Better three hours too soon than a minute too late — William Shakespeare
Before you say it, I’ll preface this discussion with the obligatory disclosure: it’s early.
The Blues and Sharks have barely started their Western Conference Final series, with the series all tied up 1-1. Meanwhile, in the East, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning are also locked up at one game apiece.
Planning for Next Season
And yet, the Kings brain trust are busily at work, already planning for 2016-17. As I mentioned in a piece a few days ago, their first order of business was to re-sign head coach Darryl Sutter, and the virtual ink was barely dry before the club announced they had done just that, locking him up for two more seasons with a club option for a third.
But wait … there’s more.
Dean Lombardi is reportedly working to re-sign forward Milan Lucic before free agency begins, with both sides optimistic a deal can be struck. Decisions regarding pending unrestricted free agents Trevor Lewis, Kris Versteeg, Jamie McBain and Luke Schenn need to be made, with the smart money on Lewis returning while the others catch the next bus out of town. Brayden McNabb will require a new contract, and of course, there’s the upcoming draft, where Los Angeles is scheduled to make picks in the second, fourth, sixth and seventh rounds.
A Tight Cap Requires More from the Same
For the Kings to make a deeper run in next year’s playoffs, there are going to have to get more from the players already on the roster, as it appears increasingly unlikely they will be able to add significant pieces not already on the roster. Fortunately, they have several key players poised to do just that.
The following is a quick look at three players who should be able to seriously up their game next season.
Drafted No. 30 overall in 2012, the 23-year-old left winger from Kitchener, Ontario has the size (6 feet 1 inch, 200 pounds) and speed to excel in the Kings’ defense-first system. In point of fact, his possession numbers — a hugely important consideration given the Kings were the league’s top Fenwick and Corsi team — are already upper-tier and still improving.
As measured by the traditional benchmarks of goals and assists, his output has been fairly modest: last season, he set career highs in goals (15) and assists (21), playing in 79 games. However, those are actually slightly bigger numbers than Tyler Toffoli put up in his first full season, and look where his trajectory went after that.
Assuming he stays healthy, Pearson should be able to crack 20 goals and approach 50 points next year.
Despite the fact that McNabb logged plenty of minutes (18:49 per game) last season, the 25-year-old defenseman flies under the radar a bit, especially considering he blocks shots (95, fifth best on the team), hits (206, 28th in the NHL), had solid possession numbers and was a plus-11. His downside? Skating isn’t a strength, and he scored just two goals in each of the last two seasons.
He’s got an extremely hard shot, though, which gives him plenty of upside. He was an offensive force for the Kootenay Ice in 2010-11 (22G, 50A) and netted 10 goals in just 52 AHL games during 2013-14. He cracked the Kings’ lineup after that.
Barring an unexpected setback, McNabb appears to be a fixture as a top-four defenseman in Los Angeles. With his numbers trending upward, expect to see his goals and total points jump as he continues to settle in.
I know what you’re thinking. Toffoli has already burst onto the scene as a solid scoring threat, notching 31G and 27A last season while leading the league with a plus-35 rating. Here’s my preemptive rhetorical question: who says he’s not about to make another big jump?
After all, he led the Ottawa 67’s with 57 goals in 68 games during 2010-11, followed by another 52 goals (putting up 108 and 100 points, respectively) the very next season. He scored 28 goals for the Manchester Monarchs — leading the team, naturally — in 2012-13. After torching AHL opponents for 15 goals in just 18 games the following year, he was promoted to the big club and has never looked back.
Assuming Lucic re-signs with Los Angeles and given that Kopitar is a virtual lock for 70 points despite being a pass-first center, there will be a plethora of shot opportunities for Toffoli next season. He put 213 on net last year, a respectable but hardly excessive total (third-liner Dustin Brown had 218).
If Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin can shoot the puck around 280 times, so can Toffoli. That would put him in the upper strata of NHL goal scorers.