone was open for business and the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel was abuzz with activity. Fresh-faced draftees and their families walked about with excitement and anticipation, agents and GMs huddling in corners and passageways, and certain media types stationed by electrical outlets to keep their iPhones fully charged.
And at the forefront of the team chatter was one I know intimately, but am unaccustomed to the level of noise in this venue – the Los Angeles Kings.
As each day passes, the franchise further distances itself from the old school ways of Dean Lombardi regime – from the necessary pivot away from size and strength formula that won two Cups to the stream of consciousness conference GM calls littered with military and baseball reference points, the organizational mindset has taken a 180-degree turn.
The irony is thick with Rob Blake’s first big move in the free agent market: bringing back Ilya Kovalchuk to the NHL.
Los Angeles was a considered destination the last time the now 35-year-old winger did an unrestricted free agency dance. That soiree would up as an epic chapter in sports free agent history with Lou Lamoriello and the New Jersey Devils. At the time, Lombardi questioned if a player he characterized as possessing a questionable character (Evander Kane was eliminated in the same manner both in his draft-eligible year and when trade opportunities existed) could fit in a Kings locker room which at the time was still learning how to win. The Kings passed, Ilya went to Newark and ultimately Dean won the War of 2012 when the Kings bested the Devils for their first Stanley Cup championship.
Six Junes later, the Kings and Kovalchuk (represented by J.P. Barry of CAA) agreed in principle to a three-year, $18.75 million deal on Friday that saw them outbid a small group of teams looking for help on the left side. As with every deal, there are pluses and minuses, but what stands out to me is that within eight weeks of being eliminated in a four-game sweep by the Vegas Golden Knights via an ugly offensive performance, Blake went on the record to improve the offense and followed through on it. Lombardi’s inability to find a legitimate scoring threat on left wing, a shortcoming throughout his regime, was solved inside of 18 months by his successor with the same core talent.
And that’s one of the glaring differences in the infancy of Blake’s tenure: the franchise’s ability to recruit and capture high-end talent through college and pro free agency. The Kings’ scouting and development function have few rivals in unearthing players in the later rounds and getting them to the NHL level, but those assets historically turn into solid role players with a limited career lifespan (Dowd, Brodzinski, LaDue). Despite having consistent success they always fell short in capturing the high-end talent, but since Blake’s installation, they’ve captured three high profile college free agents – defenseman Dan Brickley, forward Sheldon Rempal and goaltender Cal Peterson. The luring of Kovalchuk puts them at an entirely different level – it stamps them as a legitimate option for top tier free agents going forward and reestablishes them as a contender but more importantly, they continue to win the recruiting battles for college free agents – an underplayed component in building a reserve list in the salary cap era.
In the past year, Blake executed 10 trades - some small, some substantial knowing he had to quickly pivot this team to a style that would continue to keep them relevant and competitive in the game’s rapidly changing landscape. He was quick to makes moves out of the box and as quick to move on when it was apparent they weren’t working (Mike Cammallieri and Jussi Jokinen) and appears to be comfortable with the cadence of a high volume of in-season deals if needed.
Even with the big ticket Drew Doughty extension likely landing soon and with its ramifications next season, the Kings’ strategy appears to be laser focused on this season. Maybe it’s a function of watching the Golden Knights build a Cup Finalist in mere months, maybe it’s the overall weakness of their Pacific Division rivals, but Kovalchuk wasn’t the lone plan to upgrade their offense at left wing.
My understanding is that if the Russian winger selected another offer, the Kings were ready to execute a deal for Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes. Although Max Pacioretty’s name has been connecting to the Kings since January, I believe the Skinner deal was closer to being completed. It was to the Kings’ advantage to have three players available at the same position to consider.
A note on Kovalchuk being a “no-risk” play theory due to the fact that LA did not surrender any assets necessary to secure the other wingers: While the asset cost point is inarguable, there is a good amount of risk attached to the Ilya deal. The Kings believe that Kovalchuk is a reasonable facsimile to what he was when he left the NHL five seasons ago and project him to be a 30G scorer alongside Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Conversely, there is zero guarantee that he can successfully adapt to a game that has significantly changed in that period of time. If he underperforms, his trade value is zero and there is further jeopardy as a 35+ contract as well - if he would walk away after two seasons, the Kings are on the hook for his cap hit regardless of his playing status (assuming it is not injury related.)
On the Pacioretty front, though I feel he’s an automatic 30-goal scorer on the Kings first line, nothing ever progressed to the point where a move by Los Angeles was imminent. There was a rumor that surfaced out of Montreal that Pacioretty and his camp was discussing an extension with Los Angeles and a trade was in place. Trying to confirm that report I contacted CAA Hockey (at that point they were his representatives, he has since switched to Allan Walsh and Octagon, a stunning move as to its timing) and was informed that no team had been given permission or even asked to have permission to discuss an extension ahead of a potential trade.
While the contract talks never started, I believe there was significant dialogue between Los Angeles and Montreal and my suggestion is that it revolved around Jake Muzzin and prospect Jaret Anderson-Dolan. Muzzin would solve the Habs need for a left-handed partner for Shea Weber and the speedy Anderson-Dolan projects as a second-line center off his solid season at Spokane of the WHL. From a Kings standpoint, I believe it is with the threshold of acceptability, a Muzzin departure would leave the best defensive team in the league last season with a top four defense of Doughty, Phaneuf, Alec Martinez and Derek Forbort. Anderson-Dolin, although in the mold of the new wave of Kings (speedy, skilled with decent size) currently ranks sixth on my center depth chart (Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Adrian Kempe, Michael Amadio and Gabe Vilardi ranking ahead).
I do not have the details of the Skinner proposed deal, but for those who question Los Angeles’ ability to fit his $ 5.75 million cap hit into their current salary structure, the availability of Pacioretty makes it a far easier task. Max’s cap hit is an easy $4.5 million as his sweetheart deal concludes, it’s a simple ask to Carolina to retain $1.2 million to match Pacioretty’s cap hit and if you need to sweeten the pot to get there by improving a pick or a prospect, you do it.
So with Kovalchuk in the fold, why even discuss the structure of a Pacioretty or Skinner deal? The need at LW1 was filled and away we go, right? As I said on my SiriusXM show Saturday from the floor of the Draft, “this is not your daddy’s Kings.”
I’ve heard they’re not done, not only in the pursuit of additional scoring help -- they are now looking at defensive options to create the possibility of making a current roster defenseman available as a trade chip.
And while we’re talking about defenseman, I expect some chatter around the Drew Doughty situation this week; my guess is Drew returns at an AAV of $11 million per to remain comfortably in the South Bay as he tries to capture his third Stanley Cup.