To read this article in its proper context, Kings fans are advised to try and be as objective as possible for maximum impact. In other words, you’re going to need to read this more with your head, and less with your heart.
Whenever projecting future lineups it’s always important to remember the NHL stands still for no man – not Gretzky, not Lemieux, not Chelios.
Fine, it may have stood still for Chris Chelios for a few years, but it even caught up with him eventually.
We understand you all have favorite players, regardless of the specific reasons you love those guys. As such, let’s get this out of the way right up front, Matt Greene is a warrior. I’d take him on my team every day of the week, twice on Sunday. Robyn Regehr is a fearless. And there’s a reason Dustin Brown handed him the Cup before anybody else last June. Looking ahead though, they’re 31 and 34 years old. Keep that in mind.
L.A.’s defense, once their greatest strength, has several concerns moving forward. No, the sky isn’t falling at the moment. However, if you’ve learned anything about GM Dean Lombardi and his staff over the past eight-plus years, they try to stay a few steps ahead of the game. With Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, and Slava Voynov as the team’s top three defensive players, it’s easy to just say they’re fine and brush off any potential lineup concerns as minor. Yet, the truth is anything but that easy.
For the purposes of discussion, there are five key areas of concern, and several items cross over from one group to another. Please note this is a list, not a ranked order of importance, as they’re all somewhat interrelated and can’t be solved for in a vacuum.
1 – Risk with Jeff Schultz
What should the Kings do with Jeff Schultz on Monday? Lombardi needs to get down to a 23-man roster before opening night and the final decision on who stays and who goes comes down to risk on the blueline above all else. It isn’t simply about carrying eight defenseman or Adam Cracknell vs. Jordan Nolan. As one Kings executive told MayorsManor this week, there is “no chance” Andy Andreoff and Brayden McNabb aren’t on the opening night roster [which is exactly what we’ve been reporting all summer, but more on that in a minute, down below].
Given the pair of roster spots those two will take up, that leaves one spot for either Schultz, Nolan or Cracknell.
Any notion of keeping Schultz is a game of what if – What if you expose him to waivers, and he’s claimed, and then a defenseman gets hurt? Who gets called up? There is very little NHL-ready talent in Manchester [again, more on that below]. Thus, if Schultz is gone, a blueline already weakened by the departures of Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell over the past 18 months becomes even thinner.
Will another team snatch Schultz off waivers? The Kings are hoping his two-year, $850K per season contract is enough to dissuade one of the other 29 teams. However, a case can be made for the flip side of the coin. Sure, all other NHL teams passed when L.A. sent him down last October, but he was coming off of his time in Washington. Now, he’s had a full year to work with the Kings development staff (who are thought to be among the best in the business), and we’ve already seen changes in his game. Schultz stepped in big during the playoffs and showed he absolutely belonged on the Kings roster at that time. Would that make him a bargain pickup? For this season, most likely. But, how many teams want to take that chance on a player who comes with a two-year contract? He’s 28 years old. He’s also 6-foot-6 and a former No. 1 pick. The case could easily be argued either way that he will/won’t get claimed.
Which brings us back to the issue of risk. When the Kings let former No. 1 pick Thomas Hickey hit the waiver wire a few seasons ago, they did it a time when they had depth. They could afford to lose him if another team wanted him. Without that depth currently, there is a lot more risk to putting Schultz on waivers, and that’s why there is so much discussion about possibly carrying eight defensemen.
2 – Brayden McNabb’s Inexperience
Most MayorsManor readers are well versed on the young defenseman. We laid it all out there back in March when we broke the news of the Kings trading two prized prospects to Buffalo in order to obtain his services. Now that most of you have had a chance to see what McNabb, pictured above, brings to the table, you likely have a greater appreciation for his skill set. As we’ve stated many times on various radio programs over the summer, this is the kid they eventually want playing alongside Voynov on the second pairing. He’s going to be given every opportunity to earn that spot. We’ll have an in-depth evaluation of McNabb in our Top 10 Prospect Rankings coming up in the days ahead. However, the bottom line here is he only has 37 games of NHL experience. Further, the Kings development staff has had to spend just as much time deprogramming him from what he learned (or didn’t learn) in the Sabres organization, as they have teaching him the finer points of what it means to be a member of the L.A. Kings. He is a long way from being a finished product, despite his powerful shot and earth-shattering hits.
3- Miles on Greene and Regehr
It’s often said the NHL is a young man’s league. Greene has played nearly 600 NHL games, regular season and playoffs combined, and those are some hard miles. He’s had knee issues, back surgery, and concussion symptoms. Physicality is his bread and butter, it’s also something that has slowed him down a bit. That’s just reality, not a criticism. The issue is even more of a concern for Regehr, who has played around 1,100 combined games.
Regehr showed he was much better as a second-pair guy last year than alongside Doughty on the top-pairing, which is where he started the season. It remains to be seen if he can survive another full season on that second pairing though, and it’s only natural that his minutes will need to be managed (read: reduced) in years to come. If either he or Greene are out of the line-up with injuries again this year, you’re back to the issue of depth – and why Schultz is so important.
4 – Trio of Contracts
Regehr is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. There’s a very good chance he won’t be back, especially considering Greene is locked up for an additional three years and they would essentially be competing for very similar roles starting with the 2015-16 season.
Muzzin will become a restricted free agent next summer, and from what we hear, Lombardi would like to get his contract done sooner rather than later. The guy MayorsManor had rated as the No. 2 prospect in the entire organization going back to 2011 is about to get paid – in a big way, too. That contract will also have a trickle down on how much money is left over in the budget allocated to defensemen.
Alec Martinez – can you believe we’ve made it this far into the article and his name is just now coming up? The 27-year-old Michigan native is one of the hidden gems among the Kings blueline crop. His transition game is phenomenal. Martinez is extremely versatile and somebody they want to have around for many years. However, he’s slated to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and that comes with growing concern. There’s a quiet murmur developing inside the Kings front office, where they’re wondering just how much money it’s going to take to get an extension done. Will he opt for more money and a bigger role with a different team? You don’t think Anaheim, Colorado, Dallas, or San Jose wouldn’t love to have him in their lineup? Of course they would. Will the lure of playing for the Kings and chasing Cups over the next five years be enough to sway him toward a deal that makes sense for everybody?
Don’t ever fault a guy for doing what he has to do. Scuderi did what was best for his family when he left the Penguins to join the Kings in 2009. Ultimately, Martinez may have to make a similar move. Still, Lombardi and Jeff Soloman have proven to be wizards when it comes to the salary cap, so there’s more than a good chance they’ll get something figured out with Martinez by January.
5 – What’s in Waiting?
With a bevy of young defensemen in the system, some of you are likely asking. ‘How is that a problem?’ Great question, too.
It’s a problem in the sense the Kings don’t have enough guys spread out into waves. For example, there isn’t a clear cut path to the player who will eventually replace Greene in the lineup, eventually replace Regehr, replace Martinez if he leaves via free agency, and so on. You can look at the forward prospects and see a clear plan. For example, if Jarret Stoll leaves next summer, there’s Nick Shore.
We’ll get more into the forwards (and the specific of the top defensive prospects) when we publish our Top 10 Prospect Rankings article in the coming days. Here, we’re supposed to be looking out on the blueline, so let’s hit a few key points regarding what’s available in Manchester (listed in alphabetical order):
Andrew Bodnarchuk – He’s your typical AHL veteran guy, and he plays a fine game. Also has five games of NHL experience with the Boston Bruins. After Schutlz, this is the guy who will most likely get a call-up during the upcoming season should there be an opening. Bodnarchuk has missed the latter part of camp with a knee injury, but that isn’t expected to keep him sidelined long.
Nick Ebert – He can dazzle you with the puck, and frustrate you on defense, all in the same shift. He’s one of several first-year pro who will cut his teeth in Manchester this season. This should be the year where we see if he’s a legit NHL prospect.
Derek Forbort – The 2010 first round draft pick Is still a project and there’s work to be done. He only has one year of pro experience and is at least another year or two away from being NHL-ready.
Kevin Gravel – This will be his first full season of pro hockey. There is internal talk of him, and/or Alex Roach, most likely starting the season in Ontario (ECHL) simply because there aren’t enough minutes to go around in Manchester.
Vincent LoVerde –Worked extremely hard to graduate from being an ECHL player to earning a contract with the Kings. He’s a solid player at the AHL level, yet isn’t projected to spend any significant time with the big club. At 5-foot-11, he’s also not the typical player coach Darryl Sutter would look to for a bottom-pairing role. Has zero NHL experience.
Kurtis MacDermid – Will most likely go back to the OHL for his over-age year, as there isn’t much value in letting him play four minutes every-other game in Manchester this season.
Colin Miller – He’s 6-foot-1, a former OHL player, and he’s doing just fine in Manchester. Yet, don’t expect him in a Kings uniform anytime soon.
Kevin Raine – Was a camp invite and impressed the Kings organization. Look for the announcement of his AHL deal soon. The kid plays hard, he’s tough, but will need to work on making adjustments to the quicker-than-junior speed of the AHL.
Alex Roach – Played a few games in Ontario (ECHL) last season and is nowhere near NHL ready. Probably won’t crack the Monarchs opening night roster.
Add up all of the above, and Jeff Schultz looks to be a much more important piece of the puzzle than you might think at first glance.
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