At The Pause: Los Angeles Kings

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The NHL paused the 2019-20 season on March 12 because of coronavirus concerns. The COVID-19 pandemic has created plenty of uncertainty. It’s unclear when or if the NHL season will resume. Going through with the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs remains a priority for the league, but this situation is very fluid.

In the meantime, we will be writing profiles on every team as well as some players of note from each squad based on where they stood prior to the hiatus. The Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators, and San Jose Sharks have been covered. This week we’re continuing the series by turning to the Los Angeles Kings.

The Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014 and now they’re paying for that success. In an attempt to keep their core together, even as it aged, they issued a number of big long-term contracts to veterans that tied their hands so that even as that core started to decline, the Kings weren’t in a great position to rebuild. Only now are they starting to get out from under those contracts, but Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, and Jonathan Quick are all over 30-years-old and still tethered to long-term deals. It’s not that they’ve become bad players – although Carter has left plenty to be desired – it’s that they’ve been counterintuitive to the rebuilding process.

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From 2014-15 through 2017-18, the Kings were a team trying to find themselves, caught between the reality of their decline and the desire to cling onto their past. Those were the limbo years, which made 2018-19 – the fifth season after their last championship – the first real one of their rebuild. The 2019-20 campaign was thus Year Two of that effort and new coach Todd McLellan was task with guiding this mismatch of legacy players and new talent.

Early on it went about as well as expected, which is to say, badly. The Kings were 5-11-1 through Nov. 9th. Ilya Kovalchuk, whose signing back in the summer of 2018 epitomized the Kings’ desire to cling onto their past, had just played in his final game with Los Angeles. His play with them had been uneven, but not altogether bad. Still, it was time for the franchise to move on from that experiment, especially as it became more-and-more apparent that a 36-year-old forward (now 37) wasn’t in sync with the direction the team needed to take.

That said, their problem early on wasn’t Kovalchuk or their forwards in general. It was their defense and goaltending. Jack Campbell had a 3-3-1 record, 3.11 GAA, and .886 save percentage in seven starts. That’s not good, but it was fantastic in comparison to Quick, who started the season with a 2-8-0 record, 4.27 GAA, and .866 save percentage in 10 starts. That start was so bad for Quick that it’s masked an otherwise strong season. From Nov. 10th onward, Quick has a 2.34 GAA and .918 save percentage in 32 starts. Those are numbers that far more in keeping with what we were used to from Quick in his glory days, but because of his horrific start, if you glanced over his 2019-20 campaign overall, you’d see his 2.79 GAA and .904 save percentage in 42 starts and conclude that this has been a pretty disappointing season for him.

Unfortunately, as Quick improved, the Kings’ offense slipped. During their 5-11-1 start when their goaltending was horrible, they were averaging 2.53 goals per game. That’s already nothing to write home about and from Nov. 10th through Feb. 9, their offense dipped further, averaging just 2.35 goals per game.

Kopitar had 12 goals and 31 points in 40 games during that span, but only two other players (Alex Iafallo and Tyler Toffoli) had at least 20 points. Brown, who had a couple good games early on, scored just six goals and 14 points in 36 contests during that stretch.

With all that in mind, it’s not surprising that the Kings were 19-33-5 through Feb. 9th, but they managed to go into the pause on an upswing. While the season was already lost at that point, the Kings were playing strong hockey, posting a 10-2-1 record from Feb. 12-March 11.

Brown started to click again, scoring seven goals and 11 points during those 13 games, Iafallo was playing really good hockey too with 11 points in 13 contests. Then there was Gabriel Vilardi, who made his NHL debut on Feb. 20th and had three goals and seven points in 10 games. The Kings dealt goaltender Jack Campbell to Toronto, but 25-year-old Calvin Petersen has shined as his replacement with a 2.64 GAA and .922 save percentage in eight starts.

An argument could be made that all they’ve done is hurt their chances of winning the first overall pick, but they have given their fans reason to look at the future with a little more optimism.

Gabriel Vilardi – Vilardi was taken with the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, but his development was dealt a big blow when he missed almost the entire 2018-19 campaign due to a back injury. He wasn’t ready for the start of the 2019-20 campaign either, but once he did recover from the back injury, everything started to click for him. He had nine goals and 25 points in 32 AHL contests and then, as mentioned above, scored another three goals and seven points in 10 games with the Kings. If the 20-year-old can stay healthy going forward, he should be a major part of the team’s rebuild.

Jonathan Quick – When the Kings were at their best, Quick was a big part of their success. Over the last two seasons though, he’s had some major ups-and-downs and given that he’s 34-years-old, it’s reasonable to wonder if he’s not on his way down. The Kings have him signed through 2022-23, so they need to hope that Quick can continue to be effective into his mid-to-late 30s. How he ages will play a big role in determining how smoothly the Kings can emerge from their rebuild.

Alex Turcotte – While the Kings were struggling in 2019-20, Turcotte was excelling as a freshman with the University of Wisconsin. He had nine goals and 26 points in 29 NCAA contests. He only turned 19-years-old in February and is one of the Kings’ best prospects, if not at the top of the list. Los Angeles signed him to an entry-level contract in March and he should get a long look during training camp.

Anze Kopitar – Much like Quick, how Kopitar ages will help determine how smoothly the Kings can transition from a rebuilding squad to a contender. He’ll turn 33-years-old in August and so far age doesn’t seem to have slowed him down. Even without a lot of help around him, Kopitar still scored 21 goals and 62 points in 70 games this season. There’s another element to Kopitar’s importance though given that he’s the captain. As the Kings get younger, Kopitar should play a big role in aiding those youth. His mixture of sound offensive and defensive play should be a standard for them to pursue and his experience, including his two championships, should enable him to teach them what it takes to be a winner, even during a time when the Kings aren’t doing a lot of that. Kopitar is signed through 2023-24, so he’ll be with the Kings for quite a while still.