Stephens: By staying with Blake and Dubois, L.A. Kings double down and hope for the best

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Sitting together at a news conference to ensure that the messaging was consistent, Los Angeles Kings general manager Rob Blake and team president Luc Robitaille pulled off quite a feat on Monday as they addressed a disappointing season and a cloudy future.

Blake and Robitaille managed to both double-down on mistakes and kick the can down the road when it comes to what to do with a Kings group that has failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs for three consecutive years. The news, in the postseason media availability, was that there was no news, unless you count a declaration that there would be no buyout of Pierre-Luc Dubois.

The quick version is this: No buyout of Dubois — their disappointing major acquisition last summer — no decision on who their permanent head coach will be, no change in who the main decision-makers are, and no intention to take the club into a retool or another rebuild.

Got it.

Also, ooh boy.

The more that Blake and Robitaille talked about changes they felt were needed before next season, the more it actually came across that there could be more of the same in 2024-25. We’re talking about a team that just finished 12th in the league standings. Which is basically what they are at this point: good enough to be among the 16 in the Stanley Cup playoffs each season — and first-round fodder for a superior opponent.

(This is where David Byrne’s “same as it ever was” refrain toward the end of Talking Heads’ 1980 hit “Once in a Lifetime” gets stuck in your head.)

Blake said he needed no clarification on his status as GM — he has one year remaining on his contract — and Robitaille agreed. So, the Kings are proceeding with a plan that spent to the salary-cap limit last season and with a veteran-led group that took only one game off the Oilers this time around, after pushing them to six games in 2023 and seven in 2022. It looks like a club that’s going backward.

“We still believe this group has made progress in a lot of different areas,” Blake said. “We have to find a way to get that to translate into the playoffs. That starts with these meetings right now and going forward. … We’ve got to push this group forward and we got to keep going, but it starts right now.”

This group is led by two proud former champions in Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, who are leaned on as hard as ever — even though they probably shouldn’t have to be — and who have zero interest in going through another playoff-less rebuild. They’ve got a collection of fine forwards and defensemen but none that could be called a true superstar. They’ve got Kevin Fiala, a dynamic playmaker and point producer who doesn’t have a sterling postseason resume. They’ve got Quinton Byfield, who’s finally become an impact player and might become a difference-maker.

And they’ve got Dubois, a 25-year-old who will make $11.25 million next season in actual salary — the most on the Kings — who produced 40 points and was dropped from the third line to the fourth on occasion. Blake and Robitaille are not ready to acknowledge a mistake by buying him out next month, even if it could be at one-third the cost instead of the normal two-thirds. Dubois signed an eight-year contract last summer with an AAV of $8.5 million.

“We need to make him better,” Blake said. “He’s had a consistent performance over his career so far, and deviated from that this year. So, it’s up to us as a staff, coaches and management here to help him become more productive to us.”

Later, responding to a question about how Dubois was not used in a top-six role and was often paired with offensively weaker linemates, Blake added, “We’ve got to do a better job with the coaches to incorporate him into the game. But we need some buy-in with him to do that also.”

Fixing a problem sounds nice in theory, and there is understandable motivation to do that with Dubois. But what can you do when the problem might be beyond fixable? This isn’t to say that Dubois is totally incapable of having some kind of redemption season, but Blake and Robitaille also run the risk of turning the Kings, as a whole, into something that isn’t easily fixed.

There was less clarity on who will coach the Kings next season. Jim Hiller went 21-12-1 after his promotion to the interim role following the midseason firing of Todd McLellan. Hiller’s fate wasn’t announced Monday, and Blake said they will have discussions this week, with a resolution of Hiller’s status perhaps coming within the next two weeks.

Blake talked of Hiller’s presence and his communication skills. Passion was another word he used in discussing his 54-year-old coach, who delivered on the GM’s mandate to get the Kings in the postseason. But there are other proven head coaches available with much more experience in that role who have strong resumes, if not enviable ones. Craig Berube, Gerard Gallant and Dean Evason have taken teams to the playoffs, with Berube winning the Stanley Cup in St. Louis and Gallant playing for one in Vegas.

With the specter of those three candidates and others on the open market, Blake acknowledged that “it may eventually” factor into his decision on their next permanent bench boss.

“I’d like to sit with Jim and get a better understanding of exact changes and things,” he said. “There’s a lot of aspects to Jim’s coaching that we are confident in and that we saw firsthand here.”

Otherwise, there were few specifics offered when it came to improving this roster. Unless the Kings execute a trade of Dubois — his full no-move clause takes effect July 1 — they don’t have a ton of money available for upgrades. Yes, the salary-cap ceiling will rise by $4.2 million and Kopitar’s cap hit comes down from $10 million to $7 million. But while CapFriendly projects the Kings with approximately $21 million available for 2024-25, other factors will eat into that figure.

Byfield needs a new contract, and while the 21-year-old isn’t eligible for salary arbitration, the Kings could desire to get ahead of paying him more down the line by locking him up after his breakout season. Defenseman Jordan Spence is also a pending restricted free agent. They’ll also have to make decisions on RFAs Blake Lizotte, Carl Grundstrom and Arthur Kaliyev, although Kaliyev may want to seek a better opportunity elsewhere. They’ve got to fill two goaltending spots, and while prospect Erik Portillo is playing great for the AHL’s Ontario Reign, Blake also hesitated in pegging the 23-year-old for promotion.

The team’s biggest UFAs are defenseman Matt Roy and winger Viktor Arvidsson, two regulars who occupy important positions. Letting them walk and filling their spots with cheaper young talent would provide some financial flexibility. On the future of his unrestricted free agents, including goalies Cam Talbot and David Rittich, Blake said, “That’s a process that plays out here for the next little while. They’re all beneficial. They’ve all helped us get to a certain point and a certain level (in the) regular season.

“But,” he added, “we hadn’t got to that point during the playoffs, and we have to find that answer, too.”

The most hopeful messaging that came out of Monday’s address might have been an openness to deviate from the Kings’ defensive-minded, neutral zone-clogging 1-3-1 system, which was an asset when they were exiting their rebuild but now seems to be at the end of its shelf life. It can cut down rush chances and force turnovers but also can stifle offensive-minded players. Some of the more prominent Kings have sounded like they’re ready for a change.

“I think we have to have a deep discussion on that, for sure,” Blake said.

That might appease some of the Kings’ fan base, as might the talk of infusing younger players like Brandt Clarke and Alex Turcotte more into their mix, but none of that will quiet the growing discontent over Blake and Robitaille directing this franchise.

“You know, over the last few days, obviously we’re very disappointed,” Robitaille said, before citing the integrity of the organization, from owner Philip Anschutz to Blake — “who’s one of the people with the most integrity I know” — to the staff that works with the players.

“We hear our fans loud and clear right now. We know they’re disappointed. We know they want to get to the next level. And we built this team moving forward and we still know there’s different steps to take. But it’s not about winning one series. Beating one team. It’s about getting us (to where) we can win the last game of the season and that’s the Stanley Cup. It’s about building a team doing that.

“The process that we’re going through, whether it’s today or this weekend or the next summer or the last few years, it’s about going toward that goal. And that’s why right now, like about our fans, we understand our family. We understand they’re not happy. But we keep plugging and doing the right thing for the good of this organization and we’ll be OK at the end of the day.”

That’s the thing with the Kings these days. They’re OK. They’re not close to winning a Cup and there doesn’t appear to be a clear plan from the authors of a one-round-and-out team on how to get to that lofty status. Same as it ever was.

(Photo of Rob Blake and Luc Robitaille: Brittany M. Solo / MediaNews Group / Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

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