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There probably aren't too many people out there who think that the Los Angeles Kings missing the playoffs last season was anything other than a bizarre fluke.
They were once again at the top of the NHL in terms of possession, and allowed the fourth-fewest goals at 5-on-5 in the league. They were also ninth in goals for. But the power play and penalty kill were both middling, the team suffered mightily as a result of losing Slava Voynov and being in a weird salary cap limbo for most of the season, and some other teams in their division got undeniably lucky.
They've undergone a lot of changes this postseason, including losing Justin Williams to the Washington Capitals, but the core of those Cup-winning teams is still intact and if things go right, Milan Lucic might be a pretty good replacement for or even improvement upon Williams' output. Odds therefore are that a return to the postseason, and potentially another deep run toward a Stanley Cup, await them in 2015-16. The Pacific Division still isn't very good anyway.
They also carry a ton of cap room (as a result of losing Voynov and, more recently, Mike Richards from their obligations), so that helps as well. But even though this season's training camp isn't even going to open for another month, it's hard not to worry about what next summer — and beyond — looks like for the Kings.
Prior to their missing the playoffs, you'd have been in tough to argue that the Kings, winners of two Cups in three years and loser of a Western Conference Final in 2013, were not approaching dynasty status if they weren't there already. (Depends on your definition, and no, let's not have that argument right now.) But things are very much up in the air at this point, as a result of last season, and while the probabilities for this coming season are certainly on their side, they're: a) not certainties, and b) a lot foggier beyond that.
This is, of course, the last season in which Lucic or Anze Kopitar are under contract (along with Trevor Lewis), and what happens with them is going to go a long way toward cementing the team's future status as a true Cup contender. They all became eligible to sign extensions — long-term, you'd think — on July 1, but there hasn't been much word on that front in either case. At least with Lucic you understand why: He's played precisely zero games for them, is coming off a not-great season, and is therefore an unknown quantity as far as Lombardi is, or at least should be, concerned.
As for Kopitar, well, you'd think the team would be in a rush to give a guy who's not even 28 yet a long-term deal, given that he is a clearly elite center in a league in which clearly elite centers are perhaps the most valuable commodity of all. Teams simply do not win Stanley Cups without one. You can win with a not-great goalie or maybe even a shaky D corps (not that it's happened recently), but a player like Kopitar is one of two things you need to win in the modern NHL, along with an elite defensemen. There are plenty of teams that have one or the other, but not both, and haven't won anything.
There are no Cup winners that haven't had at least an elite center and a top-flight D since Pittsburgh won in 2009. Carolina is the only other one fitting that description since the salary cap went into effect, and we can all acknowledge that 2005-06 was a weird season all around anyway.
That Kopitar is unsigned at this point is not concerning in and of itself. It's something that both sides would almost certainly like to get done and, if anything, this seeming plateau for the league's salary cap ceiling may prove a good thing for the team in terms of keeping the price down.
Again, the Kings are swimming in cap space at the moment, but if Richards wins his appeal through the NHLPA (he very well could, and probably should), and the Voynov situation gets resolved in a way that the team is able to keep him, money tightens up real quick. They go from having almost $51 million committed to 15 players in 2016-17 to having as much as $60.9 million committed to 17, plus whatever Kopitar does or doesn't cost, plus Lewis's contract, plus Lucic (or his replacement), plus a few other deals for lower-level guys on the team. That's a lot of cap space disappearing in a hurry.
Moreover, though, a huge deal for Kopitar going forward — it's what he deserves, and it's necessary for the team to continue competing — puts the Kings in a weird spot for other reasons. For example, while Drew Doughty and Kopitar are both relatively young (28 and 25 when this current season starts), the rest of the core is not. Jonathan Quick turns 30 in January, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown will both be 31 by Jan. 1, Marian Gaborik is already 33, and so on. While there's obviously some good young-ish talent on the team — Jake Muzzin barely qualifies, given that Doughty is actually younger than him — there's nothing that replaces the coming declines of Carter and Gaborik. That's even if they are willing or able to re-sign Lucic, who is now 27 himself.
The good news for Lombardi is that most of this team is locked up for a good, long while to come. Muzzin and Doughty are the only really devastating UFA contracts they'll need to extend within the next several years (their deals expire in summer 2020, at which point they probably both get mega-contracts even as they're on the wrong side of 30).
But the bad news is Quick is signed until 2023, Carter and Brown until 2022, Gaborik until 2021. At that point, they'll all be ancient by NHL standards, and in fact Gaborik sticking around even that long would be a pretty impressive feat, as he'll be 40 at that point. Carter and Brown will be in the 37 range by 2021. Quick will be 36 or so. And Kopitar will be 33. Doughty will be 30. Though a lot can change in this league over that long a period of time, all will likely still be signed for big money.
None of this is to say, “The window is closing,” or “The Kings ought to be worried about how competitive they can be three seasons from now,” because that's not the case. But the ramifications of the team's future cap situation could be felt by as early as this season, depending upon how a few things shake out. Kopitar's status might not be first on the list, but it's very close to the top.
And it's probably something that needs to be sorted out sooner than later, because the longer the issue looms, the worse off everyone probably is. A new deal as soon as possible lends certainty to the issue, and makes the path forward clearer.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.