LOS ANGELES — On May 14, the day after the Los Angeles Kings played their final game of the COVID-19-abbreviated 2020-21 regular season, another dismal, blowout loss to the Colorado Avalanche, their veteran core spoke with the local media about their season, as well as the future of the team.
“Just being in the mix for as long as we were was refreshing,” said center Anze Kopitar. “But at the end of the day, it’s still disappointing not making the playoffs. We’ve got to correct that, and be in the position to make the playoffs.”
“As a team, we took steps in the right direction,” added Kopitar. “Obviously, there’s still work left to be done, and we’re going to look ahead to that. We’re going to take the positives, look at the negatives, what we need to correct, and go from there.”
Perhaps the lone bright spot was their special teams.
“Special teams definitely took a step forward,” Kopitar noted. “I don’t know where we ended up on the penalty-kill, but I think we were in the top ten in the league, which is pretty satisfying, and says a lot about our group, to be willing to do it on the defensive side of things.”
The Kings ended the season ranked seventh in the NHL in penalty-killing.
“The power play was clicking better than it ever was since I’ve been here,” Kopitar added. “That’s definitely a positive. In saying that, there’s still a few areas that we need to improve on and get better at.”
Kopitar indicated that their young team did not perform as well as they could or should have.
“We’ve got to come out and perform to our potential,” he noted. “I think everybody in our locker room would probably say that we can be better. But you’ve got to raise the level.”
Defenseman Drew Doughty shared similar views, but was a bit more blunt.
“Playing Colorado all those games…those were some tough games,” he said. “We didn’t have a chance. Not even close. Those were tough to swallow.”
At that point, Doughty quickly put the onus on the players and on management to improve.
“We’ve got to get better,” he emphasized. “That’s the bottom line. That’s what we need. The individual players have got to get better over the summer. But as a team, we just need to be better, and get better, and that’s not just on the players.”
Kopitar was considerably more measured.
“I’m excited to see everybody” he noted. “[Jaret Anderson-Dolan] definitely took a step forward. Quinton [Byfield] came in and gave us a few really strong games. [Rasmus] Kupari scoring his first [NHL] goal. I’m excited, for sure. There’s a lot of young talent around here, and it’s exciting to see them grow, develop and become a part of this team.”
“[It’s] no secret that this summer is going to be very important for us, from all standpoints, whether that’s developing younger guys, or maybe bringing some guys in,” he added. “It should be very exciting for everybody. We’ll see what happens at the end of the day.”
But Doughty then issued a challenge to management. When asked if they needed to bring in higher-level NHL talent, he replied, “We’ve got to. Me and [Kopitar? Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown]? We’re all getting older. I thought we all had phenomenal seasons, but we’re running out of time.”
“You’ve got two of the best players at their positions,” he added. “Both [two-way players], two of the most complete players at their positions, and with all this cap room, we’ve got to bring guys in, that’s for sure.”
“There’s no point waiting for these prospects to develop when you’ve got guys in their prime, [who] are hungry to win, and are sick of losing. We’ve got to bring guys in.”
Doughty was then asked if he would be happy if the Kings don’t bring in such players.
A very terse “No,” was his response.
But is he correct in saying that they shouldn’t wait for their prospects to develop?
Chances are that the answer is “no.”
Since the hard salary cap was instituted in the National Hockey League nearly 20 years ago, championship teams have generally been built through the draft and by developing those draft picks. Signing unrestricted free agent talent, or higher-end players brought in by trading away talented prospects were generally used to fill the final holes in the roster to get a team to Stanley Cup contender status.
One needs to look no further than the Kings and how they built their 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Championship teams to illustrate that point.
Prior to April 1997, when Dave Taylor took over as general manager, the Kings did little more than trade away their first-round draft picks for washed-up, big-name players who were well into the twilight of their careers, or even at the very end of their careers due to debilitating injuries—look up their trade for Rick Martin. To be sure, the Kings mortgaged their future to win now from their inception in 1967, through the first 30 years of their existence.
In fact, the first Kings first-round pick to play for them was defenseman Jay Wells, who was selected 16th overall in the 1979 NHL Draft.
Yes, you read that correctly. 1979, twelve years after their inception. That is not only unbelievable. It is absolutely ridiculous.
Starting in April 2006, then-general manager Dean Lombardi built the Kings’ into a two-time Stanley Cup Champion through the draft, starting with Doughty, who was selected in the first round, second overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
Doughty is a generational player, to be sure. Other draft picks would require more time to develop, and Lombardi gave them the time in the American Hockey League that they needed to do just that. During that time, free agent, veteran players such as Scott Thornton, Laidslav Nagy, Brian Willsie, Kyle Calder, Michal Handzus, and others were brought in as placeholders—they allowed Lombardi to bide his time while the prospects developed.
Once his young charges were ready for the NHL, they were called up to the Kings and, for the most part, they were ready to contribute. But there were still a couple of holes in their lineups.
In 2012, the trade that sent defenseman Jack Johnson to Columbus filled two holes. First, it brought in Jeff Carter to fill the hole up front—they needed a goal scorer, a sniper. But the move also gave them a much better option on defense by allowing them to call up Slava Voynov from their AHL affiliate at Manchester. He proved to be a significant difference-maker in their top six defensive pairs—he gave them much more than Johnson was capable of.
In 2014, the Kings had a similar hole—they needed a scorer up front. The trade to bring in sniper Marian Gaborik worked wonders, as he helped get the Kings into the playoffs, and he led the league in goal scoring in the playoffs with 14 goals.
Fast forward back to the present: are the circumstances the same in 2021? Of course not. Not only is every season different, but the game has changed dramatically since 2014. But have things changed so much that the general axiom that Stanley Cup contenders are built primarily through the draft is a thing of the past?
Maybe, to some degree. But it is far, far more likely to still be true. The hard salary cap, which is a flat cap this season, still spreads talent across the league, as it was designed to do, forcing teams to draft and develop well, and severely limiting a team’s ability to buy a championship.
But with gobs of salary cap space available to them, and a boatload of highly-coveted prospects who could be used in trades to acquire higher-end talent, it is conceivable that Kings general manager Rob Blake could pull the trigger on trades and perhaps sign some unrestricted free agents who could make them a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
But this time around, the Kings are not just one or two roster holes-to-be-filled away from becoming a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. As such, it would take more than one unrestricted free agent signing and probably more than one very significant trade to get them to the point Doughty wants the team to be at. That would likely mean that they would lose more than one top prospect in a trade.
Should Blake trade away the likes of Arthur Kaliyev, Alex Turcotte, Rasmus Kupari, Quinton Byfield, Akil Thomas, Samuel Fagemo, or others? You can bet some of these players would be included in the asking price in any trade for a higher-end player, not to mention first and second round draft picks, possibly including their first-round pick in this year’s draft, which will be a lottery pick once again.
Doughty’s position is totally understandable. He’s right that the Kings veteran core isn’t getting any younger. Indeed, they are on the downside of their careers. But is he right? Is it time to throw caution to the wind, trade prospects away for proven talent and sign higher-end unrestricted free agents in order to win now, especially with so much salary cap space available?
Could be. But the most likely answer to that question, given history, is “no.” That doesn’t mean that Blake shouldn’t make any moves at all, however. In fact, Lombardi traded away two prospects who probably would’ve been very solid players for them down the road in a move that bolstered their Stanley Cup hopes.
On June 23, 2011, the Kings acquired veteran center Mike Richards, along with the rights to forward Rob Bordson (never played for the Kings…a salary dump move) in exchange for right wing Wayne Simmonds, center Brayden Schenn and a second-round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Both Simmonds and Schenn have gone on to have excellent NHL careers. Schenn won the 2020 Stanley Cup Championship with the St. Louis Blues.
To be sure, Lombardi dipped into his prospect pool, trading away a couple of highly-coveted prospects, a deal that filled one of a couple of holes in their roster. But it was a measured move, not one that traded away the farm, or one that opened the barnyard gate, leading to departure of a lot of the other young prospects.
Indeed, a measured approach that doesn’t trade the farm away is very likely to be the wisest course of action. After all, mortgaging the future to win now has been the bane of the Kings’ existence for much of their history.
As George Santayana, said back in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and this is not the kind of history that the Kings should repeat.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. Photo by Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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