Over the past 24 hours, the LA Kings 2021-22 lineup has gone through some fairly significant changes. Not only did GM Rob Blake sign free agents Phillip Danault and Alex Edler, he also inked forward Andreas Athanasiou — something that was touch and go over the past few weeks.
With the Kings roster tweaking all but completed for the summer, let’s dive into not only what the opening night lineup will most likely look like, but also what those decisions mean for a handful of other players in the organization.
PROJECTING THE LA KINGS OPENING NIGHT LINEUP
Iafallo – Kopitar – Arvidsson
Kempe – Danault – Brown
Athanasiou – Vilardi – Andersson
Moore – JAD – (Forward 12)
Anderson – Doughty
Edler – Roy
Bjornfot – Walker
Defense and goaltending is all but set. We’ll explore some blueline options further down in this article. For now, let’s focus on the more complex area of the puzzle.
We’ve previously documented the players fighting for those three open roster spots at forward. It’s a long list, that includes: Martin Frk, Carl Grundstrom, Brenden Lemieux, Blake Lizotte, Vladimir Tkachyov, Austin Wagner, and a long list of prospects (i.e. Alex Turcotte, Arthur Kaliyev, Rasmus Kupari, etc.).
There’s also the Quinton Byfield situation.
Regarding the Kings second overall selection from last year, he would normally be facing an ‘OHL or NHL’ decision in training camp, as he usually wouldn’t be available to play in the AHL for one more season. Coming out of the pandemic era, all signs point to the NHL and CHL creating an exception that will allow any player in this situation a one-time exemption. If they played at least 20 games in the AHL during 2021 (while the WHL and OHL were shut down), they’ll be allowed to play in the AHL in 2021-22.
This would significantly favor the Kings because truth be told, Byfield probably isn’t ready for the NHL. Yet, the Kings weren’t about to send him back to the OHL next season. So if they had to keep him on the NHL roster, that would be one less spot among their 14 forwards where another player could slide in.
From what we understand, the plan right now is to let him start the 2021-22 season with AHL Ontario. That’s not written in sharpie. If he has a phenomenal camp, he will make the big club. In doing so, the Kings will have to put somebody on waivers (or trade them) to make room for Byfield.
This should feel a lot like the Amadio situation from earlier this year. He made the team out of camp, but it was only a matter of time until they had to waive him to make room for other players. Things could play out similarly here. Meaning, Byfield could start out with the Reign, have a solid first-half to the season and the Kings eventually find a way to add him to their NHL roster. In 2012, the same thing happened with Slava Voynov. He should have been on the NHL roster, but had to wait a few months for the Kings to make room for him.
In part, the signing of Danault makes this possible. Without adding a legitimate NHL center to the mix, LA was looking at Vilardi at 2C and Byfield being rushed into action at 3C. Reality is, he’s 18 years old. There simply aren’t that many kids who come in and dominate the NHL at 18. Byfield will be fine. Give him time to develop, no need to rush things along.
Danault wasn’t signed as the long-term 2C. He is insurance until Byfield and Vilardi are ready for greater roles. Was it a slight over-payment when you simply look at his goal production in Montreal and compare it to his term and cap hit? That’s a reasonable viewpoint. LA management thinks they paid the price necessary to best set them up for future success. Danault makes the 2021-22 team better equipped for a playoff push and he gives them strength down the middle as the contracts wears along in future years.
It’s also worth noting, if Byfield plays less than 10 games in the NHL next season, his Entry Level Contract will ‘slide’ another year. This would mean his three-years of earning less than a million dollars in the NHL would not start until the 2022-23 season. That’s some significant cost certainty for the next four years (and could also explain part of the reason Blake and the Kings were comfortable with the money on the Danault contract).
As we noted on twitter, the Danault contract comes with a No Movement Clause for the first three seasons of the deal, then he has a Modified No Trade Clause starting in 2024-25 (allowing him to submit a 10 team no-trade list).
Finally, remember this key point — it will be easier to add scoring wingers when the Kings need them, be it via free agency or trade. Centers like Danault are pretty rare. Just look at his 5×5 production — where he’s in the top-5, alongside Jack Eichel, Alexander Barkov, Leon Draisaitl, and Matthew Barzal (that’s some pretty crazy company).
For now, the Kings can use other players on the power play to pump in goals, guys like Arvidsson, etc.
With the assumption Byfield starts in Ontario, we continue…
Iafallo – Kopitar – Arvidsson
Kempe – Danault – Brown
Athanasiou – Vilardi – Andersson
Moore – JAD – Grundstrom
Or for a really fun time, mix things up and go:
Brown – Kopitar – Arvidsson
Iafallo – Danault – Vilardi
Kempe – Athanasiou – Moore
Andersson – JAD – Grundstrom
If coach Todd McLellan called to ask for our opinion, the final three roster spots at forward would most likely go to Grundstrom, Lizotte, and Frk.
In doing so, Lemieux and Wagner would go on waivers. Russian sensation Tkachyov would either start out with AHL Ontario or activate his European Assignment Clause in his contract and head back home to the KHL.
Additionally, this means all of the younger prospects remain with the Reign to start out. Turcotte and Kaliyev will be just fine. A little more seasoning isn’t going to hurt them. For those who didn’t watch a lot of Ontario Reign games this past season, let me be the first to tell you — both players are the real deal. Kaliyev was the team MVP and did it all, consistently. We’ll have more on Turcotte in our Prospect Rankings soon (yes, we know!), but he just does so much away from the puck to help a team, things that don’t show up in goals and assists. He’s an offensive line driver like nobody else in the pipeline. He’s almost destined to be a wing in LA and in a small sample size that was last season, he looked fantastic and then some.
On the flip side, Tyler Madden barely played last season due to an injury, he’ll need a good amount of AHL time before being considered. For now, he’s further back in line.
Sammy Fagemo is pushing, but like the others, some more time in the AHL will serve him well.
We’ve said many times that Tkachyov is an x-factor in all of this.
If he impresses in camp, three things:
(A) Danault factors in again. From what we’ve gathered, the Kings didn’t like the idea of putting Tkachyov at wing alongside either of their young, inexperienced centers. Signing Danault gives them a vet center that he can line up with. Now, can he actually come over and make the jump from the KHL to the NHL?
(B) Further to the possibility of Danault and Tkachyov as potential linemates… Danault played quite a bit with Brendan Gallagher in Montreal. Tkachyov rushes the net similar to Gallagher. Both are north south players. Maybe Arvidsson is the better comp here, but it paints a picture.
(C) If Tkachyov does open enough eyes in camp to warrant a longer look, how do you fit him onto the roster?
One way — and it’s not the most popular — is to let Jaret Anderson-Dolan start the season with AHL Ontario. Yes, he’s earned the right to play in the NHL at this point. He’s also the only player we haven’t mentioned yet with a waiver exemption. Blake can send him down without exposing him to other teams first. That’s a major plus. And, just like with Byfield, he can be assigned to Ontario as a placeholder move. Everybody knows he belongs with the Kings and we’d expect him back up by midseason.
With that move, it opens up a fourth roster spot for Tkachyov, Kaliyev, or… Rasmus Kupari.
Iafallo – Kopitar – Arvidsson
Kempe – Danault – Tkachyov
Andersson – Vilardi – Brown
Athanasiou – Kupari – Moore
Of all the prospects in Ontario, Kupari is the most NHL ready.
He had a small cup of coffee with the Kings this past season and it would be nice to see him get some more games for further evaluation at the top level. One of the challenges is where do you play him? Well, with JAD in Ontario, they’d be swapping a center for a center, so it’s a little bit easier on paper.
Going this route, Lemieux and Wagner still end up on waivers.
Tkachyov and Kupari making the lineup is possible via JAD’s temporary assignment to Ontario and Frk heading to waivers.
Circling back to the other Kings prospects. Could Turcotte possibly replace Grundstrom? Sure. Could Kaliyev be the guy instead of Tkachyov? Absolutely.
The larger point is this – the Kings have a myriad of options when it comes to selecting the final three or four forwards on their opening night lineup.
DEFENSE AND GOALTENDING
Out on the blueline, the opening night players are a little easier to project. The starting seven aren’t a lock, but they’re close.
Perhaps the biggest discussion surrounds where to play Edler. Maybe McLellan pairs him with Walker on the third pair, allowing more offensive options out of the right side. This would also keep the Bjornfot-Roy pair together, and they had some good success earlier this year.
Kale Clague could have an amazing summer and use that momentum to secure a roster spot in camp. This could lead to a trade or even waivers for Maatta. They dodged a bullet when Clague wasn’t selected by Seattle in the Expansion Draft. He’s proven to be a versatile defenseman, capable of playing on the left and right side. Now what, that’s the question? He’s out of waivers, so if he can’t grab a spot in LA, Blake may lose him to waivers if he needs to be sent back to Ontario.
Also lurking in the background hoping to find his way onto the LA roster is 26-year-old Christian Wolanin. Originally acquired for Michael Amadio in March, he’s came in and impressed Kings management enough to earn a contract extension this summer. It’s believed he’ll be a depth option, starting the year in Ontario if he first passes through waivers coming out of training camp.
Sean Durzi probably isn’t ready to push for a job in camp and neither is Austin Strand. While the chances for either of them to turn that trick would be less than 20%, it’s at least an option. Strand would give them some more size on the blueline and he showed he could handle playing in the NHL last season. Although Durzi is yet to make his Kings debut, he’s developed in Ontario and comes with an offensive mindset.
In goal, there isn’t much to delve into. Cal Petersen is the team’s No. 1 goalie going forward and should get the bulk of starts going forward. He’s in the final year of his contract and Blake will look to lock him up at some point in the next 10 months.
Jonathan Quick remains one of the most competitive people to ever lace up skates and he won’t give up his time in the crease without a fight. He still wants to play and he still wants to win. The former Conn Smythe winner has two years remaining on his contract. After a few questionable moments surrounding the Trade Deadline in recent years, Quick looks to remain with LA for the remainder of his deal.
Even with the addition of Garret Sparks as a third-string goalie (and he’s expected to start the season with Ontario, waiting in the wings until they need him), most of the organization’s depth in net is several years away from NHL action. We looked at a group of five goalie prospects here.
Some were a tad confused when we mentioned the Kings having Jesper Wallstedt high on their list in last weekend’s Draft Predictions article. We laid the case out in detail there, but here’s the quick scoop — Wallstedt is an outlier. He’s as elite of a goaltender as you’ll find in recent drafts. He was worthy of consideration. In fact, as we reported, the Kings tried to trade back in to the first round to take him.
Hearing the Kings were calling anybody and everybody trying to find a team to hook up with when Wallstedt fell much lower than everybody expected. In the end, they couldn't find a dance partner before Minnesota took him.
— John Hoven | The Mayor (@mayorNHL) July 24, 2021
The fact they didn’t end up taking another netminder later in the draft wasn’t all that surprising, as they have plenty of prospects in the pipeline for now.
THE PLAN MOVING AHEAD
After executing on all three of his summer goals, Blake now can turn his attention to the next major item of need — a young, dynamic, left shot defenseman.
As we’ve discussed extensively over the past few months, this was a wish-list item for this offseason, but not necessarily an absolute must. The Kings are willing to be patient on this one and they’re not looking to force a round peg into a square hole just for the sake of making a move.
Better yet, signing Danault to a long-term deal gives them the organizational depth to really do just about anything they want going forward. Their prospect pool is so full it’s overflowing. They can trade prospects, picks, or even some young NHL players to get that defenseman when the timing is right.
For example, without signing Danault, if they would have traded the four assets needed for Eichel (say, Byfield, Turcotte/Vilardi, their 2021 first rounder, and 2022 first rounder), they would have picked up a center, but severely limited their future options on wing/center. If they would have signed Brandon Saad or traded for Vladimir Tarasenko instead of Danault, it would have been better for a fantasy team, but it wouldn’t have addressed what the Kings were looking for.
In a year from now — hypothetically speaking — they can have Byfield at 2C, Danault at 3C, and Brandt Clarke still in the pipeline. What they do with their other players at wing and/or to swap for an LD1, that all remains to be seen. Options abound.
For a deeper dive into all of this, be sure to check out an all new 90-minute Kings Of The Podcast linked below.
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