What happens to the Los Angeles Kings this season should absolutely dictate what they do going forward. Their big-name players are all in their late 20s or early 30s, and they don’t really have too many impactful forwards at the other end of the age spectrum.
That’s the price of success, such as it has been for the Kings in recent years. You win two Cups and any GM in the league — right or wrong — is going to marry himself to the roster that got him there for the long term. I wrote a few weeks ago about how the Kings have a lot of questions ahead of them after the coaching turnover in the offseason, but the more I’ve thought about them as the season approaches, the clearer the answer to those questions became, at least in terms of what the answers entail.
If the Kings try and fail to make the playoffs for the third time in four years — and the one time they made it, they got stomped in the first round, by the Sharks, 4-1 — then you gotta cut bait with the whole group. You take the new GM, new coach, and just start ‘er all over again. Because what’s the alternative, right? Given the ages of most of the big names involved, if they’re not capable of even earning a playoff spot now, the odds that they will be one, two, three years from now are only going to diminish.
Jeff Carter is 32. Anze Kopitar is 30. Drew Doughty will be 28 in December. Jonathan Quick, regardless of what you think of his quality, is 31 and coming off a huge injury. Even Jake Muzzin, who I think gets the “Young Joe Pavelski” treatment, turns 29 in late February.
There’s a lot of older talent there, to be sure, and much like the Penguins before they won their back-to-back Cups, I think it’s fair to say they really suffered because the Kings couldn’t put any reasonable depth behind them. A few of these guys have had not-great seasons judging by their own lofty standards, and when you pair that with injuries and the aging process, plus a paucity of meaningful contributions from guys deeper down the lineup, well, I don’t know how you fix that without just nuking the roster.
The problem, of course, is that they don’t have many options for doing that. Heading into the 2019-20 season (the last one before another potential lockout, you see), the Kings will have the following guys signed for at least $3.75 million: Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Carter, Marian Gaborik, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Alec Martinez, Muzzin, and Quick. Average age of those players at that time: Almost 32. Not pretty.
That doesn’t count a few of the other contracts the team has on the books right now, like the horrible Trevor Lewis deal, but it all adds up to $53.3 million committed to just 11 players — if you’re scoring at home, that’s an average of more than $5 million per — and all but Toffoli, Pearson, and Kyle Clifford will be 30-plus.
All of this is to say nothing of the already-broiling (because Toronto is theoretically involved) rumors that Drew Doughty might pack his bags and go to a team that has a legitimate chance of winning a Stanley Cup in the following five years. If it’s even looking vaguely, if-you-kinda-squint-at-it like Doughty’s not going to come back, that only accelerates the need to rebuild.
Again, you definitely have to say this is the cost of success to some extent, both because the Kings are now overpaying depth players with whom they had success — de rigueur in the NHL, no doubt — but also picked low enough and missed on enough draft picks to have barely supported those players. There is, simply put, no help coming any time soon.
The combined number of games played by all Kings draft picks taken from 2013 to present: 50.
Total. Between 34 draftees.
To be fair, Dean Lombardi, in fighting to save his job, only allowed the Kings to get two first-round picks in that time — and one of them was the No. 29 pick — but that, too, doesn’t set you up for the future. In fact, you have to go back to Tyler Toffoli, drafted in 2010, to find a Kings draftee who played 250-plus games in the NHL. (Pearson will hit that number this year.)
It’s a bad situation. Contrast that with the Penguins, who have been successful in the league, generally speaking, for a lot longer than the Kings and who can turn late- and mid-round picks into NHL players. And unlike the Kings, the Pens went through their tough times in the playoffs while Crosby and Malkin were still reasonably young; they had time to reload the roster with those draft picks they were hitting on. The Kings, flatly, do not.
More problematically, this likely isn’t even a rebuild-on-the-fly situation. The higher-end guys are going to be good enough for another few years that they can be good contributors for the time being, but if a rebuild takes four or five years?
Kopitar at 35, Carter at 37? They won’t have retired because their contracts give them financial incentive not to, but they’re probably not going to be any sort of impact players. You’re better off seeing what you can get for them in trade, as long as you can find someone willing to take on the last six years of a 30-plus contract for a guy making $10 million against the cap. And good luck with that.
So the issue for Rob Blake et al is clear: Lombardi left the team nothing to play with. The roster is old, shallow, and expensive. The farm system is middling at best, and only saved, in large part, by the draft they put together this past June.
This has to be it for this group. Maybe, if you want to be forgiving and float John Stevens an extra year of leeway, you say two more ought to do it. If this team can’t get back into the playoffs, you have to start making hard choices and auctioning off anyone who fetches any kind of value. In any rebuild, you need expensive vets around to fill out the roster, be capital-‘L’ Leaders, and help you hit the cap floor.
And that’s good news for the Kings: Even when they trade half their expensive veterans if they miss the playoffs, they still have too many on the roster.