When looking back on the recently completed season for the Los Angeles Kings, there are many things to consider when evaluating their progress.
Some are quick to dismiss the season because of the high expectations established with their breaking an eight-year post-season drought last season – a season with just the third 100+ point campaign in franchise history. Their younger core group was a year older this season and with some playoff experience under their belts.
Some are also looking at the overall history of the franchise, and showing (in some ways justifiably) a lack of patience because the organization has never won a Stanley Cup and didn’t get any closer to that goal this season as opposed to last season.
Others try to view things from a positive standpoint. The Kings had several high points during the season, including establishing several club records for road game successes. The team also saw several young player step up into key roles and perform well, while the club in general came together at season’s end to overcome the loss of leading point-scorer Anze Kopitar and give San Jose everything they could handle in that first round.
So as we head into a second straight off-season of rising expectations, here’s a look at several key areas of concern this summer. We’ll look at pending free agents currently on the roster (restricted and unrestricted), those coming available this summer that could theoretically fit the Kings system, young players coming up that might make the roster next season, and a brief thumbnail of the club’s upcoming draft status.
Some things to consider for the off-season:
Players not expected back as free agents:
– Michal Handzus (unrestricted, $4.0 salary cap hit)
– Alexei Ponikarovsky (unrestricted, $3.2 salary cap hit)
– John Zeiler (unrestricted, $0.6 cap hit)
Handzus has been a solid performer during his tenure with the Kings, especially as a third line match-up center and on face-offs. However, considering his age, his lack of offensive production for his salary structure, and the emergence of Brad Richardson on a potential third line next season with Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds, it’s likely that Handzus would only be re-signed at a lower salary, which seems unlikely.
Ponikarovsky struggled in the system from the beginning of the season. Unlike the player of Russian descent he seemingly replaced (Alexander Frolov), he gave great effort at times and never complained about his lack of playing time publicly. But it was apparent to most from early in the season that this ‘stop-gap’ signing from the summer would not be back next season.
Zeiler would likely be welcomed back within the system, but he knows that he will never be more than a player that provides organizational depth and is likely to continue to play mostly in Manchester with the occasional call-up. If he finds another organization willing to talk him into an opportunity to play at the NHL level, he would likely leave for that scenario.
It’s also worth noting that the contracts of Alyn McCauley ($0.667 salary cap hit) and Erik Ersberg ($0.75 salary cap hit) will finally come off the books this summer as well.
Players that could be back as unrestricted free agents:
– Peter Harrold (unrestricted, $0.55 cap hit, won’t likely be brought back at anything over $1 million)
Head coach Terry Murray loves the versatility of Harrold, who in a pinch can also play on the right wing on the fourth line as well. It’s likely that other teams would show some interest in Harrold as an unrestricted free agent, perhaps even tempting him with a chance to play more regularly than he does here. If he returns to the Kings, it likely won’t happen until late July/early August, unless he decides himself to stay here and accept his current role. This doesn’t seem likely though.
Potential Unrestricted Free Agents Coming Here?
– C Brad Richards, 31 years old, ($7.8 cap hit, $7.8 salary), Dallas
– D Kevin Bieksa, 30 years old, ($3.75 cap hit, $3.5 salary), Vancouver
– D Christian Ehrhoff, 29 years old ($3.1 cap hit, $3.4 salary), Vancouver
– RW Radim Vrbata, 30 years old ($3.0 cap hit, $3.0 salary), Phoenix
– C Brooks Laich, 28 years old ($2.067 cap hit, $2.4 salary), Washington
– LW Nikolay Zherdev, 26 years old ($2.0 cap hit, $2.0 salary), Philadelphia
– LW Curtis Glencross, 28 years old ($1.2 cap hit, $1.2 salary), Calgary
– LW Ville Leino, 27 years old ($0.8 cap hit, $0.825 salary), Philadelphia
– C Eric Belanger, 33 years old ($0.75 cap hit, $0.75 salary), Phoenix
Last summer, the Kings seemingly were caught putting all of their free agent eggs in the Ilya Kovalchuk basket. Even when Kovalchuk signed the contract that eventually would be voided by the league for violating salary cap rules, the Kings stayed in the running for the superstar left wing until the bitter end.
As a result, they also seemingly had no ‘Plan B’ for what to do if they didn’t get Kovalchuk, allowing many other free agents that could have helped them at a combined cheaper price than Kovalchuk would have cost, slip away to other teams.
Richards will be the most sought-after of the big names in this class, and you can figure the Rangers and Stars to be among those trying to sign him. However, it hasn’t been part of Lombardi’s standard operating procedures to go crazy for a big name player, but instead to add two or three players at lower numbers.
Assuming the Kings are able to combine to sign their restricted free agents to deals totaling $7 million, this would leave the Kings with approximately $10 million in cap space (also assuming no increase/decrease in cap space per club).
Since the defensive group seems solid with six players at the top level and 2-3 additional players close to jumping up to the top level next season, the forward spots are an area that Lombardi would seemingly target.
With Brayden Schenn likely to move onto the roster, the wing spots seem more likely than the center position. Considering the Flyers will have trouble signing both Zherdev and Leino this summer, targeting one of them at the $3 million range might be the best-case scenario. Glencross is a hard-working defensive winger who could be helpful on the fourth line as a penalty killer and can move up onto the top three lines if needed. If they could swing $2 million for him, it would leave them $5-6 million in space moving forward.
Potential Restricted Free Agents They Might Think About?
– D Shea Weber, 25 years old, ($4.5 cap hit, $4.5 salary), Nashville
– LW Zach Parise, 26 years old, ($3.125 cap hit, $5.0 salary), New Jersey
– RW Drew Stafford, 25 years old ($1.9 cap hit, $2.3 salary), Buffalo
– RW Devon Setoguchi, 24 years old ($1.8 cap hit, $1.8 salary), San Jose
– C Michael Frolik, 23 years old ($1.275 cap hit, $0.850 salary), Chicago
– D Keith Yandle, 24 years old ($1.2 cap hit, $1.3 salary), Phoenix
This is tough because the teams can match on restricted free agents, and if you wind up keeping the player, you have to provide compensation to the other team in the form of draft choices. The main issue here is that it is kind of an unwritten agreement between the various clubs not to sign each other’s restricted free agents.
Lombardi would likely stay away from trying to sign any of these players because of the fact that Drew Doughty is one of seven restricted free agents he needs to deal with. Brad Richardson, Wayne Simmonds, Alec Martinez, and Trevor Lewis are all RFA’s on the Kings that if it became open season would be appealing to other teams looking to put the Kings in the proverbial box. This is why the Kings won’t pursue any of the players listed above this summer via outright free agency.
But the one guy to keep an eye on is Parise. Continuing rumors out of New Jersey are that Parise wants off the Devils. Word is that there are not only issues between him and Kovalchuk, but that the organization was unhappy with him not disclosing the nature of his initial knee injury in October prior to his being sidelined much of the season when he further injured it.
Many have speculated (including myself) that the Jack Johnson contract signing in mid-season was done at a certain salary cap number, which would make him attractive in a potential summer trade.
While a Parise (sign-and-trade) for Johnson deal might not fit as a one-for-one, keep both of these names on your radar screen this summer, starting on draft weekend.
Teams Up Against Salary Cap that might be trade partners?
– Minnesota $0.262 cap space
– Ottawa $0.473 cap space
– NY Rangers $1.152 cap space
– Philadelphia $1.495 cap space
The Kings have $3.786 million in cap space currently, and 13 teams have more space right now. San Jose ($0.029), Chicago ($0.077), Detroit ($0.343), and Vancouver ($1.336) are also all under $1.5 million in remaining space, but it’s unlikely the Kings would be valuable trade partners for these teams.
Young players that will get a very intense and long look during training camp:
– Brayden Schenn – He spent the first month of the season on the roster last season, and played sparingly while the Kings tried to figure out whether to start his pro career or give him another year of seasoning. They eventually sent him back to juniors, but his play in the Junior World Championships in late December sold many fans that he’ll be a big part of this team in 2011-12 and beyond.
– Jake Muzzin – This big defenseman started the season with the Kings before being sent to Manchester, where he spent the majority of the season improving his play defensively and with the puck. He will likely spend the beginning of the season in Manchester, and will be the first call up option for the blue line if there is an injury.
– Viatcheslav Voynov – This is a name you hear a lot of discussion about come the NHL Draft weekend in trades, and for that matter throughout the summer. He reminds a lot of people of Vladimir Malakhov in terms of his offensive capabilities and size, as well the accuracy of his shot from the point.
– Richard Clune – The ‘Clunatic’ spent all season in Manchester, never getting the recall from the organization after finishing the 2009-10 season on the Kings post-season roster. It’ll be interesting to see what the team does with Clune and whether there is a market to include him in a potential deal for a top line player.
– Bud Holloway – Manchester’s leading scorer this season is doing everything the organization is asking him to do at the minor league level. Now we’ll see if he gets a legitimate chance to make the club this fall.
– Corey Elkins – Elkins continues to be a work in progress, and is likely targeted for another year at Manchester to further develop his skill set.
– Dwight King – Considering he was playing in the ECHL in November of 2009, it was interesting to see his work ethic pay off with a call-up to the Kings from Manchester last fall for several games. His size and hands allow for him to be part of the Kings future plans, and Lombardi might entertain talks of including King in a blockbuster deal. Still, it’s likely King is destined for another season in the AHL.
– Martin Jones – For many years, the goaltending position was thought to be a position of extreme weakness throughout the organization. Now, with players like Jones and Jeff Zatkoff in Manchester, it appears goaltending is arguably the strongest position within the Kings. Jones will spend another season in Manchester.
– Derek Forbort – Last year’s first round draft choice is likely to spend another season at the University of North Dakota, where he led the Fighting Sioux to the Frozen Four this past season. He’s also worth mentioning since, barring a trade, he’ll still be the most recent first round choice by the club. Thanks to the Dustin Penner deal, the Kings will not make a choice in the first round this season.
The Kings have the following needs. If these were to be filled in a perfect world, it would cure what ails them:
– A true sniper on the wing
– A second-line center
The idea is that sniper can be found either by signing Leino as a free agent or making a trade with New Jersey for Parise. The club is hoping that Schenn is able to step into that second-line center role behind Kopitar, with Jarret Stoll and Brad Richardson playing the other two center roles.
Assuming the above paragraph that they either sign Leino or trade for Parise, this is what the opening night line-up might look like in a best-case scenario:
Zach Parise or Ville Leino – Anze Kopitar – Justin Williams
Ryan Smyth – Brayden Schenn – Dustin Penner
Trevor Lewis – Jarret Stoll – Dustin Brown
Kyle Clifford – Brad Richardson – Wayne Simmonds
Willie Mitchell – Drew Doughty
Rob Scuderi – Jack Johnson or Jake Muzzin
Alec Martinez – Matt Greene
EXTRAS on ROSTER: Kevin Westgarth, Davis Drewiske, Scott Parse
2011 Draft Selections by round, 6 total (the draft June 24 and 25):
– 1st Round: NONE (dealt to Edmonton in Dustin Penner trade)
– 2nd Round: 19th, 49th overall
– 3rd Round: 18th, 80th overall
– 4th Round: 19th, 110th overall
– 5th Round: 19th, 140th overall
– 6th Round: 19th, 170th overall
– 7th Round: 19th, 200th overall
Being Dean Lombardi
We’ve seen how Lombardi handles his off-seasons in the past, and as we move through this summer, it’s likely he will continue to stay the course. This means he won’t pursue Richards as a big-ticket UFA signing. If anything, he might try to acquire one player like Leino or Zherdev in the $2-3 million range, or try to deal for a player like Parise where he can use either Johnson or possibly one of the goaltenders to provide them with that top-line sniper they have desperately needed the last few seasons.
Things should be somewhat interesting this summer for the Kings, but don’t look for the huge splash that most fans are clamoring for.
If you missed any of our previous pieces looking back at the season, please do so. You can check out our letter grades for the goaltenders and defensemen, as well as the forwards, and an evaluation of the coaching and front office staff as well.
Be sure to watch for Jon expanding on his views in an upcoming roundtable discussion with fellow Knigs beat writers on an upcoming episode of the popular webcast Kings Cast coming in the next few weeks.
Jon Moncrief has just completed his third season covering the Los Angeles Kings for icedjamb.com, and he also covers the NHL and the Los Angeles Dodgers for Examiner as well. Jon is also co-host of the weekly web-TV sports series INSIDE SPORTS.