Kings season in review: Up, downs and cautious optimism
The Kings careened into a rebuild in 2018 and have spent the past three seasons reconstructing an organization that fell into disrepair, right up through Thursday’s conclusion to the 2021 season.
“As a team, I think we took steps in the right direction. Obviously there is still work left to be done,” team captain Anze Kopitar said.
On the surface, there may not be much to point to in terms of progress. The Kings posted a .438 points percentage, down a bit from last year’s .457 and only marginally better than 2018-19’s .432 mark. In each of the past two campaigns, a winning streak prevented the Kings from sinking further into the league’s abyss, as they had a mid-season surge of six games this year and won seven straight to close 2020.
Yet there are causes for optimism, such as organizational depth and salary-cap flexibility. Though the ties to their glory years of 2012 to 2014 have been strained – four players remain and two are likely to be exposed in the upcoming expansion draft – the Kings hope their top-flight crop of prospects could create its own legacy. They selected fifth and second overall in the past two drafts, and should have another pick in the top 10 this year.
Though they are in a race against time with their top center Kopitar and No. 1 defenseman Drew Doughty in their 30s, as are winger Dustin Brown and goalie Jonathan Quick, the Kings have also cleaned up a cumbersome salary cap situation. While this season they were stuck paying players who were long gone – Ilya Kovalchuk, Dion Phaneuf and Mike Richards, none of whom played an NHL shift this season – they have mostly moved on from those debts to open up nearly $20 million in projected cap space for next season.
“Me and Kopi, Quickie, Brownie, we’re all getting older. We all had, I thought, phenomenal seasons, but we’re running out of time,” Doughty said. “We’ve got two of the most complete players at their positions and, with all this cap room, yeah we’ve got to bring guys in, that’s it, for sure. There’s no point in waiting for these prospects to develop when you’ve got guys in their prime, guys that are hungry to win and guys that are sick of losing.”
In case Doughty left his position ambiguous, the man with six years and $66 million in cap hits left on his contract was asked if he would be satisfied with the direction of the team if management did not pursue upgrades in quality and experience this summer.
“Um, no,” Doughty responded.
The cap number for next season has yet to be finalized, but a flat $81.5 million upper limit from 2020 to 2021 left many teams in a bind. Additionally, next season the NHL will welcome its newest franchise, the Seattle Kraken, and the expansion draft could create opportunities for teams with cap space, like the Kings, as well as opportunities to create even more room by jettisoning a significant contract.
Here is a look at how this season became forgettable, what could have made it memorable and how the Kings might improve the legacy of this era led by General Manager Rob Blake, Team President Luc Robitaille and Head Coach Todd McLellan.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Though the Kings entered the season with low expectations given their ostensibly irreconcilable mix of aging veterans and inexperienced players, they quickly raised the bar and prompted national media outlets to ponder if their rebuild was ahead of schedule.
For their part, the Kings entered the season with the goal of returning to the playoffs. Over time, however, they regressed toward the initial external prognoses for their season.
They had built momentum on their power play and received solid performances from their core four veterans: Kopitar, Doughty, Brown and, to an extent, Quick. Forward Jeff Carter, who played wing predominantly this season, also appeared to have reinvigorated his body during the long layoff from March to January, recapturing some of the elite acceleration that helped make him a 40-goal scorer earlier in his career.
The Kings were able to at least tread water at even strength, and worked their way into a group otherwise populated by short-list contenders that was in the top 10 in both power play and penalty kill percentage at various points.
Though those gains did not endure through the season–their power-play efficiency and penalty kill efficacy went south while even-strength scoring remained inadequate, Carter was traded, their rookies tailed off and their other veterans’ production declined–some other encouraging developments may carry over well beyond this year.
Playing rookies in key positions can be a daunting proposition, even when those rookies are high picks. The Kings played 10 players who were technically in their first seasons this year, including five players in regular, prominent roles. None of those five players were top-10 draft selections.
Defenseman Mikey Anderson entered the year with the goal of making the team, but he ended up playing the second-most minutes of any Kings as he skated on the top pairing with Drew Doughty. Tobias Bjornfot also appeared mature beyond his years on the blue line, though both had some tough reads and moments where they were out-muscled.
Rookie goalie Cal Petersen solidified himself as the No. 1 netminder, playing a poised, positional style that should create more consistency for him as he matures and the group in front of him evens out its effort.
Centers Gabe Vilardi and Jaret Anderson-Dolan may not win the Calder Trophy, but Vilardi flashed some high-end skill and Anderson-Dolan was a heart-and-soul skater that showed that he could wear a letter for the team down the line.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Consistency was the largest issue for a group of young Kings, that included not only rookies but a number of second and third-year players as well.
“A lot of younger players took on more meaningful, important roles. Were they or are they ready for them? Sometimes, that’s a real good thing and sometimes that’s not a good thing,” McLellan said. “I know the rhetoric out there is ‘play the kids, play the kids,’ but we can do as much harm playing the kids as help if we put them in situations that they aren’t prepared for.”
Five-on-five scoring went from bad to worse and the Kings finished with the third fewest even-strength goals in the NHL. That was compounded by a bipolar power play that started the year vastly improved over last season but then fizzled both abruptly and permanently. Even the Kings’ penalty kill, which was outstanding for most of the year, began to deteriorate down the stretch.
“Our special teams numbers went up, but then they started to come down. In particular the power play, it was two different seasons in my belief,” McLellan said. “The power play carried us a lot, but then it went dry. It caused problems for us; we had trouble scoring 5-on-5.”
At the time their season concluded, the Kings had plummeted to 20th in power play conversion rate, as they were among the most hapless man-advantage units down the stretch.
The Kings also performed poorly in close games and at the start of games, lacking the cohesion to surmount deficits and wanting of the confidence to enter games with aggression.
Opponents scored first in 38 of the Kings’ 56 games and the Kings won a paltry seven of those games. They were 14-7-0 when scoring first, however. They had a middling minus-five goal differential in the second period, but a negative-22 result in the first.
Though they had a positive third-period differential, late in games the Kings had issues at times, too. They were one of only two teams that did not score a single goal with their goalie pulled this season and surrendered five goals when playing five-on-six, the sixth-most of any NHL team. One-goal games did not treat the Kings well as they won 5 out of 13 and only one of seven at home.
On an individual level, Kopitar was consistent across home and road as well as even-strength vs five-on-five, dividing his production almost evenly across those distinctions. But even he saw a dip late in the season.
After April 12’s trade deadline, Kopitar scored just seven points in his final 15 games, after piling up 42 in the previous 41. Brown’s career-best start faded and he notched five points after April 12, missing the end of the season due to a lingering upper-body injury. Quick also saw his numbers deteriorate before sustaining an injury. Doughty scored just three points in 16 games from April 12 onward, in stark contrast to his formidable 31 points through 40 contests.
While Doughty was likely unaware of those exact figures, he also identified April 12 as a moment that the Kings’ confidence began to diminish.
“I kinda feel like it happened after (Carter) got traded, to be honest,” Doughty said. “I don’t know if that’s when it did happen but it kind of seemed after that happened, everything just kind of went backwards.”
The Kings had pieced together a six-game win streak that they followed with a four-game skid. From that point until the deadline, they had a middling record of 7-9-1 but still were within reach of the final playoff spot. After trading Carter, they then lost four out of five and later finished the season with five consecutive defeats.
Defensively, McLellan was frank in identifying apparent and persistent issues throughout the season. The Kings were vulnerable to stretch passes and other big plays down the ice. After making some initial progress, that proved to be an issue late in the season, particularly against top teams. The Kings’ defenders also performed poorly in front of their own net at times and, more broadly, many Kings began swarming to the puck in a manner that McLellan compared to children on a soccer field.
While one could expect that could be an issue for younger players, rookie Mikey Anderson and third-year player Matt Roy joined Doughty among the steadier Kings defensively. A host of moving components in their lineup, including some veterans, all contributed to critical mistakes that doomed otherwise competitive games or potentially stolen wins alike.
Furthermore, a lack of team speed and concrete structure was exposed by quick, decisive opponents like the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights, who finished in a points tie for the league’s best record.
“Playing Colorado all those games, one of the best teams in the league, those were tough pills to swallow,” Doughty said. “We didn’t even have a chance, like not even close.”
Faceoffs were also an issue across spans of the season. While their overall numbers were slightly above average across all situations, they went long periods where they lost the majority of draws for consecutive games, including at the end of the season.
While Kopitar and second-year center Blake Lizotte won both firmly above 50 percent of their faceoffs, the Kings struggled to find other reliable options. Leaning heavily on Kopitar for defensive-zone draws also afforded fewer offensive-zone starts for the Kings’ leading scorer for the 13th time in 15 seasons.
Where the Kings have spent recent offseasons stockpiling draft picks and turning over stones to find prospects, there seems to be growing unrest among their veteran players. That was evidenced first by Carter opening up to a trade to Pittsburgh and then by comments that the remaining four two-time Stanley Cup winners have made since, including Doughty’s statements Friday.
“All the individual players need to get better over the summer and stuff like that, but as a team we just need to be better and get better,” Doughty said. “That’s not just on the players.”
While the Kings will continue to have an eye toward the future, the perfect storm of a league constrained by both another potentially stagnant salary cap and expansion draft parameters should also motivate them to mobilize their cap flexibility.
Leading the wish list might be a center as well as a defenseman to play the left side. The Kings played Vilardi as their No. 2 center and have top prospects Quinton Byfield (No. 2 overall pick in 2020) and Alex Turcotte (No. 9 overall in 2019), but after using a rookie in the two slot with mixed results, a veteran might provide a huge boost in the short term.
Similarly, while Anderson and Bjornfot were solid for rookies, they might be better suited presently for less demanding duties. A dynamic defenseman that could play the left side as well as an effective, experienced center could slot the current personnel into more appropriate roles and bolster the power play.
The Kings have been searching for finishers around the net seemingly since the decline and departure of Marian Gaborik. Though Arthur Kaliyev and Samuel Fagemo project as goal-scorers, a sniping winger or two could help their cause. They could either pursue one in the free agent and trade markets, or convert one of their centers into a wing.
Contractually and in terms of the expansion draft, the Kings are in superb shape.
Heading into the expansion draft they could opt for either the setup that allows them to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie, or the less conventional arrangement that protects eight players at any position and a goalie.
Many of the Kings’ players are not even eligible to be selected. Among those who are, the forward group is fairly thin, meaning they could be pushed toward the eight skaters, one goalie option.
In that case they would likely protect Kopitar, Adrian Kempe, Alex Iafallo and Trevor Moore up front; Cal Petersen in net; and Doughty, Roy, Sean Walker and Kale Clague on the back end. Should they acquire a premiere forward in advance of the expansion draft or take a shine to newcomer Lias Andersson, they could shift back to a 7-3-1 setup that leaves Clague unprotected.
The Kings could also try to unload the contracts of aging players like Quick and Brown, or that of veteran defenseman Olli Maatta. Maatta was an abject disappointment in his first season with the Kings, and counts for over $4 million against next year’s cap, with Brown and Quick chewing up over $11 million combined.
Among what could be considered their regulars, the Kings have a handful of restricted free agents. Andersson, Lizotte, sparkplug forward Trevor Moore and blazing winger Andreas Athanasiou are the foremost among those. They all seem likely to return given how they performed in supporting roles this season.
WHO COULD HELP
Blake has said that he would remain in asset accumulation mode until the time was right to start pursuing players in their 20s that could be acquired as long-term pieces for the Kings. That time could very well be now, as the market conditions as well as the talent available both play into Blake’s strategy.
Topping the list is Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel. While he was not the only Sabre that foreshadowed a possible escape from New York, he was the most prominent and most vocal in Buffalo’s exit interviews.
Eichel missed most of Buffalo’s atrocious 2021 campaign, which saw them go winless for 18 straight games, but still managed 18 points in 21 games. In the previous two seasons, he poured in 160 points in 145 games, including 53 power-play points.
While interest would undoubtedly be high in the 24-year-old, the Kings hold a lot of cards between their cap space and formidable cache of futures.
Edmonton center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has not yet signed a contract extension. At 28, he might not be an ideal candidate for a maximum seven-year deal, but otherwise he would fit in nicely behind Kopitar as a placeholder until either Byfield or Turcotte develops fully.
Another former Sabre, winger Taylor Hall, was traded to Boston at the deadline but may find himself playing for his fifth team in three seasons as he heads toward unrestricted free agency. He beat out Kopitar for the 2018 Hart Trophy, but has seen his career meander since. A show-me deal for Hall could happen, but seems unlikely.
On defense, the top potential free agents are both right shots, Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton and Edmonton’s Tyson Barrie. Both would immediately become the Kings’ most offensively gifted defenseman, though neither has a two-way skill set as comprehensive as Doughty’s.
The Kings could also look to the trade market. The Sabres have former No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin on the left side and he has underperformed. They seem loath to hit the eject button on the 21-year-old, but there could be serious bloodletting in Buffalo. Nashville has to make a decision on 2022 free agent to be Mattias Ekholm, a rugged and well-rounded defender, and Columbus has to do the same with Seth Jones, an all-star who is a true No. 1 rearguard.
Both players would help the Kings immensely, though Ekholm is outside Blake’s preferred age range and Jones is a right shot who plays a role very similar to Doughty’s.