Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Summer of Celebration, Summer of Questions

The champagne bottles are empty. The ice is melted. The Cup is touring the Southland. And we have all been able to breathe for a few days.

The Los Angeles Kings have won the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons (and back to back full seasons! Damn you, NHL, for not losing the entire 2013 season!!) and could be a burgeoning dynasty.

There are a lot of questions lingering after this exciting 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, so as summer sneaks up on, what do the LA Kings do now? My thoughts after the break:

Free Agents

First, the Kings have to deal with their own free agents and of course the elephant in the room is trade deadline acquisition and playoff hero Marian Gaborik. According to some people, the Kings weren't going to be any better with Gabby in the lineup and it was a colossally stupid trade (sidenote, god, Burnside is stupid). Instead he led the playoffs in goal scoring and was pretty much the reason the Kings stayed alive, scoring late tying goals against Anaheim, Chicago, and New York that all forced overtimes the Kings won.

The Kings could not have afforded Gaborik if #Lumbus hadn't paid most of his salary and he is going to have to take a pay cut from the massive $7.5 million a year he was making if he is going to stay. After seeing the chemistry he developed with Anze Kopitar I have no doubt Lombardi wants to keep him and the rumors have been that he wants to stay. Of course when you have an impact like he did on the Kings' playoff run though, you can command some serious money on the open market.

The question is whether having a chance to be a part of a potential dynasty with the Kings means as much to Gaborik as cashing in on his recent success.

The Kings can probably give him $5-5.5 million a year for the next 3-4 years. It's possible somebody else will offer him longer term or more money. That somebody else is unlikely to be able to offer one important thing the Kings can though, the opportunity to win for the entirety of his contract.

The guy has already made a lot of money in his career and while I know that a couple million bucks is nothing to take for granted, I have to hope that Gabby will consider that it's pretty awesome to live on the beach and be a part of a perennial contender.

In the end I think he will sign a 4-year, $20 million deal to remain in L.A.

And then we just have to hope he stays healthy!

The Kings' only other two unrestricted free agents are Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene.

Mitchell looked pretty good after missing the entire lockout-shortened season, especially in the playoffs as a calming influence on Slava Voynov. I understand he is looking for a two-year deal, which might seem like a lot at his age, but I think that even if he's just there as a role model for the young defensemen still on their way up (McNabb, Forbort, Gravel), it's beneficial to keep him around. The fact is, someone will pay him to be an anchor on their blue line and the Kings are better off with him than facing him.

I'd really love to see him as an assistant coach with the Kings under John Stevens in a couple of years.

It's hard to believe that Matt Greene is six years younger than Mitchell. Greener has always been a dumb penalty machine, and it's not like he was ever fast, but he just looked like the game had passed him by this season. Maybe it was the back injury he suffered on opening night against Chicago last year continuing to slow him down, but he did not look like he belonged in the NHL for long stretches this season. Sutter seemed to agree, benching him so much that he only played 38 games. I for one was surprised he maintained his spot in the lineup after Robyn Regher was medically cleared to return during the Stanley Cup Final.

As much as it pains me to say it because I think Matt Greene is a quality guy and a part of the glue that keeps the locker room together, it's time to let him go. Open up a spot for McNabb or Forbort to have an opportunity next season.

As for signing other teams' unrestricted free agents, I think a lot of it comes down to whether Gaborik is staying. If he resigns, there is no reason and probably no cap space to bring in another top flight scorer, but if he takes his Cup and moves on there are a few other free agents the Kings should have a look at.

Matt Moulson of course started his career with the Kings and never quite found his groove before having great success on Long Island with John Tavares. He proved in Buffalo and Minnesota this season that he doesn't need Tavares to be successful, but pairing him with Kopitar could be just as effective if he returned to L.A.

Tomas Vanek's stock dropped precipitously during the playoffs. Even as Montreal had team success he did not have individual success. I'd be curious to hear Lombardi's true thoughts on the guy. It doesn't look like Minnesota wants him anymore, but if he'd buy into the Kings' system, it's possible he would be a good addition for the right price.

Paul Stastny is a guy I can't believe Colorado might let get away. He had a great season and is probably out of the Kings' price range unless they are jettisoning Mike Richards (see below).

Mike Cammallerri. Please no. Please god no!

As far as free agent defensemen and goalies, I'm pretty sure that the Kings are set for those positions for a while.


Jesse Cohen has been talking about it all season and he's not the only one. Every article about potential amnesty buyouts mentions the two Richardses, Brad and Mike.

The argument goes that Mike Richards, the guy I affectionately call Kramer, has too high a cap hit to be a 4th line center, but that's about all he can be for the Kings now based on how he has played the last two seasons. And thus, he must go.

Here's the problem with that argument: strength down the center is the key to a strong team and that is what the Kings have with Kopitar, Carter, Stoll, and Richards. In fact, that is the single best foursome of centers in the NHL. Is Richards pricey in that role? Yes, there is no arguing that. But as the cap goes up he eats a smaller percentage of it and continues to do good work for the team, not just on the 4th line, but on the power play and the PK. He is great at face-offs, excels on the penalty kill, and is a good teammate.

Here is another problem: there is no one in the system to replace Mike Richards. A rookie Linden Vey is not Mike Richards. He can't produce at either end or at the dot the way Kramer does.

Problem 3: Buy out Kramer and he is moving up the coast to San Jose. Do you want to face a reinvigorated Mike Richards 5 times a year and then in the playoffs as a 3rd line center for the Sharks? Me neither.

There is only one problem that I can see with keeping him, and it's not his cap hit. It's his disenchantment with playing a fourth line role. He didn't make a secret of the fact that he embraced the role in the playoffs because the team was winning, but he didn't want to stay there permanently either. But if he performs well it's not like he is going to stay there either. If he does a good job he'll be with Carter and Pearson or Stoll and King. And he will continue to get power play time.

If Lombardi really wanted rid of Mike Richards he wouldn't buy him out. He'd trade him. That way you're not throwing away money and you're maximizing the value of an asset. Plenty of teams would trade for Mike Richards even at his salary because they believe they can revitalize him in a new environment and that he has those clutch qualities of being a winner.

So seriously, just forget this. The Kings are not buying Richards out!


Brown and Muzzin to Nashville for Weber?

Just kidding. Not only is Weber staying put (oh but can you imagine Doughty and Weber on the same blue line together for an 82-game season? Just clear the parade route for the next decade. I gotta change my underwear, I'll be right back.)

Brown and Muzzin take a lot of crap from time to time, but they came up big at clutch moments in the playoffs. Brown may be a roleplayer from this point out (and let's hope he learns to accept a 3rd line role because he is going to have to stop dragging Kopitar down at some point), but Muzzin still has a very high ceiling and that young defensive corps for the Kings (Doughty, Voynov, Martinez, and Muzzin) is going to be very good for a very long time (and there are still good farmhands like Forbort who will be fighting to join it starting next year).

That's my forecast for the summer. I'd love to hear your thoughts! I can't wait for October!

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