In the aftermath of their unceremonious exit from the playoffs at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, the Los Angeles Kings appear to be at a crossroads in their championship window. Although the lingering Mike Richards dilemma was settled last October and the controversy over Slava Voynov’s legal case is over, a number of central issues remain unresolved as of this writing.
Everything on the following list is an obvious point, and it’s easy for someone behind a keyboard to point them out. To varying degrees, it will be much more difficult for general manager Dean Lombardi to address them. That said, in order to put the Kings in position to seriously challenge for the Stanley Cup next year and beyond, they will need to be addressed. If not now, then sometime very soon.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the five more important issues facing the Kings this summer.
Kings Salary Cap Maneuverability
We’ll start with the salary cap, as it is arguably the Kings’ biggest impediment to future success.
Salary cap issues are nothing new for a franchise that has kept its core together after winning one or more championships. Witness the Chicago Blackhawks’ roster purges in 2010, 2013 and yet again in 2015. Each time, they were able to make solid moves that resulted in the team remaining competitive, winning two more Cups along the way.
The Kings have yet to go through the same kind of targeted roster reshuffle, and for them to adjust to the new reality of a faster, younger league, they will need to consider doing just that.
Other than the aforementioned Mike Richards and Slava Voynov, the only significant players from their 2013-14 squad no longer with the team are Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll. Meanwhile, Los Angeles projects to have $63.48 million tied up in 17 players next year. Although Vinny Lecavalier’s $2.5 million will come off the books when he retires, they still need to re-up Brayden McNabb and hope to re-sign Milan Lucic while staying underneath a projected salary cap of $74 million. Allowing for a modest cushion, that doesn’t leave much room to fill out the rest of the roster, much less improve it.
Fans don’t want to see favorite players leave, but if the Blackhawks can manage that process successfully, so can the Kings. Unfortunately, there is an extremely limited market for overpaid players such as Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, so it may come down to moving more productive players. The last time I mentioned his name I was practically tarred and feathered, but Jeff Carter would fetch quite a nice haul.
Restock the Farm
After trading away first round picks to obtain Andrej Sekera and Milan Lucic and having middling success in the draft in recent seasons, L.A.’s farm system isn’t what it once was. In fact, as of last fall, HockeysFuture.com had them ranked just 26th overall.
Barring a trade, the Kings won’t have a first round pick this year. They aren’t slated to pick in the third or sixth rounds, either. Somehow, they’ve got to start replenishing their minor league system.
In the salary cap era, you can’t have it all. The Kings were built with an emphasis on defense, puck possession and physicality, and in all three areas they have been at, or near, the top of the league for years. Above all else, team defense has been key to the team’s success.
The series with San Jose exposed L.A.’s problems with defensive depth. Following Alec Martinez’ injury in Game 1, the defense never quite recovered. Rob Scuderi played far too many minutes in Games 2 and 3, Drew Doughty was overused, and Luke Schenn logged more ice time than a third-pairing defenseman should. One could argue the roster never completely recovered after the loss of Voynov.
Unless trades are in the offing, Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and Brayden McNabb appear to be locks for the roster next season. Scuderi and Matt Greene are under contract for one more season, both with significant question marks. The Kings could use more depth and a second-pairing defenseman to replace Voynov. Ah, but there’s that money thing.
Never a fast club to begin with, the Kings really looked slow against the Sharks.
Due to a combination of an aging roster and the team having been and built with an emphasis on physicality and puck possession, Los Angeles is becoming increasingly challenged with respect to team speed. Carter and Kopitar are still plus skaters, but they have a serious need for speed on the wings. The defense could use one or two strong skaters as well.
It’s almost impossible to envision the ship helmed by anyone other than the man who brought two Stanley Cups to Los Angeles.
According to various sources, Darryl Sutter is “undecided” as to his future in Los Angeles. Lombardi has reportedly offered a two-year deal with an option for a third. Although the dollars haven’t been discussed, Lombardi has labeled it “very fair”.
Although I’ve been railing for some time against the plethora of long-term contracts that have given the club so little financial flexibility, this is probably the most important offseason move the Kings can make. They remain talented enough to make the playoffs, even accounting for the deficiencies mentioned above. Without their leader, however, it’s anyone’s guess whether or not the Kings can show the type of playoff mettle it takes to win another championship.
Memo to Dean: do what you need to do to bring him back. No matter what, there’s always a shot at another Cup with Sutter leading the charge.