How can the L.A. Kings Regain Their Crown?

BY GARBIEL JOHN OSTLER

Since 2009, you could argue professional hockey sported the most effective and dangerous three-pronged attack since the halcyon days of the triceratops. Outside the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals where Tim Thomas stood on his head and handed the Boston Bruins a trophy we all wish would have gone to the Vancouver Sedins, every single year from 2009 until the Washington Capitals’ triumph in 2018 featured either the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins or Los Angeles Kings hoisting Lord Stanley’s most famous piece of silverware.

But their dynasties are fleeting. Back on October 3, Ed Burmilia published a piece on Deadspin asking if the three teams’ collective reigns of dominance had finally come to an end. After running through the potential pitfalls in their respective lineups, Burmilia still cautioned against sticking a fork in any particular franchise.

“The flaws on all three rosters are easy to see as their stars cross to the wrong side of 30. Look beyond that, though, and writing obituaries—especially in Pittsburgh—seems premature.”

Pittsburgh, for their part, continues to stave off the advances of Father Time thanks to the mitigating factor of something that starts with “S” and ends with “idney Crosby” coupled with strong, relatively cheap goalie play and solid, affordable line depth. As of writing, they sit comfortably in second place in the Metropolitan with 50 points and a tidy +23 goal differential.

When it comes to Chicago, I have to admit, I don’t think you should stick a fork in them, either. I think you should empty your cutlery drawer and shove any implement with something resembling sharp points directly into their shambling corpse.

Los Angeles has a great deal in common with Chicago. Early ‘10s success; mid-decade playoff stumbles; a cripplingly top-heavy roster with not a lot of room for movement. But we’re not interested in fixing things in the Windy City. This piece focuses on what the long, hard road back to relevance looks like for the Kings.

Current State of Affairs

In 2017-18, the Kings crawled into the Western Conference’s first wild card spot on the back of another almost-100 point season from the dazzling Anze Kopitar and a truly goddamn random yet stellar campaign from Dustin Brown.

Since ’11-12, Brown hadn’t broken 20 goals in a season (and he’d only surpassed 15 once, in ’12-13), yet somehow managed to find the net 28 times at the ripe age of 33. For their trouble, Los Angeles was ruined in the opening round of the playoffs by the Vegas Golden Knights*, who held the Kings to three goals for the entire series en route to a clean 4-0 sweep.

Just steps into 2019, and the prospect of a playoff spanking seems like a bed of whipped cream and tantric sex to Kings fans. Los Angeles is currently dead fucking last in the league with 35 points from 42 games and a -33 goal differential.

The saddest part about that deficit is the Kings aren’t horrendous defensively – only 11th in the league in goals allowed – but their offense is as anemic and uninspired as you’ll see in the NHL.

Last in goals scored. Twenty-ninth in shots per game. Dustin Brown leads the way with…11 tallies.

In a last-place campaign, it might be an easier endeavor to list the things that are going right for a particular team, but instead we’ll focus on the Kings’ specific ailments that have them mewling and puking in the league’s gutter.

Cap Hell

Say what you will about the NBPA setting up revenue-sharing so that Timofey Mozgov gets $64 million over four years to stare quizzically at a hoop, or Major League Baseball players receiving enough guaranteed money to fashion into weighted bat donuts used while warming up to hit a grand .168 (hi, Chris Davis) – all professional sports unions genuflect at the altar of the NHLPA. Two fearless lockouts in this century alone. The Over-35 Rule. And players getting PAID well into the twilight of their careers in ways that would make NFL players vomit from jealousy.

NHL players are eligible for unrestricted free agency either when they hit the age of 27 or when they’ve accrued seven years of professional service — whichever comes first. As keeping great players on rookie scale/early career contracts is generally acknowledged as the best way to build a contender – how many times have you heard your local sports talking head seemingly unable to shut the fuck up about the value you get from the deal on someone like Dak Prescott – you often have players cashing out at exactly the time it’s best for them and worst for the team.

A prime example would be the Bay Area’s own bearded typhoon, Brent Burns. In 2011, Burns was snagged by the San Jose Sharks on draft day from the Minnesota Wild. At the time, Burns was 26. Due to hit free agency at the end of the coming season, Burns immediately inked up a five-year, $28.8 million extension with an AAV of $5.76 million.

Cut to the start of the 2016 season. Burns, now 31, is again set to be a free agent at the conclusion of the campaign and is thus handed another extension, this one for eight years at $64 million. You do the math on AAV, square root nerds.

Will Burns be worth that kind of money when his contract finally winds down as he’s blowing out the candles on his 40th birthday cake through the gap in his front teeth? Absolutely not! I’d argue that he’s not worth that amount of money right now, but this isn’t about you, is it, Gabriel John, you self-centered sack of shit?

The point is – thanks to the NHL’s free agency structure, Burns was able to put himself in a position where some team was going to overpay for his services. You can criticize the Sharks, but $8 million a year was undeniably fair market value for Burns, and if they tried to save themselves some scratch on the back end, they were opening themselves up to get scooped by another franchise willing to take the hit down the road.

This all is a long way of saying Los Angeles is paying a lot of money to a lot of hockey players that suck eggs. Captain Kopitar is making $10 million a year. Ilya Kovalchuk came on board this offseason for (gulp) $6.25 million for three years on an over-35 contract. Brown is at $5.8 million, Jeff Carter checks in at $5.2 million. On defense, Drew Doughty makes $7 million this year before jumping to $11 million in the offseason, Dion Phaneuf is –godammit – still bringing in $5.25 million, and Jonathan Quick gets $5.8 million for his services between the pipes.

We’ll get to merit in a moment, but on sheer numbers, that’s roughly $45.3 million of your $80 million salary cap being spent on seven guys when you’re allowed to carry 23 on your NHL roster. Over half of the money is being allocated to less than a third of the players. Those dudes better be real fucking good!

Not sure if I spoiled it too much already, but they’re not.

To be absolutely fair, Doughty is a complete steal at $7 million a year and deserves every bit of his upcoming salary bump. There’s even a small chance he’s not a total liability during his age-38 season. Doughty is a stud and a model of consistency, much like team captain Kopitar, who might be slightly overpaid as the 7th highest earning man in hockey, but is only 31 and just a year removed from putting up 35 goals and 57 assists on a team that had no business taking 98 points. Those two, let ‘em slide.

Everyone else, though – oof.

Kovalchuk’s deal thankfully expires in 2021 because thanks to the aforementioned over-35 rule, his cap hit would still count even if he retired prior to then. Brown and Carter are both signed through 2022 and are largely acknowledged to be on their last legs. Phaneuf already boasted one of the worst contracts in hockey when he was acquired from the Ottawa Senators last season – that cap hit is with the Senators retaining 25 percent of his salary. He’s signed through 2021. Quick has long been one of the most feared net-minders in the NHL, but it appears age and nagging injuries are finally getting the best of him, as he’s only managed to start 18 games this year and has an abysmal .899 save percentage coupled with a 3.05 goals against average.

The Kings didn’t do anything particularly wrong, though. The Kovalchuk and Phaneuf deals look shitty in retrospect, but can be somewhat explained with their in-moment motivations. Kovalchuk was supposed to supply firepower for a low-scoring but borderline playoff team, Phaneuf was brought in for defensive cover on the stretch run. Everyone else got paid like the market dictates; Los Angeles is just now stuck footing the bill.

Digging Out from Here

Hockey doesn’t have an amnesty provision. When you pay, you pay hard. Ask an Ottawa fan how much more money they have to cough up to Bobby Ryan, then duck. The only way the Kings are going to clear out this morass of wasted money is through patience and perhaps some fortuitous trades.

Dustin Brown is nobody’s idea of a slam-dunk proposition. However, he is coming off that 28-goal season. And the 11 scores I mentioned before? They’ve come in only 32 games. There’s a possibility, if you hold Brown up to the light at just the right angle and squint really hard, that you could see value in a deadline flip to a team that’s in desperate need of offensive depth. Like, say, the Colorado Avalanche, who have maybe the best top forward line in the NHL and absolutely nothing below.

Carter is a less enticing option, considering it looks like the lacerated tendon from last season has put many more miles on his odometer, but you never know when a franchise will get desperate enough to try and wedge that championship window open just a fraction wider. Plus, Carter is just two seasons removed from an impressive 32-goal effort.

If you move either or both of those guys, even if you have to retain some salary, you’ve lifted anywhere from $5 million to $10 million off the books for the next three years, which is incredible. That alone will go a long way towards retaining the pieces you want around during this rebuild — like Tyler Toffoli, Adrian Kempe, and Alex Iafallo.

But Kovalchuk, Phaneuf, and Quick are not going anywhere. So in lieu of immediate, wholesale contract-shedding, you must turn your attention to the shitty team’s solace: up-and-coming prospects and the NHL Draft.

The Youth

All conversations about the 2019 Draft begin and end with Jack Hughes. The 17-year-old centerman nearly broke Auston Matthews’ U.S. National Development Team points record with 116 during the ’17-’18 season.

It would be nice for the Kings if they could depend on a generational talent coming in and making an immediate impact, but Los Angeles unfortunately plays in a league with a lottery-based draft. Still, there’s over a 50 percent chance the Kings are picking in the Top-Four come the end of June; and the top of the draft is loaded with offensive talent, something that the Kings sorely lack.

Both left wing Kaapo Kakko and right wing Vasily Podkolzin could be options, but as with any shitty team, there isn’t bad value to be found at the upper echelons of the talent pool.

Within the system, there’s a lot to be encouraged about at the center position, which is heartening considering all of the mildly valuable forwards not named Anze Kopitar on the Kings’ main roster are generally more comfortable playing out wide.

Both of Los Angeles’ last two first round draft picks – Gabe Vilardi (’17) and Rasmus Kupari (’18) – seem legit. If their development continues, and some other more fringe prospects come to fruition, the forward depth in Los Angeles could be markedly better as early as next season.

None of these players, outside of Hughes, will be able to step in and carry an All-Star-caliber load. However, one thing bad squads have to dish out in spades is ice time — and playing against NHL competition can only help these youngsters round into consistent contributors sooner rather than later.

At the NHL level, the main pieces worth holding onto are Toffoli (26), Iafallo (25), and Kempe (20). Kempe definitely has the most potential, as he’s the youngest and is only a year removed from a very strong 37-point season.

Toffoli and Iafallo are more known quantities, but both still have plenty of time to mature into their games. Iafallo, specifically, is 4 points away from matching his production of last year while only having played in 42 contests so far.

There is talent available; it’s about finding space to maximize growth while dealing with the overgrown contracts dragging down the roster.

Best Case Scenario

In the interests of optimism and saving time, I won’t be presenting (in detail) the worst possible path for the Kings to take. I think we can all see poor contracts and fading production has put Los Angeles into its current position. If they want that to continue, they’ll keep on signing veterans like Kovalchuk to meaty deals in the hopes of recapturing past glory.

But if the Kings want to turn this ship around, the way forward is clear: shed as much salary as possible and put the kids in the best possible scenarios for them to prosper.

If the Kings, and here are a bunch of dominoes that would need to fall in Rube Goldbergian order for this scene to play out:

  • Win the draft lottery, and select the wunderkind Jack Hughes
  • Manage to dump Dustin Brown and/or Jeff Carter before the deadline, with minimal salary retained
  • See quick development from the fairly well-stocked minor system
  • Are able to rely on current players like Toffoli, Iafallo, and Kempe, as well as receive some kind of consistent goalkeeping from the tandem of Quick and Jack Campbell (who has been good in limited action so far)

… then they will likely climb out of the cellar during the 2019-20 campaign.

Make no mistake, though – you should not expect to see the Kings back in the playoffs before 2021. How long it actually takes them to get there will be dependent on what it is for all rebuilding teams: the success of their drafting and prospect development and their ability to get a spiraling list of contracts under control.

*Marc-Andre Fleury

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