And so it begins; the LA Kings summer re-tool is officially in full swing. Sure, there are still several key decisions to be made by General Manager Rob Blake – i.e. who will join head coach John Stevens behind the bench, which players will get protected in the Expansion Draft (more on that below), etc. – however, there is too much work to be done for any sort of a linear approach. Thus, multiple things are in play simultaneously. Case in point, how can the organization create enough cap space to sign Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson to new deals, while also leaving enough flexibility to address other roster concerns/needs?
Let’s start there. How much wiggle room is Blake working with and what are some likely scenarios or possible assumptions that can be layered in?
Assuming guys like Ben Bishop and Jarome Iginla will be allowed to walk away as unrestricted free agents, the Kings whiteboard looks something like this (and ignore the line combinations/defensive pairings, those are separate arguments for a different day):
The above 23-man roster would come at a price tag of $65,678,144 (including the $1.57M penalty the Kings are paying next season for terminating Mike Richards’ contract).
Also of note, this grouping does not include Matt Greene. There are several different scenarios to consider with the veteran defenseman, who is not expected to play again. He could be bought out (however, that would come at a cap “tax” of about $833K each of the next two seasons). Another option would be to place him on long term injured reserve, where his contract would not count against the cap. There is also the possibility he simply retires this summer, which means his full $2.5M comes off the books. However, why would he simply walk away from milions of dollars guaranteed to him? To isolate the variables here, let’s assume it’s LTIR, meaning his contract doesn’t really need to be factored into the remainder of the article.
Point of clarification – if the NHLPA votes to activate the inflation clause in the CBA, next year’s salary cap could rise to as much as $75.5-76M. For the purpose of this article, we chose to take the more conservative approach in all of our calculations. Any increase over $73M would obviously benefit the Kings and other teams currently up against the cap ceiling.
Now, why are some salaries listed in red? Those are guys who require new contracts this summer. We’ll delve into that next, after a few more observations:
– Some people were surprised to hear us say that the Kings were planning on protecting defenseman Derek Forbort in the upcoming Expansion Draft. Put aside any commentary about him being a top-4 defenseman, improving this year, the importance of holding onto a costly asset (he is a former first round pick), etc. There is one other major factor at play here. Look at his contract. Forbort will carry a cap hit of only $650K next season. As you know, the Kings are really in a tough spot with the cap. Thus, almost more important to protect Forbort’s contract in the Expansion Draft than it is to protect Forbort the player. Regardless of where you land on Forbort’s position on the depth chart. He is a bargain at that price for any of the seven blueline positions.
– We could even make the argument that perhaps one of the reasons Kevin Gravel played such limited minutes this year was to keep his production low, which would only help with contract negotiations this summer. Again, every dollar matters to a team strapped for cap room. If this wasn’t intentional, it was at least a happy coincidence.
– Jack Campbell should be the backup goaltender in Los Angeles next season. Not only has he earned the spot with this stellar play in AHL Ontario this year, but – again – look at his contract. For a team needing cap help, why would you want to spend more than the absolute least amount of cap space possible on a backup goalie? Campbell is more than capable and at $612K, he is another bargain.
– When all is said and done, assuming the Kings protect one goalie, four defenseman and four forwards in the Expansion Draft (Quick, Doughty, Martinez, Muzzin, Forbort, Carter, Kopitar, Toffoli, and Pearson), that leaves one of four player as the most likely to be selected by Las Vegas – Dustin Brown, Nic Dowd, Trevor Lewis, and Brayden McNabb. We’ll assume the Kings aren’t willing to include the extra incentive needed (i.e. draft picks and/or prospects) to entice the Golden Knights into taking Brown’s contract. We’ll also assume they’ll find players whom they believe are better than McNabb on defense. And when left to a Dowd vs. Lewis decision (remember, Vegas will take one player from every NHL team), we see Lewis as the most likely candidate to land in Sin City.
– One more note on Dowd: If he is selected in the Expansion Draft over Lewis, that actually hurts the Kings, from a cap perspective, because he makes less money than Lewis. In other words, it will “cost” the Kings more to replace Dowd than Lewis on the 2017-18 roster.
– New contracts: The big two that need to get taken care of are Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. We’re going to assume Toffoli’s new deal comes in around $5.5M per season and Pearson’s will shake out around $4.25M.
– The kids are alright: Jonny Brodzinski, Nick Shore, Andy Andreoff, Paul LaDue, and Kevin Gravel all need new deals. They are RFAs, so they don’t have as much bargaining power. LaDue will most likely have the largest cap hit of the five guys come opening night, yet we’ll assume the average across each of them will come out to be about $1M each. That’s a pretty safe assumption.
– So, let’s take a look at a revised 23-man roster using these assumptions:
This is where things get tricky.
The above roster comes at a salary cap cost of $70,189,394. According to Cap Friendly, we’re probably looking at a cap limit of around $73M next season. If that’s the case, the Kings would have roughly $2,810,606 left to work with. And there are an almost endless list of items to contend with, even if all of the above fell into place.
– For starters, if Greene has to be bought out, that $2.8M in wiggle room is now down to about $2M.
– The Lewis slot needs to be filled. If you go outside the organization, you can safely assume that would cost at least $1M. If you chose to slide Brodzinski into that third line role, that moves the OPEN slot up to the second line. And a second line winger (with speed and an offensive touch) should cost you more than $2M on the open market.
– Which brings us to Marian Gaborik. Now that he is injured he can’t be bought out. Which means either a trade (and that would most certainly have to include the Kings sending a prospect/pick in the deal to sweeten things) or LTIR, which comes with its own set of problems once he is finally healthy enough to play. Said differently, that is only a temporary solution.
– If you’re looking to upgrade some of the bottom six players, where is the cap money going to come from?
– In the pipeline: As of now, there are three players who are likely to push for a roster spot in camp – prospects Justin Auger and Michael Mersch (both forwards) and Kurtis MacDermid (defenseman). On the plus side, none of them expected to carry a cap hit north of $1M. Conversely, none of them have NHL experience to speak of and, realistically, how many youngsters can the Kings effectively have on their roster. More likely, if any of the three make the team, that probably means they pushed some combination of Shore, Andreoff, Nolan, Gravel, and/or McNabb off the NHL roster. From a cap perspective, that would essentially be a wash, as the dollars would pretty much cancel each other out.
– More on the Reign trio: Auger, Mersch, and MacDermid all require waivers next season. Thus, if they don’t secure an NHL roster spot, the Kings will risk losing them to another team when they attempt to send them back to Ontario.
– How can you create more cap dollars? You trade one of Jake Muzzin or Alec Martinez. This isn’t a condemnation of either player. Instead, this is all about asset management. If you move either of those contracts, you get an extra $2-3M to work with (assuming a replacement for their defensive slot costs about $1-2M).
What would we recommend?
Here’s how to make the math work:
– Assume Greene is not put on LTIR (and why would he retire, walking away from all that money?). Prepare for a worst-case scenario instead. Buy him out and take the $833K penalty.
– Place Gaborik on LTIR and create some cap space. It’s a gamble, but you’ll deal with him coming back if-and-when he’s ready to return (which, admittedly, will require some additional cap gymnastics at that point it time, but we can’t be handcuffed by the idea in the present).
– Replace Shore with a new roster player, either through trade of free agency; spending no more than $1.5M on that slot.
– Replace Andreoff’s roster spot with Mersch. He’s earned a look and should play perfectly into the Kings new net-front presence methodology.
– Replace McNabb with MacDermid. Of all the moves, this is the least significant, yet it does come with a cap advantage and is relatively low risk. Go for it.
Our proposed roster comes at cap cost just shy of $67M. Assuming a 2017-18 salary cap of $73M, that leaves a cool $6M to go out and get a legit winger to play with Kopitar. And, of equal importance, the Kings are able to keep intact a defensive core that was one of the best in the league during the 2016-17 campaign.
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