In no other American city can a major sports franchise fade from the spotlight as quickly as in Los Angeles. With so much to do in or near the city including eight major sports teams, a losing season can drag a big fish to the bottom of this large sports pond. The Kings, by virtue of the sport they play, are not a big fish. Yet, through a five-year period of unparalleled success, the Kings became the Darlings of Los Angeles. That’s one major upside of winning two Stanley Cup in three years. Unfortunately, times have changed and changed fast. After a first-round exit from the playoffs last season, the Kings followed this disappointment by missing this season. Without spring hockey in the Staples Center, the Kings have fallen from grace again; so what do the Kings need to do to bounce back. Weaknesses: What befell the Kings this year for them to struggle? Their total lack of scoring ability represents the first flaw in their season. They finished 26th out of 30 NHL teams in goals for (186) and goals per game (2.38). The team only dresses two players who have scored more than 20 goals: Geoff Carter with 38 goals and Tanner Pearson with 23 goals. No other player comes close.
By comparison, the top teams in the Western Conference have three players or more over the 20 goal threshold; the Blackhawks have six, the Wild have four. Though players like Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, and Tyler Toffoli had very poor offensive seasons, the goal scoring problems run deeper. The Kings’ third and fourth lines had very low scoring outputs. Since their last Stanley Cup win, Dustin Brown’s output has decreased. Brown, who has achieved 20 goal seasons five times, hasn’t scored more than 15 since 2013-14. With 22 assists and 34 points overall, Brown has the highest output for the season among the third and fourth line “grinders.” That grades out to .41 points per game. Trevor Lewis, Kyle Clifford, and Nick Shore have similarly weak outputs. The rest of the third and fourth line have minuscule outputs. Combined with the struggles of Anze Kopitar, Marion Gaborik and Tyler Toffoli, this lack of secondary scoring does not bode well for success. Los Angeles also lacks speed and offensive skill compared to many other teams. In the span of about five years, large, physical, plodding defensively focused teams, have literally been passed by, by faster more exploitative skilled teams. In her April 3rd article on the Kings’ struggles Helene Elliot nails it, referring the Los Angeles’ recent lack of success writing that it was “the price they’ve paid for remaining a rumbling dinosaur in a league that favors speed and skill over pure brawn.” In those five years, teams with large, stay at home defensemen, and defensively responsible forwards who focus on wearing teams down with physicality in their own zone and on offense can’t keep up anymore. The same thing happened to the Boston Bruins, who had a similar streak of success, and began to struggle at the same time the Kings did. With the exception of one playoff appearance, the Kings and Bruins remained on the periphery of the playoff window and each qualified once in the past three years, both enduring first round exits. Teams like the Canadians, Blackhawks, Penguins, Capitals, Oilers and Flames all feature smaller, faster, more talented forwards who can force a turnover and ram the puck down weaker slower teams’ throats. Much of this originates from skill coming into the game from younger players. Top draft picks from the past few years have had instant impacts on the league largely because teams have never seen players with such speed and skill. The previous year’s top two draft picks, Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine both finished near the top of the league in goals scored and just look at those goals. (Skip to 1:55)
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Last year’s top draft pick, Connor McDavid, leads the league in points and will likely win the Hart Trophy for most valuable player in only his second season. Jack Eichel, although he’s struggled through injuries is an excellent player. The league has enjoyed an influx of highly skilled young players. This is all a long way of saying that the game has passed the Kings by. They took a major step forward in changing their game by firing GM Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter who shoulder the blame for the style of play their team utilized. They hired John Stevens, who possesses previous coaching experiences in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers and has worked as an assistant coach with Los Angeles since 2010. He has familiarity with the system and has been credited with much of the Kings’ defensive success under coach Darryl Sutter. The crucial question for Stevens is if he can find a way to reignite the Kings’ stagnant offense. Hiring former franchise defenseman Rob Blake as GM holds equal importance to the hiring of Stevens. Blake needs to focus his drafting on faster, more offensively skilled players that better fit the new lightning fast, soft-handed, more offensively skilled NHL. They also happen to have one major position of strength, and they need to exploit that position to rebuild their team. That position is goaltender. Drastic Action Having traded for Ben Bishop, a starting goaltender on most other teams besides the Kings, they now possess two starting goalies. Jonathan Quick’s contract lasts through 2023, while Bishop enters free agency this year. This might sound outrageous and risky, but considering the Kings’ problems, I would strongly consider it. With Quick’s injury history and Bishop’s consistency, if you could entice a team to take him, why not trade Quick and resign Bishop? Both goalies have comparable stats. With the exception of 2011-2012, where Quick had an outrageous sub-two goals against average and a .929 save percentage, Quick and Bishop have similar career stats. Quick has a better career GAA at 2.26, while Bishop has the better career save percentage at .919. Bishop’s GAA is 2.32 while Quick’s save percentage is .916. Both goalies have suffered repeated injuries. However, Quick’s repeated groin injuries, for which he missed more than a month during the 2013-2014 season and close to five months during the 2016-2017 look like more of a concern. On the other hand, Bishop has sustained a groin injury, wrist injury, and an ankle injury during his career, which all appear random. In fact, Bishop’s ankle injury resulted from a collision in the 2015-2016 Eastern Conference Finals. Groin injuries can nag at goaltenders, making Quick’s injury history more troubling. If Los Angeles wanted to make drastic changes they would approach Bishop to gauge if he would resign with them. If he expressed interest, they could seek a trade partner for Quick approaching the 2017 draft. A trade of this magnitude for a goaltender does not have a lot of precedent in the NHL and attempts have not ended successfully, just check out this 2014 article from the hockey news. The trade of Patrick Roy in 1995 would come closest in comparison. Roy basically shot his way out of town in 1995 in what would become one of the worst trades in NHL history. Roy netted goalie Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky, and Andrei Kovalenko in return, none of whom turned out the way Montreal had hoped. Curtis Joseph’s trade from St. Louis to Edmonton, also in 1995 resulted in a 1996 and 1997 first round pick in return. Besides that trade, the Kings would need to shake a long history of lackluster goalie trades, but it is possible as there are teams that desperately need goalies and have the talent to acquire one. Trade Partner The Colorado Avalanche may have the assets to make an appealing destination for Quick. Colorado has a promising young goalie in Calvin Pickard, but the Avalanche had a disastrous season in 2016-17. Grabbing a future hall of fame goaltender may speed up the rebuild drastically. They also have offensively talented players they might stomach parting with. Matt Duchene, a target of trade talks this season has two seasons left on his contract and earns 6 and 6.5 million dollars in each. He plays center and left-wing and could play alongside Jeff Carter or Anze Kopitar, providing a much-needed punch on offense. Gabriel Landeskog also has potential and a contract more on par with Jonathan Quick, having signed until 2021-2022. He earns between 5.5 and 6.5 million over the rest of his contract with Colorado. Landeskog also plays left wing and the same could be said for him as for Duchene. All have comparable cap hits, though a trade for Duchene might also involve a draft pick or another player coming back to the Kings considering the longer length of Quick’s contract. Resigning Bishop represents another obstacle in this trade. Since the draft occurs before free agency, trading Quick before signing Bishop would give Bishop a lot of leverage in his contract negotiations with Los Angeles as he would know their goaltending need. The opposite also applies. If the Kings resign Bishop, other teams would lowball them for Quick, knowing the Kings can’t keep both. In spite of this, I believe the Kings need drastic changes and trading Quick qualifies.