Is it time for the L.A. Kings to make major changes?

GettyImages 2150504712

EDMONTON — The end for the Los Angeles Kings came as expected on Wednesday night. That’s now three losses to the Edmonton Oilers in three consecutive first-round playoff series — in seven games, then six, and now five.

That’s not a good direction for the Kings, a veteran-powered team that maxes out its cap space. Perhaps the Oilers are simply their kryptonite, and perhaps a different opponent might have increased their odds of getting out of the first round. But perhaps it’s time to accept that this is as good as it gets for this group of Kings, and that as they continue to strive toward Stanley Cup contention, it’s time to reevaluate their team-building process.

Are major changes needed? Do the Kings need to take a step back in order to take several steps forward? And if they do, is general manager Rob Blake the proper person to guide those steps? That’s what this franchise needs to have a hard conversation about. Because after a third kick at a playoff run, one that produced greater failure after a 4-3 loss to the Oilers in Game 5 on Wednesday, they’re now just running into a wall, and that has more to do with simply the misfortune of playing the Oilers.

The die was cast long before. Blake pushed in all his chips last summer for Pierre-Luc Dubois, an underachieving center who two organizations were glad to be free of, and the stunning failure of Dubois’ first season in L.A. has become the disastrous coup de grâce when it comes to Blake’s questionable moves. That move, and others, left the Kings in no position, cap-wise, to boost their playoff chances at the trade deadline as other West contenders loaded up.

Now, the Kings face an offseason in which there seem to be more questions than answers. They need to hire a permanent head coach. They need more than a patchwork solution in goal. They need to re-sign or replace productive players such as Viktor Arvidsson and Matt Roy. They need a new contract for rising star Quinton Byfield. And, in general, they need to improve a roster with hardly any cap flexibility.

The Kings now are in a place where continued mediocrity could be the norm, and a shift in course appears necessary. And that means having someone else at the wheel besides Blake.

Blake has had seven years on the job. The first part of his tenure included mostly solid work. The Kings missed the playoffs for three years and that was no fun, but a rebuilding plan was necessary. The team’s period as Cup contenders was over, and Blake smartly turned the focus toward getting additional draft picks and building a talent pipeline.

No GM is perfect, and Ilya Kovalchuk was a terrible signing in 2018, but it didn’t set the franchise back years. While seeking to maintain a core of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, Blake smartly moved on from stalwarts such as Jeff Carter, Jake Muzzin, Tyler Toffoli and Alec Martinez. Blake made smaller moves that paid off, such as bringing in Trevor Moore, Sean Durzi and Carl Grundstrom, and hit on lower draft picks such as Roy and Mikey Anderson.

Trading for Arvidsson and signing Phillip Danault worked, even though Arvidsson has been dogged by injuries. Adrian Kempe has emerged as a top-six force. Sean Walker was an undrafted find on defense. And between 2017 and 2020, the Kings drafted Gabriel Vilardi, Rasmus Kupari, Tobias Bjornfot, Samuel Fagemo, Brock Faber and Byfield.

The Kings hadn’t reached their contention destination, but they were on the right path. And then Blake re-signed Cal Petersen to a three-year, $15-million extension in September 2021.


Everything that’s ailing the Kings right now isn’t a direct result of paying Petersen $5 million a season based off 54 career games and some promising numbers during an abbreviated 2020-21 season, in which they missed the playoff by a lot. But that’s where a lot of the problem starts. Petersen didn’t unseat Jonathan Quick as the No. 1 goalie that season, and then completely lost his way last season. Fixing that mistake, by trading Petersen last offseason, cost the Kings $2 million in dead cap space because they facilitated Ivan Provorov’s move from Philadelphia to Columbus. And while goalie prospect Erik Portillo might offer promise, given his strong AHL season, Blake still doesn’t have a clear long-term No. 1 goalie.

It is always easier for a GM to tear things down than to build a true contender. But the goal is to contend, and Blake got lost on that road.

Trading Faber for Kevin Fiala has been criticized, but the Kings needed more offense, they had defensive prospect Brandt Clarke waiting, and few foresaw Faber going directly from the NCAA’s Golden Gophers to the Minnesota Wild’s top defense pairing and being a Calder Trophy finalist. But even with Fiala and a seven-year, $55 million contract on board, Blake still had some cap space to boost his roster last summer.

That space started to disappear after the Kings re-signed Vladislav Gavrikov to a two-year extension that made him the Kings’ highest-paid defenseman behind Doughty. In the Petersen trade, the Kings also lost Walker, who played well for Philadelphia and now is moving on to the second round with Colorado.

Nothing compares, though, to Blake’s destructive move for Dubois. At the time of the trade last June, I wrote that Blake was putting his legacy as GM on the line. He placed the biggest bet of his tenure on a player with red flags from two previous organizations. He sent an attractive package of players to Winnipeg to create enough cap room to jam in Dubois, an underachieving center who had forced a trade for a second time in his seven seasons.

The scant cap space available left Blake to dig into the goalie bargain bin for Cam Talbot, and while Talbot provided more value than the $2 million that the Kings invested, it left them with a 36-year-old goalie who can’t steal games and who got replaced by David Rittich after Game 3 against the Oilers. And the Kings are now stuck with Dubois, who is making $8.5 million per year because of the contract extension Blake gave him. Dubois hasn’t close to unseating Danault or an aging Kopitar at center. And Dubois isn’t just eating up $8.5 million on the Kings’ cap next season. Try seven more years.

That’s GM malpractice.

As long as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl remain together, the Oilers aren’t going anywhere. And that’s a problem for the Kings. Over these past three years, the Kings tried to get better. The Oilers did get better.

“They have a lot of good players on this team,” Doughty said. “It’s not a two-man show with Draisaitl and McDavid, as good as they are. They have a lot of good players. They have depth. They’re a better team this year than they were last year.”

Where does that leave the Kings? For starters, they need to hire a coach and maybe a shift away from the 1-3-1 system that brought much-needed structure but now feels like it’s becoming stifling. But undoing the Dubois mess should be the highest of priorities. The contract, and his lack of production and impact for the money he’s making, threatens the Kings’ future.

A buyout should be on the table, and while 14 years of dead money — on top of what’s already in their books — is unconscionable on the surface, it’s worth serious consideration. One reason is, because of Dubois’ age, the Kings would only have to pay out one-third of his remaining base salary, instead of the customary two-thirds for older players. (They would still have to pay out $11.5 million in signing bonus money). There is the possibility of a trade, but that would mean retaining $4.25 million for seven years — and convincing a team he’ll be worth even half his salary.

Both options are terrible, but that’s the mess Blake created, as well as anyone else in the front office — such as team president Luc Robitaille — who approved of the acquisition. Cap Friendly projects the Kings with nearly $21 million of cap room for 2024-25, but that only includes 12 players and doesn’t include re-signing Byfield or inking Jordan Spence to a new contract (or adding two goaltenders). That could mean parting with Roy and Arvidsson, but that could open the door for Clarke and create room for forwards like Alex Laferriere or Alex Turcotte to grow.

Being unable to retain Roy, an attractive pending unrestricted free agent, could be among the prices paid for the Dubois blunder, which would be admitting a big mistake. Acknowledging the mistake and fixing it, however, is the first step toward reshaping this roster.

There should be another price paid. Some hard calls must be made in the Kings’ front office, and it’s time for someone else to make them. Letting Blake go may not be something Robitaille wants to do to his longtime friend. But it’s time to turn it over at Kings headquarters.

(Photo: Andy Devlin / NHLI via Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top