© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
After spending three years at the top, which included two Stanley Cups and a loss in the Western Conference Final, the Los Angeles Kings have relinquished their throne. Despite finishing at the top of the league in shot attempt differential, a combination of mediocre goaltending and an inability to score goals resulted in Los Angeles missing the playoffs for the second time in three years. As a result, the guillotine was brought out, and Dean Lombardi and Darryl Sutter, the two individuals who brought the Stanley Cup to Los Angeles for the first time, were let go.
Rob Blake has taken over the general manager duties, and boy, does he have himself quite the mess to clean up. It’s been known for a long time that the Kings are in salary cap hell, and as the team continues to age and their worn down and beaten up players see their game continue to deteriorate, the situation becomes more and more bleak. In his new role, Blake is going to have to figure out whether or not this core, one that pays Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar, and Jonathan Quick a combined $26.55 million annually, can climb back to success.
— The Royal Half (@theroyalhalf) April 10, 2015
Like I said, the Kings had a hell of a time scoring goals last season. They owned the league’s best Corsi For percentage at even strength, holding opponents to 49.1 shot attempts per hour and generating 59.9 of their own, but an even strength shooting percentage of 6.22 resulted in them being well below average in goals for. This has been the case the last three seasons.
Despite dominating their opponents in the possession game, the Kings don’t see success you’d expect in terms of goal differential. It’s an interesting conundrum, because generally the team that outshoots the other team tends to win. But as Dom Luszczyszyn said in an article about the Kings underachieving in the standings, L.A.’s system is dominant at shot suppression but is poor in terms of generating quality chances.
And that’s what we saw this year. Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson were the only Kings to score more than 20 goals, and they were the only full-time players on the team to shoot at over a 10 per cent rate. Tyler Toffoli likely would have reached that 20-goal plateau too, but he missed 19 games with injury, and finish the year with 16 goals.
Offence was few and far between beyond those three. Anze Kopitar had a terribly disappointing season, his first since signing an eight-year, $80 million extension in 2015-16. He scored a career-low (not counting the lockout shortened 2013 season) 12 goals and was also negative in relative possession for the first time in his career. Marian Gaborik missed a good chunk of the season after suffering an injury in the World Cup of Hockey, and clearly wasn’t at 100 per cent when playing, scoring just 21 points in 56 games. Dustin Brown’s 36 points in 80 games was his highest total since 2011-12, but damn, 34 combined goals from three players who make that much money? Yikes.
The Kings blueline was strong and certainly wasn’t a problem for the team last season. Drew Doughty led the way, averaging over 27 minutes of ice time per game in all situations. Alec Martinez chipped in with a career-high 39 points and Jake Muzzin and Brayden McNabb were both strong defensively. Derek Forbort, a 2010 first round pick, finally cracked the lineup, playing in all 82 games but getting guttered in shot differential. Another rookie, Paul LaDue, showed impressive flashes of offensive ability in his brief 22-game stint with the Kings.
In net, the Kings struggled with injury. Jonathan Quick missed the majority of the season, appearing in only 17 games. Peter Budaj filled in admirably, posting a .917 save percentage, but was dealt at the trade deadline in a deal for Ben Bishop, who struggled to a .900 save percentage in seven games.
The Kings roll into the summer with a good chunk of their roster locked up. Nine forwards, six defencemen, and three goalies are already under contract at a combined cap hit of roughly $63 million. That doesn’t give them a hell of a lot of flexibility to upgrade the team in free agency, but thankfully it’ll easily be enough to get Toffoli, their only important unsigned player, locked up to a new deal.
Otherwise, yeesh. This is a who’s who if bad contracts. The Kopitar deal at $10 million annually is a rough one, unless, of course, last season was an anomaly. Dustin Brown at $5.875 million is an albatross and has been for a while now, and it seems Gaborik is heading down that path too. The worrisome thing is that Drew Doughty, likely this team’s most important player, is only under contract for another two seasons. None of these mammoth contracts are ending any time soon, so some difficult decisions lay ahead.
Offseason Game Plan
For most teams, the expansion draft is a cold, unfortunate reality in which they’re going to have to give away a good player for nothing. For the Kings? It could be a nice chance to shed a terrible contract. I imagine L.A. will go with the eight skater format, protecting Kopitar, Toffoli, Pearson, Carter, Doughty, Muzzin, Martinez, and either McNabb or Forbort. Maybe the Kings could use a draft pick to sweeten the pot for the Golden Knights to take on, say, Gaborik’s deal? Who knows, but the expansion draft isn’t quite as daunting of an event for the Kings as it is for most of the other teams in the league.
Like I said earlier, the Kings don’t have much flexibility financially, so it’s going to be tough for them to make many upgrades in free agency. This was the reality last summer, too. All they were really able to do was throw crap at the wall to see what stuck, adding cheap options like Devin Setoguchi, Teddy Purcell, and Tom Gilbert on one-year deals. None of them worked out, but none hampered the team financially either. I imagine we’ll be seeing those kinds of additions from the Kings again this summer.
If they’re going to make a big move, it’ll have to come via trade, as they move from a position of strength, their blueline, to add at a position of need, which is scoring on the wing. But beyond the here and now, Blake has a tough decision to make. Can this group contend when so many players who are shells of their former selves are locked up to massive contracts?
I mean, this group looks a lot better sans Gaborik and Brown’s salaries, but Carter, Muzzin, Doughty, and Martinez could all snatch a massive return on the trade market over the next couple of years.