January 30, 2019 | 11:07pm ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
REALITY HITS HARD FOR KINGS
LOS ANGELES, CA — The first domino dropped into the laps of the Los Angeles Kings Monday afternoon with the trade of Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Though the trade whispers had turned to shouts over the past few weeks, the cold reality of the business hit when General Manager Rob Blake accepted a package that included a must-have first-round pick as part of a package in exchange for Muzzin.
Set aside the fact that Muzzin is in the midst of arguably his finest season in Los Angeles (and clearly the best performance this season by a Kings defenseman) and the exodus of players commenced when Tanner Pearson was dealt to Pittsburgh, this deal struck at the dressing room’s core.
Muzzin was one of the championship old guard, a battle tested veteran, who couldn’t make it as Pittsburgh draftee and forged a solid career in Los Angeles.
As fate would have it, a group of Kings ventured off to Maui during the extended bye week and the Muzzin family was included; little did they know it would be the last time they would be in that setting as teammates.
As word spread about the deal, teammates stopped by the house and you could rest assured that some tears flowed. Well-liked and respected in the locker room, Jake will add both a big shot from the blueline and championship experience to what Toronto hopes is an extended playoff run. His 20-minute per night presence on the backend will take time to replace – there is no incumbent ready to step into that role – but when you’re seeking to becoming younger and faster and yes, better, it was a move that had to occur.
With full knowledge that their train wreck of a season earned them these consequences, this signal that the (substitute your word of choice for rebuild) has begun.
Privately, some players know their one-way ticket out of Los Angeles will be processed shortly and their mindset is in “it’s a matter of time” one.
And yes, there is more to come; some sooner, others later.
The Kings’ last 32 games may be an uglier watch than their first 50.
NHL NETWORK COMES CALLING
It’s now an annual rite of late January/early February – no, not birds migrating south to escape the Polar Vortex, but me showing up on NHL Network to talk trades!
On Wednesday, I joined EJ Hradek, as good a man as he is a broadcaster, to discuss the Muzzin trade and what lies ahead as the Changing of the Guard starts in earnest in Los Angeles.
To reiterate, I like the Muzzin deal – the first-rounder was a requirement and Carl Grundstrom could develop into a Tomas Holmstrom-type player; I expect him to be with the team next season. As for the prospect Sean Durzi, your guess is as good as mine if he has a future in Los Angeles, but adding another skill defensive prospect is a good third add in any deal.
As for who’s next... Jeff Carter and Alec Martinez are short money bets to say goodbye prior to the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
I like Carter in Nashville as their forward wall has been banged up all season, and with Austin Watson’s unfortunate departure to battle substance abuse problems, Carter would be a solid add to this contender. Perhaps a talented winger like Kevin Fiala at the top of a package would be enough to engineer a safe landing in Middle Tennessee for a player who appears to have let the trade speculation affect his play.
And yes, Tampa has great depth and they are running away from the pack, but with Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi both set to become unrestricted free agents July 1, Martinez and his puck-moving ability would be a nice fit in the Lightning’s offensive scheme and his ability to score big post-season goals is one of the few assets Tampa lacks.
On the coaching front, both EJ and I agree that these are the final coaching days for WD-40 in Los Angeles; the jump-start/attention getting Blake hoped for after 13 games never materialized and the team has never gathered any steam during his tenure.
The Kings practice poorly, then play poorly and there is no consequence for it – players aren’t scratched, ice-time isn’t reduced and the biggest danger is that the culture of winning built by Dean Lombardi is eroding and perhaps very quickly. I love to talk trades, can talk about them all day, but Blake has to get the next coaching selection right.
Could it be Marco Sturm, who was shuttled in at the time of the John Stevens dismissal? Possibly, but there is no clear sign that he is the No.1 choice for a number of reason. The consensus is the players like him, but given the team’s current situation, it’s difficult to assess if he can slide over next season and be THE man.
Blake can’t afford to swing and miss twice on the club’s coach, expect an extensive search once the time comes.