After losing a must-win game against the Blues, the Kings are in danger of missing the post-season for the second time in three years, making it clear that the time is now for GM Dean Lombardi to make some changes.
Monday’s game wasn’t one the Kings could really afford to lose, so when they skated off the ice having suffered a 3-1 defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Blues, it was a significant blow to Los Angeles’ playoff hopes. It’s far from a final nail in the coffin with 14 games remaining in the campaign and five points isn’t an insurmountable deficit in the wild-card race, but with the Kings on the outside looking in and time running out for the second time in three seasons, there’s reason to wonder what comes next.
Almost from top to bottom, start to finish, this has been a disappointing season for the Kings. Trying to rebound from a post-season appearance in which they were ousted in five games by the division and state rival San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles came out of the gates quietly and inconsistency was the hallmark of the early season. And maybe that can be what spurs some change in Los Angeles, no matter how 2016-17 ends.
The one thing that has been abundantly clear this season is that the scoring woes that have haunted the Kings over the past few seasons aren’t about to clear up anytime soon. While we could point to a certain level of bad luck this season — and there has been some of that — it’s not as if there will be some massive correction coming. Los Angeles’ shooting percentage is low, the lowest its been in the past four seasons, and the likelihood it stays at 6.3 percent at 5-on-5 isn’t great. But even if it rises to 6.8 percent, where it sat last season, Los Angeles would likely still be one of the league’s lower scoring teams.
That hasn’t been helped at all this season by some disappointing individual performances. Newly minted captain Anze Kopitar, with the ink still wet on his eight-year, $80-million contract, has had one of the worst seasons of his career. Marian Gaborik, a two-time 40-goal scorer, has managed a mere nine tallies this season after recovering from an off-season foot injury. Only two players on the entire Kings roster have cracked the 15-goal mark and only five have scored more than 10. The scoring has been so obviously one-dimensional, too, with Jeff Carter the only forward whose really been an every-game threat.
Before Lombardi does do anything to his roster in the off-season, however, he has to take care of two important pieces: the contracts of Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli. Both set to become restricted free agents, the pair of 24-year-olds are going to need new deals to stick around. It’s a no-brainer to bring them back if for no other reason than they’re currently second and third in scoring, respectively. But once the Kings lock up the two wingers, the next step has to be injecting some additional scoring and finding a way to add a youthful piece or two.
The scoring has to be added for obvious reasons. The Pacific Division competition now includes the Sharks, Connor McDavid-led Edmonton Oilers, a Calgary Flames team that boasts Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan and is also set to have an Arizona Coyotes team with a litany of young offensive weapons. This is to say the Kings continuing to score at their current rate — 2.46 goals per game — is likely going to result in more of the same in Los Angeles.
But there are two difficulties the Kings will run into. First, the Kings project to have roughly $13.7 million in cap space available in the off-season, though that could be more if the cap rises as it has been projected to. That said, whatever cap space Los Angeles has could potentially be halved by the deals for Toffoli and Pearson, so landing a big name, high-priced free agent could be tough. And there’s also the matter of there not being all that much in the way of top-scoring free agents.
The best bet would be landing someone like T.J. Oshie, but there’s no knowing what his plans are. He could try to work something out to stick with the Washington Capitals or the Kings could be priced out of landing the 30-year-old, who’s due a raise on his $4.175 million cap hit. Justin Williams could also potentially return and Patrick Eaves, Sam Gagner or Thomas Vanek would all be options. But Los Angeles could also use speed over size, which they have a bounty of, if they’re going to compete with the high-tempo Pacific clubs.
There is one bold suggestion that could help the Kings in an instant. Avalanche center Matt Duchene, who is on the block in Colorado, would bring an instant speedster and scoring threat into the lineup. He’s a player the likes of which the Kings don’t truly possess at the moment, and he’d almost immediately bolster the top six. The difficulty with that scenario, however, is finding a way to make the money work and coming to terms on a deal that would be suitable for Colorado and doesn’t mortgage Los Angeles’ future. The same goes for any potential off-season trade the Kings could make to add scoring.
With the team already struggling, Los Angeles needs a path forward, and it’s going to be the same as it is for nearly every other club that has rebuilt, be it minor or major: with youth and through the draft.
That’s going to be especially important for the Kings because with the playoffs uncertain this season, it’d be fair to say the championship window is rapidly closing. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014, Los Angeles has won a single playoff game, and the Kings are working with the sixth-oldest roster in the league, according to Elite Prospects. There’s nothing to indicate that this team is going to grow by any great stride next season, either. In THN’s Future Watch 2017, Los Angeles ranked dead last with a D-minus grade for their stock of prospects, and Adrian Kempe and Kale Clague were the only Kings prospects in the top 100.
Supplementing the roster with young players is what Los Angeles needs to do now, and doing so could mean dealing away veterans such as Gaborik or finding a way to move out former captain Dustin Brown if there’s a pick coming back the other way. Shipping out the rights to goaltender Ben Bishop in the summer is also a must-do for the Kings, because that stands to net them an extra pick in the upcoming draft. Adding selections in the draft or project prospects with potential is the key, though, which is why giving up prospects and picks to acquire someone like Duchene would be a tough pill to swallow.
One thing Los Angeles does have going in their favor is that there’s no need to fix the back end or any great concern about goaltending. Is Jonathan Quick a top-five netminder? That’s a stretch, but he had a tough year, falling injured in the opening game of the campaign. He’s still a serviceable netminder with championship experience who’s locked up until 2022-23, and it helps that he’s insulated by a strong D-corps. Few teams boast a top three as solid as the trio of Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez, and the Kings have done well to add some depth pieces to the blueline.
Not having to spend time, energy or assets focusing on shoring up either position means the Kings can have a more singular focus, and that’s improving the ailing offense and finding a way to add young assets to stock the cupboard. It’s worth wondering if Lombardi would consider using his fully stocked defense to pry away a scorer, though.
This season isn’t yet a write-off and there’s still time for the Kings to make up the ground to earn a wild-card berth, but even if they make a run at the post-season, it might be too little, too late. Beyond that, there’s almost no chance this season culminates with Los Angeles hoisting the Stanley Cup. And with the potential for two playoff misses in three years and an outright disappointing season behind them, there may be no better summer for the Kings to make some changes than the one ahead of the 2017-18 campaign.
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