With Darryl Sutter undecided, Kings' offseason brings tough choices

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(Photo by Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo by Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Kings are a team that’s in ‘win now’ mode. 

The Los Angeles Kings are a team that’s seen their ‘window of opportunity’ of championship success come and go.

The Los Angeles Kings have Stanley Cup level pieces.

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The Los Angeles Kings need to re-shape their roster.  

All statements could ring true about the Kings – an organization that came into this year setting a narrative that last year’s playoff miss was an aberration. 

They got the rest they needed and were refreshed for the upcoming season, one where they’d get back to their normal Stanley Cup challenging selves. Except they didn’t. Los Angeles swooned into the playoffs and was ousted in the first-round by the San Jose Sharks in five games.

Four of the five games were decided by one goal, but the series itself didn’t feel that close. The Kings led for just 4:02.

“Last year we had a lot of built-in excuses, right? ‘We play for three years into June, they’re tired.' What else we got? ‘We had all the issues off-ice,’ and everything else. Well, you can’t go back on that anymore,” general manager Dean Lombardi said. 

There was a belief the Kings could just ‘turn it on’ and they didn’t. This has led to some soul searching up and down the organization, from their players to their head coach up to their general manager. They all understand this is not the same type of team that won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014 and changes need to be made. 

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“Your players are different. Your economics are different. Your spiritual chemistry’s different, and you stop striving to take the next step. So all the innovation and spark that we had when we were building this, there’s a tendency to flat line because ‘we figured it out, we don’t have to do anything different, anything better, and we know it all,’ and it stagnates,” Lombardi added.  

Los Angeles has several contracts and player personnel issues they need to figure out. And how they handle these can fundamentally shape the path of the team moving forward – namely whether coach Darryl Sutter who has guided the team to two Stanley Cups will return. Lombardi has said there's a contract offer on the table for Sutter, but him signing it isn't a 100 percent certainty. The Los Angeles Times reported the deal is for two years. 

On Saturday, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman said Sutter is “undecided” about returning to the Kings and wants to see how the team will look “through free agency, the cap and its prospects.”

“The plan I’m thinking is going to come out of this is going to take everybody not only accepting different challenges but getting on board,” Lombardi said. “We’re not going backwards by any stretch of the imagination here, but in order to re-create it, it’s creating a new foundation.”

Free Agency and the Cap 

None of this can be determined really until after Lombardi tries to re-mold the team around the NHL Draft in late June and the July 1 free agency period.

The Kings currently have almost $66.4 million locked up into 35 contracts for next season according to General Fanager. Vincent Lecavalier’s $2.25 million is likely to fall off that number when he officially retires.

Los Angeles also has several other deals that are long term and have forced the team into little wiggle room for flexibility. The salary cap is currently projected at $74 million for next season, up slightly from $71.4 million this season.

Captain Dustin Brown is 31 and has scored just 11 goals each of the last two seasons. He carries a $5.875 million salary cap hit through 2021-22. Teammate Marian Gaborik is 34 and scored 12 goals in 54 games last season. He holds a $4.875 million salary cap hit through 2020-21 

Los Angeles is also on the hook for $1.57 million of Mike Richards’ salary cap hit as part of a termination settlement with the forward.

In essence, the Kings have committed $12.32 million of salary cap hit for three players who accounted for 23 goals last season. One player isn’t on the Kings anymore.

San Jose’s Joe Pavelski (38 goals) and Logan Couture (15 goals in 52 games) scored 53 goals and carry a $12 million combined salary cap hit. Both are also under contracts that pay them through the 2018-19 season. Pavelski is 31 and Couture is 27.

A healthy Gaborik could give the Kings between 20 and 30 goals for a reasonable price below $5 million. But Brown appears to have topped out the last several years between 11 and 12 goals per full-season.

Having that type of salary cap hit for that type of term for a player with a lower level of production hurts the ability of a ‘win now’ team to contend. Brown also reportedly has a seven-team modified no-trade clause.

There are bad contracts in the NHL that could merit a Brown swap of some sort a la David Clarkson to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Nathan Horton's contract. But finding a willing partner could be Lombardi’s greatest test over the summer. If he hasn't yet, it's hard to believe he could find one now with Brown continuing to age and not find a way to boost his production.

Getting rid of Brown’s deal could give Los Angeles more flexibility. If the Kings can’t, then they’ll have to commit near $6 million to a player who may not hit 10 goals next season.  

“I think we know there are some structural problems, right? We’ve talked about it during the season,” Lombardi said. “That’s a given. Now, how we’re going to address that, as well as some other issues, depending on players we can fit in, what you’re trying to do is say, ‘OK, the personnel side, we know there’s a problem, if this type of player becomes available. That’s a given. In the meantime what are the areas we can get better at regardless if we make any moves or no moves, and these are the things you try and outline and start your focus on now.”

(Photo by Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images)

Prospects

Since the 2010 NHL Draft when LA landed 2015-16 leading goal scorer Tyler Toffoli in the second-round, the Kings haven’t picked up a lot of prospect depth.  

Tanner Pearson was a first-round pick in 2012 and has become a top-six forward with the team. Andy Andreoff and Nick Shore (2011 third-round picks) are depth players, but LA hasn’t seen much production from a lot of other players picked this decade. 

The team is high on 2014 first-round pick Adrian Kempe, a forward who had 28 points in 55 games with the Ontario Reign, but really he’s the only guy in their system who is considered to have higher-end potential.

Wrote Hockey’s Future about LA’s weaknesses in their system:

 The Kings have no blue chip prospects, and therein lies the real knock on their system. They have not one single game-breaking talent. There is not a great deal of meat in this sandwich, but there are plenty of condiments, and decent ones at that. But without a few, true-blue killer prospects, it is hard to separate the Kings from the mid- to low-tier teams. Their goaltending pipeline is nearly non-existent.

The strengths were listed as a “fairly hefty number of role players, grinders, and players with a loaded toolbox and a developing ability to potentially use those tools.”

The Kings have been in ‘win now’ mode since 2012 and because of this they’ve either dealt their first-round pick or drafted low in the first-round.

Lombardi just had his scouts in town to go over their draft plans, and said there was an attempt to try to figure out different ways to unearth talent. The Kings used to be one of the better teams at finding players and developing them in the minors.

For example, five players from the 2009 NHL Draft have played 134 NHL games or more. Even if all of them weren't with LA, they were used as assets to add positions of need.  

In 2007 they used a second-round pick on forward Wayne Simmonds, who was a draft re-entry. Simmonds has since blossomed into one of the NHL’s best power forwards. The Kings used him as a chip to trade for Richards, who played a big role on LA's 2012 Cup run. 

The 2016 NHL Draft won’t solve all of LA’s prospect depth problems, but making the right decisions could help the Kings move back towards having one of the deeper groups of young players in the NHL. 

“We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and admit that these two things happened, and now we have to get back on that path – the innovation, the spark, the challenge that was there seven years ago and we were coming from the gutter. You’ve got to get it back,” Lombardi said. “Now we’re going to get back to finding ways to get better. And just like in the past, it might not work. But we’re not going to stop trying to get better.”

(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tough Choices

The sky is not falling with LA. The Kings have one of the best big-game goaltenders in the NHL in 30-year-old Jonathan Quick who is a Vezina Trophy finalist and won the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy. Anze Kopitar, 28, is arguably the NHL’s top center and notched 74 points last season. Defenseman Drew Doughty, 26, is one of the top two defensemen in the league.

Center Jeff Carter has notched 62 points each of the last two seasons, and eats up just $5.272 million of salary cap hit. He’s 31 years old and never scored under 20 goals in a full NHL season.

Defenseman Jake Muzzin is 27, takes up $4 million of the team’s salary cap and is one of the top under-the-radar puck possession players in the league.

The Kings also held the best CF% 5-on-5 this year according to War on Ice at 56.4 and all the aforementioned players were major reasons why.

Really, it’s the other parts around them that need to be figured out.

Defenseman Rob Scuderi, 37, played over 18 minutes per-game in 21 contests with LA. He scored 0 goals with three teams this season and is under contract for another year at $1.125 million. The Kings have Matt Greene under contract for two more years at $2.5 million per-year. He played three games this past season because of a shoulder issue, but when healthy hasn’t played over 17 minutes per-game since the 2009-10 season.

In some ways, the Kings haven’t been able to figure out how to handle their roster construction since defenseman Slava Voynov was suspended for domestic violence in October of 2014.

Voynov was a top-four defenseman for LA and averaged 22:18 each of the prior two seasons before 2014-15. He was under contract with a modest salary cap hit of $4.167 million.

He pled no-contest to a misdemeanor count and voluntarily departed the country. Los Angeles wasn’t on the hook for his salary cap hit, but they couldn’t decide how to replace him.

Figuring out how to do this may be part and parcel with deciding how to move forward with their other personnel problems. Trading Brown could help Los Angeles add another defenseman to replace the hole from left from Voynov. 

Maybe dealing Gaborik instead could somehow yield LA that blueliner.   

The Kings have noted a desire to keep pending unrestricted free agent Milan Lucic. But if Lombardi is sincere about shifting course, maybe it would make sense to let Lucic walk and shift some money around to add more speed at wing. 

Lucic scored 20 goals last season, but he’s known for more of a power game. That’s unlikely, since Lucic has fit well with LA’s culture was productive with the team and in the community. 

In the past, the Kings were able to hold off speed teams because their puck possession, defensive game was so strong. This happened in their five-game Stanley Cup Final win over the New York Rangers. That didn’t happen against the Sharks – a quick strike opponent.

“When you hear things like ‘OK, these guys, all they’ve got to do is get in the playoffs, and they know how to win. They can go down, get down two-to-three games and everything else.’ That is a symptom of the past, and you’re at a very different stage at a macro and micro level, and when that’s your attitude, it’s not going to work,” Lombardi said. 

All bets are off with LA this summer as far as how they move forward. 

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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