When it comes to the Los Angeles Kings summer to do list, to say things are fluid would be about as obvious as calling the sky blue. A potential buyout for center Mike Richards and the ongoing legal issues surrounding defenseman Slava Voynov should be enough to bring everything else to a screeching halt. However, business doesn’t work that way in the National Hockey League. It’s not that simple, it never is.
We have a ton of updates to share – so many, in fact, that we were going to break all of this up into several articles. Yet, it doesn’t really make as much sense as when you view everything in totality. All the parts are interrelated somehow, some way.
This is what we have gathered over the past week in talking with multiple sources inside the Kings’ management team:
OVERALL: Nearly every possible solution to “fixing” the Kings is on the table. They aren’t happy about not making the playoffs. Phrases like “too many passengers” and “lack of pride” were used during our conversations. There is a different edge to the mood of the people we’ve been speaking with. The general feeling is, the 2014-15 roster was more than capable of making the playoffs – and they should have. Outside of six names – Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Tanner Pearson, Jonathan Quick, and Tyler Toffoli – just about every other contract is being looked at. The rough cap number being thrown around is about $70.5M and they’re trying to piece it all together, which is no easy task, especially considering every action this summer could (and likely will) have a counter reaction somewhere else on the roster.
DUSTIN BROWN: It will take most readers less than a second to realize there was one key name missing from above. Before anybody starts jumping to conclusions, understand what you just read. That doesn’t mean Brown and/or the rest of the team is available via trade. It simply means, the Kings are committed to leaving no stone unturned in an effort to put together the best possible roster for next season. There are several defensemen who carry large enough contracts that moving one of them would bring some cap relief (and we’ll touch on each one of them later in this article). Among the forwards, the only contract large enough to make a dent – sans Richards – would be Brown. It’s on the table. Every idea is. He is not being shopped, but the right deal could spark further discussion. He also has a limited no-trade clause that kicks in this July, as part of the contract extension he signed last summer.
MORE BROWN, OTHER PLAYERS: Brown has hired a nutritionist and is said to be working out five days a week. In fact, the sense from several players is they feel a major move is happening, or is at least very likely. They clearly get the message that “something is happening.” Several of the younger players – including Toffoli and Pearson – have also committed to working out in Los Angeles this summer. Marian Gaborik was originally not going to, but then changed his mind. Brown is said to have radically changed his diet and is out to prove himself. As we reported back in September, he worked out diligently last summer and came into camp in the best shape of his life – which really says a lot after winning his second Cup in three years and signing a big contract extension last summer also. One person noted to us that Mike Richards was asked to stay in Los Angeles and train, but that he returned home instead after his exit meeting.
MIKE RICHARDS: His future isn’t the biggest question at the moment. It’s simply one of five big questions. As we understand it, the plan is to continue to seek a trade partner between now and the Draft coming up in late June. The Kings are allegedly prepared to offer additional compensation to entice a team to take on his contract. That could mean a prospect, it could mean a draft pick, it could mean retaining some of his salary. It could also mean any combination of those things. Again, every idea is a good one at the moment – or at least worth being explored. If, in the end, a deal can’t be worked out with another team, everybody seems to be on board with the buyout. As we’ve stated several times in 2015, it would be downright shocking to see Richards in a Kings uniform next season.
In a nutshell, the benefit to retaining half of Richards’ salary wouldn’t really help the Kings next season. A buyout would only have a cap hit of around $1.3M in 2015-16, so taking on half of his $5.75M salary would actually “cost” more (in cap dollars). However, when the buyout penalty goes up in years three and four, retaining half (or less) of his salary would actually be beneficial. For a better look at the numbers, this is a must-read article.
JUSTIN WILLIAMS: He is not expected back. Is that a guarantee? No. But there just doesn’t appear to be money available for a 34-year-old forward, especially on a team that could be looking to shed salary to get under the cap. They love what he gave them the past few years, but if another team wants to give him a four-year deal at $4-5M per season, the Kings aren’t really in the running here.
JARRET STOLL: He is not expected back. There was already internal debate on his return (as we previously reported, the thought was a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $1.5M deal). The arrest in Las Vegas has really killed any thought of him returning. On a personal level, nearly everybody loves Stoll. He was one of the key leaders in the locker room. This can’t be emphasized enough. Nearly everybody looks up to him and follows his lead. Yet, management is said to not just be mad, but more disappointed about how everything went down. You can almost separate the drug issue, as that comes with its own set of consequences. Simply the idea that a party in Las Vegas came just a few days after the Kings had been eliminated from the playoffs sends the wrong message. We were told the Kings won’t stand for that type of thinking. They don’t want to see their players accepting their season so quickly – the “mourning period was too short.”
TYLER TOFFOLI: A three-year bridge deal is the current thinking on Toffoli. Nobody is expecting any problems on getting the deal done. What ultimately happens – and the timing of the contract being finalized – is somewhat dependent on which contracts are still on LA’s books by the end of June (i.e. when the Draft is over).
MARTIN JONES: This is a tricky one. Some of our best sources inside the Kings organization appear split on how this might play out. Everybody agrees a deal will eventually get done – just not when. One person close to the negotiations noted to us that Jones and his camp specifically asked for no talks to take place during the recent IIHF World Championships. It’s also been said that Jones is expected to make this hard on the Kings, as he wants the opportunity to be a starter. Barring a major change (and one that isn’t expected), he’s coming back next season; the Kings aren’t interested in trading him at the moment. He will likely want some assurances that he will be dealt next summer (not too dissimilar to what happened with Jonathan Bernier). We were also told by one person, ‘This could drag on, just like last time.” (A reference to Jones’ near holdout, when he wasn’t signed until after camp had already begun. Details here.).
JORDAN WEAL: He has gone from a sure-fire candidate to be traded at the Draft to a likely member of the Kings roster in October. Sure, he could still be dealt. However, he has more than convinced most in the organization that he is ready to jump to the next level. Some of the comments shared with us were, “He gives us a dynamic that we don’t have” …and, “He’s earned the right to play in the NHL.”
If it happens in LA, it will just have to be at wing, not center. He isn’t projected as a fourth-line center and also isn’t ready for top-6 minutes at wing, so you’re most likely looking at a third-line wing opportunity. He is out of waivers, and another team would surely snatch him up if the Kings tried to send him to the AHL to start next season. Thus, they need to commit to having a spot for him on the Kings 2015-16 roster, or deal him. There is a big push toward the former at the moment.
For those who have asked, people in LA management love Brian O’Neill, the AHL MVP this season. However, it usually comes with the caveat that they just can’t see both Weal and O’Neill on the Kings at the same time.
Does Weal have a legitimate thought to breaking through the Kings big/heavy roster? Go back and read these comments from Lombardi right after the season ended.
JOEL LOWRY: This is a little out of place here, but we’ll include it anyway. The plan is still to sign the 2011 draft pick. His injured back is the issue and he was in Los Angeles recently for tests. Expect a further update in the coming weeks. If/When he signs his entry level contract, he is expected to play next season in the AHL. More here.
FORBORT vs. MILLER: Speaking of prospects, while it is still expected Derek Forbort has a leg up on Colin Miller for a spot on the Kings roster next season, nothing is set in stone. There are at least two factors at play. One, if a spot becomes available for a puck-moving defenseman (more on that in a moment), that’s a Miller role, not a Forbort role. Second, there is still a lot of work to be done with both players over the summer and we’re told either guy could change impressions with any off-season improvements. The general thinking at the moment, though, is Forbort is more of a finished product, while Miller is likely a year away.
SLAVA VOYNOV: It’s almost a waste of time to write anything here, as 100s of different scenarios could take place. Putting the actual domestic violence issue to the side – as this isn’t a legal forum and obviously if he is guilty, that’s a horrible thing to do to somebody… Speaking purely from a hockey perspective (and because not a day goes by that we aren’t asked “what if” questions about Voynov), there is a chance he comes back, there is a chance he doesn’t. While that isn’t a crystal clear answer, the Kings have to be prepared for both options. There is at least one school of thought that the final outcome could be some sort of an outcome (plea deal?) that will have him punished, but it won’t impact his immigration status. This hypothetical outcome is also believed to likely come with an NHL-issued suspension (10-20 games?) to start next season. Bottom line, Voynov is the biggest question mark in the Kings’ off-season plans because they really can’t do anything with him, his roster spot, or his contract until his legal matters are over.
ANDREJ SEKERA: Things really get muddy when talking about Sekera. Management likes him, and he likes the Kings. Both parties want to come to an agreement, and a five-year deal is the current expectation. However, there isn’t much room for negotiation on money. The Kings have basically set their internal price with previous deals given to Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez (and to a lesser extent, Voynov). They also have limited cap room to get a deal done. As one person put it to us, it’s sort of a “This is what we have to offer, it’s up to you” situation. He could potentially get north of $5M on the open market in July. The Kings can’t go compete in that range. So, this comes down to how badly does he want to be here? The net takeaway is, everybody sounds positive that a deal will get done in the coming weeks.
If he signs with the Kings, that’s where things get a bit crazy. To make room for his contract, you’re likely forced to deal away a similar contract – that likely means Muzzin, Martinez, Voynov, or Brown. Lombardi and his cap expert, Jeff Soloman, have worked miracle after miracle over the past few summers. And maybe they have a secret plan in place that doesn’t involve any of those names.
It was noted to us the day Sekera was traded to Los Angeles, the Kings had a rough plan in place for how to sign him. They felt they had a good idea what it would take and how they would/could make it work within the salary cap. The question has always been, exactly what does that entail? It really depends how you view Sekera. Is he a replacement for Jake Muzzin? Probably not. So, if he’s not a top-pairing guy with Drew Doughty, he’s either a second or third-pairing player. If you slot him on the second-pairing with, for example, Slava Voynov, you’re paying Alec Martinez a lot of money to be a third-pairing defenseman. He just might be the best third-pairing defensemen in the league. As one exec noted to us, he’s helped the Kings win two Stanley Cups, would you really want to trade him? That’s a solid depth player right there.
Like everything, it boils down to money. If you have a top six defensive lineup of Doughty-Muzzin, Voynov-Sekera, and Martinez-Greene, there is a lot of money tied up on the defense (which might be the way the Kings opt to go), thus you’d have to give up a little salary at forward to make it happen.
If they feel that’s just way too much money (read: too large of a percentage of their cap dollars) tied up on the blueline, then one of Muzzin-Voynov-Martinez gets tabbed a trade target. Which sort of brings you back to square one – what are you getting in Sekera? He’s at least a year older than those players, but obviously still in his prime. He also hasn’t helped the team win a Cup, like those three have. That experience is still somewhat irreplaceable.
Sekera also isn’t Willie Mitchell; nor is he Rob Scuderi. He also doesn’t help the Kings get back to the formula they have preferred in the past, a right-shot paired with a left-shot, a younger player paired with a veteran, a puck-mover paired with a more defensive oriented guy. None of that is a knock on his game. It’s just more about answering the question, how does he really help them solidify their blueline? Perhaps he is a good player, and maybe just not a good fit in LA. There is also a possibility he is an upgrade over some of their second-tier guys and it’s just a matter of fitting him in at the right price (which has pretty much already been established), and then finding a way to deal one of the other contracts.
You also have to factor Brayden McNabb into all of this. The Kings liked his progression throughout the season and as several members of Kings’ management mentioned to us following the Sekera trade, McNabb still figures into their long-range plans.
There is also Jamie McBain. If Voynov is ultimately dealt, and he’s still available, that’s a good guy to have around, especially considering the low cost of the contract.
If you’re asking why spend the money on Sekera, ask yourself this question instead… In a worst case scenario (i.e. Voynov is gone and Sekera doesn’t re-sign with the Kings), which defensemen make up the second-pairing next season? That pairing was already an issue most of last season, now without Voynov and Sekera, what do you have there? You almost have to sign Sekera because of this possibility, then figure out how to make the other pieces work.
The combinations here are endless and can keep you busy for hours. Doughty and Muzzin on the top pairing, that’s a lock. Then what? Voynov-Sekera, and Martinez-Greene? Martinez-McNabb? McBain-Sekera, Martinez-Forbort? Miller-Sekera, Martinez-Greene? McNabb-Sekerra?
Oh, and about all of that Mike Futa leaving for the Toronto Maple Leafs talk… we covered that in detail here.
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