A few weeks ago on Kings Of The Podcast, we laid out what plans are being crafted in LA’s hockey war room. By now, it’s no secret the Kings intend to upgrade their NHL roster.
While this isn’t exactly new news for those who have been keeping up with the information we’ve shared over the past month, it is at least worth a deeper dive now that their roadmap and objectives are coming into focus.
Circling back to coach Todd McLellan’s end-of-season presser, he talked about a variety of different improvements the Kings need to make offensively. Those comments were eventually punctuated with, “We’re gonna have to find ways to generate more offense 5-on-5 than we’re getting.”
GM Rob Blake then made his intentions very clear later that same day when he noted, “We need to add to this roster to get better.”
It’s not just about adding players for the sake of adding players, though.
Said differently, the Kings expect to be players this summer. Just don’t misread that sentence. Being players is very different than going after big name players.
They’ll be active, they just won’t be going big game hunting… and there are good reasons.
Just because they have a treasure chest of prospects and an abundance of cap space doesn’t mean Blake is going to be out there in the open market acting like a drunken sailor partying until the wee hours of the morning.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
LA has a very specific road map they’re trying to follow.
“This summer is very important,” Blake continued. “We’re gonna take the necessary steps this summer. We put ourselves in a pretty good position to do that.”
Yes, yes, and yes. All three of those statements are true.
However, nothing is more clear than the part about this summer being important. Blake and his management team should be commended for steering the franchise to this point. It hasn’t been easy for many of the team’s loyal supporters to say goodbye to familiar faces over the past few years — including Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez, Kyle Clifford, Tyler Toffoli, and Jeff Carter — yet the assets received in return were more than sufficient. Add in the shedding of multiple contracts along the way and LA now has the necessary cap space to essentially do whatever they want going forward.
Years from now, Blake’s time as GM most likely won’t be remembered by what he’s done up until now. As we’ve said many times before, his legacy will be defined by what happens over the next 12-24 months. Will the organization’s top rated prospect pool bear significant fruit? Will Blake be able to make the right trades and free agent acquisitions to have the Kings labeled as legitimate Cup contenders in 2023-24?
It all begins right now.
Just get ready for what could be a high-wire act.
While stating you intend to make roster upgrades this summer attracts a plethora of headlines — and certainly excites a portion of any team’s fanbase — the Kings remain committed to their big-picture plan of drafting and developing. At the same time, they are determined to make roster upgrades this summer to put themselves in a better position to make the playoffs in 2021-22.
So, how do they accomplish all of this… or, at the very least, how and where does this all begin?
THREE KEY MOVES
From what we’ve been able to gather, the general idea seems to be for the Kings to direct all of their attention toward improving at three positions this summer:
1. Adding a top-six forward, preferably one who can play on the top line in 2021-22. This player needs to have real NHL experience. Think of it as being somebody with at least 200 NHL games already under their belt, likely more.
2. Adding a top-nine forward; this player is likely to be a middle-six forward. Meaning, a player who can start out on the second line and eventually slide down to the third line if/when one of LA’s prospects leapfrog him in a year or two. Again, this needs to be a player with real NHL experience. For example, the Kings recent signing of Vladimir Tkachyov out of Russia doesn’t count in this equation. With zero games of NHL experience, he doesn’t fit the bill of this particular category. He’s a depth player and not really part of this discussion.
3. The much-talked about upgrade on defense. And this one could end up being a two-parter. The team’s top priority remains finding a young, offensive-minded defenseman who can play the left side. Overall, they really like their mix of defensemen, they just feel that one additional player would really solidify the entire group. Even if they were lucky enough snag one of the top four defensemen in this year’s Draft (and that’s their plan with the No. 8 pick – somehow, some way), that player will still be a few years out from being a top-flight contributor. Thus, drafting somebody like Luke Hughes or Simon Edvinsson is a different piece of the long-term puzzle, unrelated to the specific goal here.
Conceptually speaking, two other factors play into their blueline plans. Because the defenseman they’re really looking for may not be on the market immediately (i.e. the guy they’re looking for, somebody who fits the age and style requirements, may become available over the next 12 months, just not necessarily this summer), they’ll need to hold their key assets and be patient. The defenseman desired is expected to be a player who costs the team the most in terms of prized assets. This is one of the many reasons why we don’t expect them to be in on Jack Eichel (more on that in a moment). LA needs to save their grade-A prospects for when a rearguard they really want finally becomes available.
Conversely, they can’t just sit idly by this summer and do nothing. They want to improve the blueline, even if it’s a depth move. Their starting six needs to be better. So an upgrade on defense could come in the form of a mid-tier player. Meaning, not a Dougie Hamilton, but also not a Ben Hutton. It would need to be somebody who would push Olli Maatta into being the seventh defenseman, rather than a regular on the third pair. That would give them a regular D-unit of Doughty, Anderson, Bjornfot, Roy, Walker, and player X. Again, that type of a move would lead to a short-term improvement in what they have and would be somebody universally viewed as ‘making the team better’ come opening night.
That type of a bridge player on defense would also buy them a little time until 2020 draft pick Brock Faber and/or the 25-ish year old LHD they acquire is eventually added to the equation. As referenced, this is a bit of a balancing act, where they’re attempting to get better on the fly, while also maintaining a belief that there will be a second wave of reinforcements to follow.
WHERE TO FIND THE THREE PLAYERS
Finding the above players will most likely also come from three distinct groups:
A. Unrestricted Free Agency – While unrestricted free agency usually appears to be the easiest way to fill holes, especially for a team with an abundance of cap space, the Kings may not find this as simple of a task at it would appear. This summer isn’t about wooing a big name free agent who is looking to cash in with a huge deal at age 28. For example, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman are two names that come up often. Hyman is a player who on the surface would appear to be a good fit in LA. He allegedly has good character, has proven to be coachable, and is versatile enough to play just about anywhere in the lineup. He’s a right shot too, something the Kings lack. He’s also very comparable to Alex Iafallo. If you ballpark it, the Kings would likely be looking to get Hyman on a similar deal, that’s a good comp. However, we hear Hyman is likely looking for a six or seven year deal, seeing this as his real chance to cash in. While some teams may be willing to do that, LA won’t be. If the market is compressed, what happened to Tyler Toffoli last summer may happen to Hyman; which could make a deal with LA more plausible. That remains to be seen, though. For all the talk of a flat cap, nobody really knows how GM’s around the league will navigate those waters this summer.
B. Expansion Draft Casualties – Remember when the Anaheim Ducks traded Shea Theodore as part of their roster shuffling leading up to the Vegas Expansion Draft in 2017? Those type of opportunities are bound to happen again next month and the Kings have positioned themselves to be the beneficiary of teams facing similar situations this time around. At the moment, LA doesn’t have any players on their lists, either protected or available, that they feel compelled enough to spend a second asset on in an attempt to manipulate what Seattle does. Just like their approach to the Vegas Expansion Draft, LA will more likely submit their protected list and accept the fact they’ll lose one player from all of the others who are exposed. On the flip side, if they can take advantage of another team that isn’t in the same position — i.e. one looking to get a favorable return on a player they don’t have room to protect — LA could be the perfect trade partner. They can easily take on a big contract and are looking to add NHL proven players.
C. Salary Cap Casualties – We don’t view this as dumpster diving, as some might have labeled it in the past. It’s just a matter of cold hard facts in the new world. Much like teams experienced coming out of the last lockout, the short-term financial realities in the NHL have taken a hit over the past 18 months due to the global pandemic. Many teams are affected because of either the flat salary cap and/or a reduced budget from ownership due to the declining revenues largely caused by playing in empty buildings. Some teams are getting the double whammy of being impacted by both issues. Fortunately for Kings GM Rob Blake, neither factor will negatively impact his ability to maneuver this summer. He has plenty of cap room and budget. His main concern here will likely be centered on short-term thinking, meaning the next two-three years. While not entirely true, and it’s even too simplistic to say it, it’s fun, so… he can go hog wild for the next two seasons. His cap concern needs to be making sure that he has enough money in three years when his top prospects start to come off their Entry Level Contracts and (b) he leaves himself the wiggle room to add a few key pieces as the team continues to improve and they get closer to being Cup contenders. This isn’t the ‘go all in’ summer.
A FEW BIG NAMES AND OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
On the UFA front, the Kings are more in the market for short-term bridge deals than long-term commitments. Ideally, the forwards they add will come with contracts closer to the 2-3 year range, not something over 6-7 years. That doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t take on longer term deals. It’s simply their preference to create situations for maximum flexibility in the coming years – especially given their plethora of young forwards in the pipeline. In general, most long-term deals will be reserved for players they’ve drafted and developed.
Speaking of prospects, the Kings are willing to move some of them, so this high-wire act isn’t about trying to have their cake and eat it too. LA is willing to make good hockey trades that make sense both in the short-term and when it comes to their overall vision. For example, the Mike Richards trade was a great hockey trade. LA sent Brayden Schenn (their top prospect at the time), along with Wayne Simmons (a rising young player), and a second round pick to the Flyers for Richards. If they can pull off a similar trade for the defenseman they crave, Blake and company would be over the moon.
When it comes to trades, there are two big fish mentioned most often on social media, Jack Eichel and Seth Jones.
In talking with several sources around the organization over the past few weeks, there just doesn’t appear to be much interest in Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel. You can point to any number of different reasons why — the neck injury and the big contract (five more years at a $10M AAV, including four years of a No Movement Clause) certainly come up often — yet, in the end, it’s the acquisition cost that most likely kills any deal for the 24-year-old center. The Kings aren’t looking to trade Quinton Byfield, period. That alone could sour the Sabres. On top of that, LA’s other top of the food chain assets are being saved for what they feel is their eventual ‘big move,’ namely a defenseman.
Jones checks many of the Kings boxes when it comes to finding a young, dynamic player to patrol their blueline. There are equally a few key obstacles to adding the 26-year-old, including the fact he’s a right shot. One of the reasons the Kings are in the market for a LHD is the composition of their current (and future) mix on the blueline. With Doughty, Roy, Walker, and Faber on the right side, they believe they’re fairly set. With Bjornfot and Anderson on the left side, they’re missing one other significant player to give them a solid bunch. If they were to move one of Roy/Walker in a package for Jones (and it would take much more to get him, most likely two high-end assets), that would bolster what they have on the right side. In fact, it would give the Kings a situation similar to what they had with the old Doughty-Voynov combination, where teams were facing one of them for about about 45 minutes a night, as they anchored the top two defensive pairings. While that sounds good in theory, there is still some concern they aren’t deep enough on the left side. Would they instantly become better than the current Kings roster? Absolutely.
A separate issue with Jones is his contract status. Unlike Eichel who is locked in for the next six years, Jones is a UFA next summer and he’s told the Blue Jackets he intends to explore the market. Would his position change if traded to LA? Possibly. It would need to in a very definitive way before LA traded a package of multiple assets to acquire him from Columbus because the Kings aren’t in ‘win now’ mode. They can’t afford to overpay for Jones, who will be a hot commodity this summer, only to have him leave in one year.
It’s also worth noting that Jones currently holds a modified No Trade Claude, allowing him to submit a list of ten teams he will not accept a trade to. So even if LA was willing to put a deal together, it’s still not a slam dunk.
The timing of any trade will also come with heavy consideration. We’ll take a greater look at this in a subsequent article, but here’s a quick overview: With most of their prospects exempt from the process, LA can afford to take on two forwards prior to the Expansion Draft, as they have room to protect up to two more veteran players. Defensively speaking, any trade for an experienced blueliner prior to protection lists being submitted on July 17th would basically require Roy or Walker to be in the deal. Along with Doughty, those are the three defenseman LA plans on protecting. So to acquire another defenseman who must be protected means one of the three needs to be included in the deal. Unless, of course, they completely change course and opt to protect eight skaters (four forwards and four defenseman), which opens up a whole new can of worms and isn’t very likely.
For more detailed discussion on all of the above, be sure to check out our most recent Kings Of The Podcast. We talked about the plans in greater detail, as well as speculated on some of the players that may fit these boxes. That episode is linked below for your reference.
As a follow-up to today's "Kings summer plans" article, read carefully on Seth Jones. As noted, LA isn't interested in a 1yr rental. He's UFA next summer, so unless he comes w/ an extension, it's moot.
This type of deal makes way more sense for LA https://t.co/CYxFpJtUuo
— John Hoven | The Mayor (@mayorNHL) June 9, 2021
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