The buzzer just sounded, ending not only the Kings' final road game of the season, but also their chance to be the first repeat Stanley Cup winner since 1998. The 3-1 loss to the Flames was their 3rd in a row on this season-ending Western Canadian road swing. The Kings pretty much needed to win every game on the trip but instead they lost them all, and in the process became the 3rd team since Expansion to win the Cup one year and miss the playoffs the next, joining the 1970 Montreal Canadiens, 1996 New Jersey Devils, and 2007 Carolina Hurricanes in a pretty infamous club. (Although, it should be noted, the Habs and Devils went on to win the Cup again within the next five years!)
So what happens now to a team that despite having been outside the playoff bubble most of the season was all along considered a Stanley Cup favorite by many?
First, a short autopsy on the L.A. Kings in 2014-15, a season of distractions and disappointments.
In January, after refusing to buy him out during the offseason, Lombardi waived Mike Richards (Kramer, to me) due to the career worst statistical season he was having. No other NHL team was willing to take on Kramer's contract without having to give up a single asset in return, forcing Lombardi to send a once valuable asset to the farm in Manchester. Another massive distraction for the defending champs.
The team lost 7 of 8 games from mid-January to the first week of February, seemingly falling out of contention for a playoff spot, especially after the final two disastrous losses, first a 4-0 shutout in Washington DC and then a 3-2 loss in south Florida in which they blew a 2-1 third period lead.
Reinstilling hope in the kingdom (Did I really just call it the "kingdom"? Ugh.), they followed that up with an 8-game winning streak, culminating in a 2-1 victory over their arch rival San Jose Sharks in the outdoor air of the Bay Area at Levi's Stadium where the 3rd largest crowd in NHL history, myself included, watched two non-playoff teams battle in a defensive slugfest. The Kings were back in the thick of the race, and it looked like another of their patented late season surges was on.
Except that another 3-game losing streak followed, and overall since the 1-0 win over Detroit that followed the Stadium Series game, the Kings have been inconsistent at best, and lousy at worst. In fact, since the Detroit game, at a time when they were supposed to have flipped the switch for their surge into the playoffs, the Kings have gone 10-8-3. While not terrible, that record is not getting anybody into the playoffs. I don't even want to look to see what Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Minnesota have done since then (hell, I bet Colorado and Dallas have had better records in that time).
I don't know if the season nadir was in Edmonton Tuesday when the Kings couldn't muster a win against the third worst team in the NHL with their playoff hopes becoming fainter by the day, or tonight when the upstart Flames extinguished their playoff hopes entirely (or was it all the way back in October when the Voynov nonsense went down?), but this has been a season of low points.
It has been well documented how bad the Kings were in overtime (1-7) and shootouts (2-8) this season, but there were also all the blown 3rd period leads and leads heading into the 3rd period that they lost (I think there were two games in Anaheim they led by two going into the 3rd, ultimately losing those games). From opening night onward, the Kings were sloppy and unprepared. Blame a shorthanded and green defense (or the defense of Greene) that lacked Voynov and Mitchell, but don't forget that the much less experienced Jets missed most of their defense for weeks on end and they're still in the playoffs (in fact, their star, Dustin Byfuglien has been suspended for the last 4 games, but they still went 3-0-1 in that time, solidifying a playoff spot while the Kings sputtered).
So there you have it, a lost season. But let me return to the question I asked initially, what now for the Los Angeles Kings?
UFAs and Underperforming Veterans
The young scrappy Kings of 2012 are gone. The same guys are largely still there, but the group of forwards is becoming a group of graybeards. Of the current forward group, the following players are 30 or over: Carter, Richards, Stoll, Williams, Brown, and Gaborik. That's half of the forwards! On defense, only Matt Greene and Robyn Regher are over 30, but there is a lot of mileage on those two.
Admittedly, the Kings remain the 10th youngest team in the NHL by average age, but there is no denying the diminishing returns of some of those aging forwards. All those years of experience also bring with them hefty price tags: Richards, Carter, and Brown will account for $16.898 million next season in cap hit (and considerably more in actual salary).
Of those three, Carter has scored 28 goals and 61 points this season. Brown and Richards have combined for 16 goals and 26 assists (2 more points than Jake Muzzin).
Williams and Stoll are both unrestricted free agents. Williams had a cap hit of $3.65 million and Stoll has $3.25 million. After winning the Conn Smythe in 2014, Williams probably wants a raise, and despite incredibly unspectacular regular season numbers this year splitting time between the 1st and 3rd lines (18 goals, 22 assists), someone is going to give it to him. That someone should not be Dean Lombardi. Jarret Stoll better be willing to take a pay cut no matter where he goes after scoring just 6 goals this season and 27 in the last 4 years (he scored 20 in 2011!)
I think it goes without saying the Kings have to get younger and cheaper at forward. Let Williams walk. Let Stoll walk. Do everything you possibly can to trade Mike Richards. Dean Lombardi really screwed up when he gave Kramer another shot last summer. He has shown that he doesn't want to break up a winning team (see, re-signing Stoll and Penner after the 2012 Cup win), but Richards really did not repay his trust. I've gotta think some NHL team would be willing to trade for him. Big trades are hard to do mid-season, but at the draft or in the summer, Lombardi should be able to find a way to make the Richards problem go away. If Ribeiro can rediscover his game in Nashville, Mike Richards has to be able to do the same somewhere, right?
In addition to moving Richards, the time has come to part ways with Dustin Brown. The first Los Angeles King to touch the Stanley Cup has dropped in goal scoring every year since 2010-11 (28, 22, 18 [lockout year, but still], 15, 11), and hasn't topped 30 points since that season (to be fair, he would have in 2013 if not for the lockout). People will say that despite not putting up points, he is important in the locker room because of his leadership qualities. Well, the Kings have a lot of leaders (Kopitar, Doughty, Carter, Quick, etc) and the fact is that when you're making $5.875 million against the cap, you have to produce something offensively. Sadly, Dustin Brown has not shown the ability to do that anymore.
As I said, Lombardi has shown that he wants to stick with a winning lineup, so he did not mess much with the groups who won the Cup in 2012 and 2014. But he no longer has a winning lineup. The 2015 Kings were on some level, embarrassing. This is the perfect opportunity to shed a bad contract and make a major change by moving out a franchise cornerstone whose absence will give the remaining players a good kick in the ass.
A young team like Buffalo that is going through a rebuild with some great young prospects is going to need a veteran guy to help teach those kids how to be winners in the NHL. Dustin Brown is from upstate New York. It might be painful to leave the only NHL team he's ever known, but it might cushion the fall if he got the chance to mentor Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. The Kings can't afford to overpay him for the next 4 years of the bloated contract Lombardi gave him if they want to stay competitive. But with so many young players on entry level deals, Buffalo can. And if he wants to come back and work for the Kings front office in 5 or 10 years, that'd probably be ok. But I don't see any way this team can remain a contender with Dustin Brown eating up so much of the cap.
Three Kings prospects made it onto the AHL All-Star Second Team: defenseman Colin Miller, center Jordan Weal, and right wing Brian O'Neill. Along with 2010, 2013 and 2014 first round picks, Derek Forbort, Valentin Zykov, and Adrian Kempe, the Kings have a large group of young players they can try to work into the lineup next season.
And let's not forget that they have a lottery pick in this year's draft (Lombardi made sure when trading for Sekera to hedge his bets and protect his first round pick this year in case the team missed the playoffs). If they win that lottery you can add Connor McDavid to that group, and while that's unlikely, assuming Lombardi doesn't go way off the board again, they should get a decent prospect who could even be NHL-ready with the 13th or 14th selection in the draft.
If the Kings can move Brown and Richards, would it be so bad if their forwards lined up like this to start 2015-16?
And that's assuming Lombardi gets no NHL-ready forwards in exchange for Brown and Richards or in the draft.
Defensively, I think Miller or Forbort can replace Regher next season, allowing Greene to be an extra defenseman sitting in the press box. Re-sign Sekera, and assuming Voynov is not coming back and that the Kings can't get NHL defensemen in the Richards/Brown salary dumps, the defense looks like:
There really isn't much in the way of free agents available this summer who could help the Kings. And unless they do some housecleaning, there wouldn't be any cap space to pay for them anyway. They still have to figure out where the money is to pay Toffoli who will be getting a hefty raise after a decent season. And don't forget that Anze Kopitar will be signing an extension this summer that will kick in for the 2016-17 season, probably in the range of $10 million a season.
The Kings were close this season - just a handful of shootout goals would have gotten them into the playoffs - but they had a propensity to lack focus and play sloppy hockey. Do you really think that this team was going to beat Anaheim in the playoffs? Or Chicago? Or even Winnipeg or Calgary? Probably not. They certainly weren't the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2014. There is definitely room for improvement with this team going forward, and I hope Lombardi takes this opportunity to make some big changes. There is still a solid core to build around, but some of the pieces need to be removed in order for that to happen.
What do you think of my suggestions? If any of it likely to happen? Share your thoughts in the comments.
What do you think of my suggestions? If any of it likely to happen? Share your thoughts in the comments.