Digging Deeper: This Season Should Signal the Start of the Kings Rebuild

Do you think Drew Doughty would have signed an eight-year extension if he knew his LA Kings would be sitting third last in the league? He’s helped Los Angeles win two championships and loves living there, but he’s the type of player who wants to keep winning. The ability to compete for the Stanley Cup year in and year out is what every organization wants.

The Kings Have Been Dethroned

Last season, LA got back to the playoffs but it was short-lived. The Kings had a poor showing as they were swept in the first round and failed to keep up with the speed of the Vegas Golden Knights. They managed to only score three goals while getting shutout in the first and last games of the series. When we look back on last year’s success there was a big warning sign pointing to being a bit lucky.

Anze Kopitar put the team on his back and had a career year, scoring 35 goals and finishing with 92 points. The next highest scorer was Dustin Brown with 61. Doughty was the only other player to have 60 points with the rest of the team under 50. For the Kings to get back to the playoffs they need more from their other players. Asking Kopitar for a repeat performance is tough considering he’s now only recorded 80+ points twice in his 12 NHL seasons. If you can’t score, you won’t win so LA brought in Ilya Kovalchuk.

A King’s Ransom

There was a lot of optimism with the return of KHL superstar, Ilya Kovalchuk, who’s been the same offensive superstar that he was in the NHL. The problem is he’s coming back as a 35-year-old and the game is much different than it was in 2012.

This season didn’t start according to plan, they went 4-8-1, costing head coach, John Stevens, his job. Interim head coach Willie Desjardins hasn’t been able to turn the team around, but the blame can’t be just on him. Here’s how the Kings fare under both coaches.

john stevens willie desjardins comparison

The eye-popping stats are the high danger chances allowed. Under Stevens, the Kings were the third best team at limiting high scoring chances and that number has decreased to 24 under Desjardins. What’s interesting is the save percentage under these circumstances. They weren’t getting the saves before, but now they are as they have the ninth best in the league. This number combined with the worst penalty kill is not a recipe for winning.

Too Old and Too Slow

The Kings aren’t in a position to compete with their style of play. The game has moved on from the gritty, grinding, finish your check type of hockey that they are known for. The team was great a couple of years ago, but the roster isn’t constructed for the fast paced game. Below is how the cap situation looks like courtesy of Cap Friendly.

la kings cap situation

Looking at the roster you’ll see veterans. Up front it starts with Anze Kopitar who has five years remaining carrying a $10 million cap hit. It’s a hard contract to move if General Manager Rob Blake decides to do a full rebuild, but a great player to keep for a retool. After him, Ilya Kovalchuk, Dustin Brown, and Jeff Carter are all on the wrong side of 30 and need to be replaced sooner rather than later.

On the backend, Dion Phaneuf, Alec Martinez, and Jake Muzzin could all be moved. There isn’t enough depth back there to cover their minutes so not all of them would be traded this season.

In the net, Jonathan Quick is not the same goalie he once was as injuries have taken their toll. This season, he has spent some time on the injured reserve, forcing the organization to turn to backup goalie, Jack Campbell, and their top goaltending prospect, Calvin Petersen. Campbell is having a fantastic season and also kept the Kings a float while Quick was out. He also got injured and Petersen shined as he showed he could be the team’s number one. With Campbell being 27 years old and under contract for one more season, he’s the first one to get a crack at the starting job if something happens to Quick. If he can’t build off of this season, he could become trade bait since Petersen is waiting in the wings.

With less than a million dollars in cap space, plus Doughty’s extension kicking in next season, there isn’t room for adding players. The team is getting older and the Kings are better off selling most of their veteran core to get some assets back. If they sell some pieces, who’s in the system that can step up?

Key Players in the Making

The short answer is none of their highly-touted prospects are ready to step into the spotlight just yet. Their top five according to NHL.com are entering their first professional season with their minor team, the Ontario Reign. With no help in the immediate future, selling seems like the way to go.

Three players that will be relied upon if moves are made are Tyler Toffoli, Adrian Kempe, and Alex Iafallo. The hockey world knows about Tyler Toffoli and what he brings to the table. He’s helped LA win the cup in 2014 while being part of the great “That’s 70’s” line. Kempe is in his third year and since he’s only 22, he has a whole career ahead of him. Iafallo is in his sophomore season after spending four years playing college hockey. Here’s how their season is looking so far.

iafallo toffoli kempe

Toffoli’s ice time is pretty consistent to what he’s had throughout his career. For him to be a key scorer on the team he needs to get top power-play minutes with Kopitar and Doughty. He’s had stints here and there but has never stuck. He has shown he can score and could reach his full potential playing alongside Kopitar.

Kempe’s role may not change as much as Toffoli. Yes, he would take over Carter’s spot as the second line center, but is he the answer at center? Back in Sweden, he didn’t play down the middle, so if the Kings decide he’s not the best fit there, we shouldn’t be surprised. Will he get a chance on the top power-play? It all depends on which players are leaving LA.

Iafallo has been playing on the top line since last season. The Kings have tried multiple options with Kopitar, but Iafallo is the player they like with him. Earlier this season he was on the top power-play unit, but since then have gone back to Kovalchuk. There’s a good chance he sees top power-play time when the veterans move out.

Toffoli and Kempe’s future will depend on the decision to keep or trade away 34-year-old, Jeff Carter. Carter is their second line center and normally plays with Toffoli because of their chemistry. Kempe would become the new second line center and Toffoli might get a chance with Kopitar and Iafallo.

The Kings have players to build around and their biggest strength comes from in the crease. The forward core is old and there’s not much depth from the backend if veterans get moved. The team right now is not good enough to get back to the playoffs. Next season, Kovalchuk will be 36 years old, Brown and Carter, 35, Phaneuf, 34, and Quick, 34. It’s clear the Kings need to get younger, but Kopitar and Doughty don’t have the luxury of waiting for too long.

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