We’ve reached that time of the year again – the week after the Stanley Cup has been awarded and all attention turns to the upcoming NHL Draft, followed by the opening of free agency. Thus, the questions have been rolling in of late, what does all of this mean for the LA Kings? And what will GM Rob Blake do to improve the team this summer?
As we do each summer, let’s begin with perhaps the most important element in any discussion surrounding an NHL roster, the salary cap. With the recent trade of Andy Andreoff to Tampa Bay for goaltender Peter Budaj, a slight glimmer of clarity came into focus regarding the Kings bottom six forward group. Andreoff was a bubble player heading into next season (and most likely would have ended up on waivers after training camp), so being able to get an asset in return is always a good thing. It’s painful when an organization loses assets on waivers (see: Thomas Hickey and J.F. Berube for starters). On the surface, there were additional benefits to the move. First, it removed a contract from the team’s NHL plans for next season, as Budaj is most likely headed to AHL Ontario, where his $1,025,000 salary won’t count against the money Blake and Co. spend at the NHL level. Second, Budaj knows the organization well and should be a great backup for young Cal Peterson (who is still probably another year away from making his NHL debut, as explained here).
When Blake took over as GM last April, even though he had been the Assistant GM for several years prior, he perhaps faced more questions than answers. The work began with hiring a new head coach, then rounding out the assistants under him. Next came trying to deal with a team full of bloated rosters and a half-dozen prospects who had earned a shot at some playing time, yet had never fully been evaluated at the NHL level. In retrospect, for as much as you can say the Kings are largely the same group (i.e. same core players, many of the same lieutenants in the office and a head coach who was previously the long-time assistant in LA), Blake has been a major driver of change throughout the organization. For example, the current regime has shown a newfound commitment to signing free agents.
We can confirm, Kings AGM Mike Futa did in fact sign a multi-year contract extension to remain in Los Angeles. His role is changing a bit too. How so? We break it all down in our new podcast (posting soon). https://t.co/enttHOTBUF
— The Mayor John Hoven (@mayorNHL) June 10, 2018
As discussed during last weekend’s extended podcast, Assistant GM Mike Futa has seen a recent change in his job responsibilities to focus on this exact point. Think of it like a Talent Acquisition department in a large company. The Kings have spots to fill and they want to make sure they’re turning over every rock possible to find the best candidates they can. As such, Futa will be heading a team of scouts largely focused on free agents from the NCAA ranks, junior hockey programs in Canada, and among the various European leagues. Basically, if you wanted to add 10-12 players to your system each year, yet will only acquire about 6-8 though the annual league draft – and don’t want to solely rely on expensive NHL-level free agents and/or trades of future draft picks to fill in the gaps – what other option exists? Yes, the three areas Futa’s group will be focusing on. This is largely accomplished via in-the-trenches work, where he and his team will have to build relationships (one of Futa’s key strengths). It won’t be about just signing college free agents this year. It’s about building a relationship with a player three years ago and nurturing it. Then, if the day comes where said player isn’t drafted or doesn’t sign with the team who selected him, the Kings should have a better shot at signing him and adding him to the fold. Conversely, there are dozens and dozens of players in Europe who were never drafted, yet still have NHL potential. To this end, if you look closely, Blake and Futa have used this strategy quite well since last spring; signing Peterson, Daniel Brickley, Oscar Fantenberg, Alex Iafallo, Cole Kehler, Sheldon Rempal, and Austin Strand.
Disregard reports suggesting Futa was relieved of his duties with the AHL club. That doesn’t provide the proper context to the story. Instead, Blake saw that Futa’s time was better spent working on talent acquisition (as it brings a higher value to the organization) than splitting time between Ontario and Los Angeles. Promoting Richard Seeley, the former coach at ECHL Manchester, to the Ontario GM seat will allow for somebody to be there with the team every day as an integral part of that club’s ongoing activities. However, all key decisions about players being called up to the NHL will continue to be handled by Blake and his circle of top lieutenants (including Futa).
Another little tidbit on AHL Ontario, it's looking more and more like this off-season management and players will relocate to the South Bay. Team would practice out of TSC and bus to the vault for games.
— The Mayor John Hoven (@mayorNHL) February 18, 2018
Everybody should pump the breaks on any talk of the Reign relocating for now. Games will continue to be played in Ontario. Team has three more seasons left on their contract there. (Note: original tweets were about practicing at TSC, and Twitter made a hard left from there.) https://t.co/dnWmFhzgT2
— The Mayor John Hoven (@mayorNHL) February 19, 2018
Besides, one of the many benefits of the upcoming change to have the Reign practicing out of TSC starting in the fall will be that Blake and Futa will see some of the organization’s top prospects on a more regular basis – both on and off the ice. And before you ask, because it comes up all the time, games will continue to be played in Ontario for the foreseeable future, as the team has multiple years remaining on their contract to remain in Ontario.
Back to what we came here for…
Let’s review the Kings current cap situation.
Assuming defenseman Kevin Gravel and forward Torey Mitchell are allowed to walk away as unrestricted free agents, the Kings whiteboard looks something like this:
This configuration of a 23-man roster takes up $72.4M of cap space (including the penalty the Kings are paying next season for terminating Mike Richards’ contract and buying out Matt Greene).
With the cap projected to come in next season somewhere between $78-82M, that leaves Blake between $5.5 and $9.5M to play with. NOTE: This article was originally posted on June 14, 2018, and then later updated on June 22 following the 2018-19 cap info being released:
Cap for 2018-19 is $79.5M
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) June 21, 2018
Thus, with a $79.5M cap, that leaves Blake about $7M to play with.
Remember, the Drew Doughty contract extension (which should be announced by mid-July) won’t kick in until the 2019-20 season. He is already under contract for this coming season at $7M. On the new deal, look for him to get to about $12M per. Again, though, that’s largely a next summer issue if you’re thinking about how the Kings can absorb that $5M increase in his cap hit. That’s also why a Jake Muzzin or Alec Martinez trade makes much more sense next summer than it does right now – the Kings don’t need their cap money at the moment and they don’t currently have a younger player to replace one of them. Can Brickley be that guy? Ring us back in eight months.
For now, there are more pressing issues when looking over the above roster:
– While you could move Adrian Kempe to LW on either of the top two lines, Stevens is already on record (and others in the organization have confirmed to us), the plan is to play Kempe at 3C.
– Iafallo is a fine player. He is not a top line left wing in the NHL. Acquiring somebody to play with Kopitar and Brown is the priority. If Iafallo starts next season as a top-6 winger, something – no, several things – went terribly wrong over the next 45 days.
– There is not much appetite within the Kings management team to trade Dustin Brown. He and Kopitar form a fine unit and responded to Stevens as coach. Further, although the LW hole on the top line is the current thinking, that could easily be a RW hole because Brown can slide over and play the left side without issue.
– Top prospect Gabe Vilardi will most likely eventually end up as a center in the organization (read the full scouting report here). However, the current plan laid out to us is for him to open the season on the wing, where he should have an easier time adjusting to the NHL (wingers have less responsibilities than centers, etc.).
– To fill the LW1 slot the Kings are exploring all options. They recently met with 35-year-old free agent Ilya Kovalchuk. Is he a possible candidate? Sure. For starters, management has scouted him heavily while in Russia the past few years. They know what they’re getting and one thing hasn’t changed – the way he shoots the puck. He shoots from everywhere and has a great one-timer. Additionally, Kovalchuk has something to prove and he’s in great shape. Putting age aside, he is believed to be looking for a three-year deal with an AAV of around $6M. As attractive as it might be to add offense without giving up a roster player or a first round pick in the process, that type of a contract for Kovalchuk will most likely put him down as option C, at best. On the flip side, if LA can negotiate a deal with him for more like two years at $5M per, it’s nearly a slam dunk. They’d be adding a serious offensive weapon without giving up assets in return.
– The Kings have also been linked to players like Jeff Skinner via trade. Given his age, he would seem like the ideal candidate. Not so fast, though. He’s also a UFA next summer. The Kings don’t want a repeat of the Milan Lucic situation, where they traded away three assets for a one-year rental.
– Max Pacioretty might be a tough swap because Montreal is believed to need a center back in the deal and the Kings don’t really have a center to trade. No, Vilardi is not available. Likely ditto on Kempe. If there is a fit here, you’d probably be looking at somebody like Jaret Anderson-Dolan.
– Unrestricted free agent Rick Nash? Maybe; doubtful though. Phil Kessel? Maybe. However, Kessel still has four years remaining on a contract that carries a cap hit of at $6.8M (Toronto is already covering $1.2M of his $8M AAV). This would seem a bit out of the range of what the Kings are currently thinking. Further, as much as they’re looking for offense, they’re also looking to add speed and get younger.
– A few days ago, we posted the latest edition of the MayorsManor Live podcast. On that episode, we thoroughly discussed the Kings trade options; including the reasons why a package of Derek Forbort, Jonny Brodzinski, and a 2nd (or 3rd) round draft pick makes the most sense. For starters, Brodzinski has been somewhat squeezed out. He needs top-6 minutes, but the Kings don’t have an opening there, unless they move Tyler Toffoli up to the top line. Additionally, he is most likely losing his third-line spot to Vilardi. This makes him a prime trade candidate. Add in that they somewhat replaced Forbort with the signing of Brickley and the picture starts to become a bit clearer.
– One forward noticeably missing from the bottom-6 mix above is list is Tobias Rieder. Here is where things get a bit dicey. He earned about $2.23M last season and is a Restricted Free Agent this summer. The Kings could qualify him at about $2.4M and retain his rights. If so, where do you play him? That’s also a pretty expensive bottom six guy, even if he gives you speed, on a team constantly in need of cap space. He scored 12 goals total last season, spread over 78 games in Arizona and Los Angeles. Would they let him walk away free and clear by not qualifying him? It’s certainly possible. With the decision truly unknown today because the final answer is heavily tied to what happens at the Draft.
– On the Paul LaDue front, we checked in with multiple management sources in recent weeks and they all say the same thing – they expect him to get a long look in camp and look forward to adding his right shot to the team’s blueline mix next season. Contract-wise, he is coming off of a deal that carried an AAV of $874k last season. He is an RFA (and arbitration eligible). We penciled him in for a new contract at about $1M per. If he received much more than that, it would have to be considered a surprise. LaDue has 34 games of NHL experience. There’s a reason he didn’t play much last year. If you missed it, re-read this paragraph again.
– Everybody asks about Slava Voynov. Well, it certainly doesn’t appear like he will play for the Kings again. One year ago, that wasn’t the case. We’ve covered this topic at length over the past several off-seasons. Everything else written in this paragraph is only about one thing – will he play for the Kings again. This isn’t about should he based upon his Domestic Violence case, the law, or anything of that nature. The Kings own his NHL rights. If he is to ever play in the league again, his agent needs to work something out with the team (either a contract to play in LA or get him traded to another team). And that would only come after he clears two other major hurdles, getting papers to work in America and getting NHL approval to play for one of the 31 teams. Many in the Kings organization believe he was one of the 30 best defensemen in the NHL. They’ve scouted him heavily while he has been in the KHL and don’t believe his game has slipped. On the ice, there is no question he would help the team. However, the off-ice climate has changed drastically in the past 12 months (and, to be fair, the pendulum has swung wildly on the Voynov topic in recent years). Bottom line, we don’t see him fitting into the Kings future plans. If he returns to the NHL, it will most likely be with another club, with the Kings dealing away his rights for something in return.
– Dion Phaneuf would be a buyout candidate next summer, prior to the expected Expansion Draft for Seattle. Again, that’s a debate for 12 months from now.
– Top defensive prospect Kale Clague is probably at least a year away from being NHL ready, expect him to start the season in Ontario (see here).
– There are no other prospects expected to make a major push for the NHL roster. Most of the prospects on the bubble are already on the list above (i.e. Mike Amadio and Brickley). If you’re really into looking at a possible stretch in this department, maybe Kurtis MacDermid finds a way into the blueline conversation.
– Whatever happened to Christian Folin, you ask? Great question. In April, he appeared as somebody who didn’t fit into the Kings plans and was almost surely headed toward free agency. However, the tide has changed in recent weeks. Our sources indicated the Kings will most likely loop back to him after the draft. If Blake trades a defenseman as part of any package for a top-line forward, that could open the door for Folin to return. His deal last season had a cap hit of $850k. If they could get him for less than $2M on a short-term deal, he could add some depth to the bottom pairing. And don’t forget, he’s a right shot. Those are hard to come by these days.
– Know this, Blake is doing everything possible to get a top-line winger. This is not a “We’d like to get one” situation, it’s more like a “We’re prepared to do just about anything to get one, it has to happen” scenario. Something is coming in the weeks ahead.
– We should have more context about the Draft following next week’s media call with Blake and Mark Yannetti. The Kings currently have seven selections to work with, including the 20th overall pick. We expect them to take a forward in the first round. Take note, though, while Blake and Futa usually get all the big headlines, Yannetti is not somebody to sleep on. He is one of the brightest minds in amateur hockey circles and is constantly reinventing the model used by LA to value picks, players, and how to strategically approach the Draft. A few years ago we did an in-depth interview with him about this very subject and if you’ve never read it, you owe it to yourself to click here.
– Right after the Draft is over, next up will be Development Camp.
*** PLAN AHEAD ***
NHL Draft June 22/23
LA Kings Dev Camp June 25-29#confirmed
— The Mayor John Hoven (@mayorNHL) June 10, 2018
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