So another season in officially over for my beloved LA Kings, who lost in 6 games in round 1 against the San Jose Sharks. It was a good series. No one gave the Kings a chance to win it, and they gave San Jose all they could handle. In fact, I think the Kings should have won the series. Had they not blown game 3, when they had a 4-0 lead, and could have pulled off one of three overtime games, they would have. So now it’s time to look forward to next year, and what I think the Kings need to do in order to improve.
When Terry Murray was hired as the Kings head coach three seasons, he was undoubtedly the right coach at the right time. The Kings had missed the playoffs five straight seasons, and while they missed again in Murray’s first year, there was definite improvement. The Kings have made the playoffs the last two seasons, in large part due to Murray, who has provided this young team with structure and discipline. He is very good with young players, and we have definitely seen improvement from Kopitar, Doughty, Johnson, Brown, Simmonds, Quick, Clifford, Lewis, Martinez, Bernier and even Kevin Westgarth in that time. The argument for keeping Murray around is that next year, you are going to have at least one significant rookie in your line-up – Lotkinov or Schenn – and a year under Murray would help either player (or both) become more complete players. Under Murray, the Kings have become one of the best defensive teams in the league (ranked 5th in overall goals against) and penalty killing (ranked 4th, although no one allowed fewer PP goals this season, because the Kings were disciplined). In Quick, they seemed to have a found one of the best goalies in the league. If Championships are built on defense and goaltending, the Kings have that, and Murray can continue.
On the other hand (and this is the part people who know me have been waiting for, since I have been very hard on Murray all year long), you also need to score to win. The reason why the Kings finished 7th in the Conference, despite their impressive defense, is because their offense this year was at times non-existent. 24th in the league on the Powerplay, 25th in the league in overall Goals For. The reason for this is simple – Terry Murray was too conservative all year long. He was conservative when he had to choose between three rookie centers – Schenn, Lotkinov and Lewis, and picked the defensive specialist over the offensive guys. He was conservative later when they had to recall Lotkinov, and he was producing offense, but was weaker on defense, and demoted him again (where he promptly got hurt, meaning when Kopitar went down with his injury, the Kings had no offensive center to replace him). His powerplay was stagnate and didn’t move the puck well enough – and he stubbornly refused to change it. His mantra to the forwards seemed to be step up, but don’t screw up – essentially sending conflicting messages to the team by wanting them to make offensive plays, but criticizing – or benching or demoting – forwards who tried and failed to score. This in part led to the disappointing seasons by Ponikarovsky and Penner (ultimately both players should have been better, but Murray didn’t help). It seemed to me that Poni was scared all season of screwing up – so every time he had the puck he made the safe play – which is why this former 20 goal scorer only netted 5 this year. For his part, Penner simply looked confused for much of his time with the Kings since coming over at the trade deadline. He shows signs of life in the final two games of the Sharks series, but that was about it.
In the playoffs, the Kings lost however not because of the lack of offense, but because their structure fell apart. It fell apart in Games 3, 4 and 6 at times – the three at home – and that is why the Kings lost those games. The Kings were once again an inconsistent team all season – at times one of the best teams in the league (the first 15 games, the stretch from the All Star break to Kopitar’s injury) and at times one of the worst teams (November, January and after Kopitar got hurt until the end of the season). A coach’s main job, in my mind anyway, is to get consistent play out of their players. And to me, Murray failed to do this at times this season.
So ultimately, I am of two minds on Murray. On one hand, had they Kopitar in the series against the Sharks, they very easily could have won, pushed on to the second round and who knows what else. Hell, had they had Kopitar, they may have been able to get the one additional win they needed in their final 7 games to get to 4th instead of 7th. On the other hand, Murray failed to get his team to play offensively and he failed to get them to play consistently, and that ultimately is why the Kings were in 7th in the first place, and why they lost to the Sharks. If it were up to me, I’d fire Murray and bring in someone else – Ken Hitchcock and Peter DeBoer are the names that leap to mind. But when all is said and done, if Murray is back next year, I will not be too upset. But please Terry, keep one of Lotkinov or Schenn next year, and not go with four centers of Kopitar-Stoll-Richardson-Lewis. That would be a disaster.
The past few years, the Kings have been one of those teams with tons of Cap Space. That will not be the case next year – with the players they have added, and the Restricted Free Agents they have to sign, they will be right up against the cap next year. This is a one year thing, as after next season Penner, Smyth, Stoll and Mitchell are all UFA, and will free up a ton of cap space.
What does it mean for next season though? It means goodbye Peter Harrold (who didn’t player since January anyway), Alexi Ponikarovsky (who was a disappointment) and Michael Handzus (who is beloved in LA, but is slowing down and who they do not have the room to sign). All are UFA this year, and so, will have to be let go.
The Kings have quite a few Restricted Free Agents – this even after resigning Jonathan Bernier and Jack Johnson during the course of the season. The most important one is inarguably Drew Doughty, who will eat up quite a bit of cap space, but Wayne Simmonds is also vitally important to get under contract. They will also want to get rookies Alec Martinez and Trevor Lewis to resign as well, and given his playoff performance, Brad Richardson looks to be someone else they will try and retain. The question mark is Oscar Moller, who I do not think will ever fit in as long as Terry Murray is the coach (he is too small to play Murray brand hockey), but who is a talented guy, so I think they resign him, even if he ends up in Manchester for most of next season. From the Manchester lineup, they’ll have some to resign as well – leading scorer Bud Holloway, Richard Clune, David Meckler, Andrew Campbell, Corey Elkins, Marc-Andre Cliché, Patrick Mullen and goaltender Jeff Zatkoff are all RFA this year, and John Zeiller is UFA. I admit I don’t know much about these players (only Zeiler played any games with the Kings this season), so it will be up to Lombardi to determine what he wants to do. One thing that is clear, barring any trades, none of these guys will be on the Kings next year.
As for the free agent market of NHL players not currently on the Kings that will become available July 1st, I wouldn’t hold your breath expecting ANY signings this year. The Kings simply do not have the cap space, so any one they sign, would mean a trade would had to be made to make room. I know a lot of people thought the Kings may have interest in Brad Richards this off season, but they have nowhere near the cap space to sign him.
Next season, the Kings – who have broken in quite a few rookies in the past few seasons – will likely have a few rookies in their lineup. With the likely departure of Michael Handzus, that means there is a spot open at center – and it will undoubtedly come down to a battle of the youngsters Brayden Schenn and Andrei Loktinov. Lotki has more NHL experience, but had they been allowed to keep Schenn in the AHL this year, that might have been different. In my mind, these two guys are going to battle for a permanent spot on next year’s roster in training camp. The winner gets it; the loser has to wait for an injury or for Stoll’s departure the following year. Undoubtedly, these are the number 2 and 3 of the Kings’ future.
The other roster spot – for a winger – is likely going to be between Scott Parse and Oscar Moller. Both of these guys have played in the NHL before, but neither for a full season (this was supposed to be Parse’s chance this year, but he got injured after four games, and didn’t play again until Game 5 of the playoffs). The smart money is on Parse, as Lombardi and Murray seem to be much higher on him than on Moller, who likely has to spend another year in Manchester, and in actuality, may never get a real chance with the Kings – who have too many forwards in their lineup now, and too many promising ones coming up, meaning Moller is stuck in between and may not get his chance.
The most interesting may be on defense. The Kings will likely return with the same six d-men as this year (Doughty, Mitchell, Johnson, Scuderi, Greene and Martinez) and Davis Drewiskie as the seventh man. However, if they were trade one of them, that would make space for AHL All Star Voinov or Jake Muzzin, who played with the Kings a little at the beginning of the year. Or former first round pick Thomas Hickey. All would be significantly cheaper, so if the Kings are in cap trouble, I think they could move one of their defenseman, and still be okay.
The Kings could make a trade this off season, especially if they want to free up cap space. The obvious trade candidates include impending UFA’s like Jarrett Stoll and Ryan Smyth, or defenseman Matt Greene. Of those three, I think Greene is the most likely to be moved – he wasn’t good in the playoffs, and with the Kings depth in defensive prospects, all of whom are much cheaper than Greene, it could be done. Least likely is Ryan Smyth, who has a huge salary, so unless there is a team who wants veteran leadership, and is trying to get the cap floor (and who Smyth will agree to go to), he’s a King next year – and I’m fine with that. There has been a lot of talk about trading Stoll in order to free up spots for both Schenn and Lotkinov, and while that is an option, it would mean two rookie centers and a sophomore center in Lewis down the middle – and I don’t think that’s a good idea.
If the Kings want to make a blockbuster, they have the tools to do so as well. Make no mistake, sooner or later they will have to deal either Jonathan Quick or Jonathan Bernier, as neither wants to spend his career as a backup. Quick looks like the man right now and teams are high on Bernier because he’s young, got loads of potential and is cheap. I don’t think it happens this year, but it will at some point. Other young players like Wayne Simmonds, Dustin Brown or even Jack Johnson could be used as trade bait, but that doesn’t seem like Lombardi’s style. So overall, while the potential is there for a trade, I really don’t see it happening.
Projected 2011-2012 Lineup
So because I don’t think there is going to be any free agent signings or trades, this is who I think the Kings lineup looks next year.
Smyth-Schenn OR Loktinov- Brown
In this lineup, Parse and Richardson are your “accordion” players, who can move up or down your lineup if need be. Westgarth you throw in when you want more toughness. Whoever doesn’t make the team – Schenn or Loktinov is your go to call up from Manchester on the forward lines. Drewiskie I doubt will play much – in the case of a serious injury, they recall someone from Manchester. The big IF here is if the Kings decide to move a contract this offseason, and not get much in return. If they do that, Moller is one the team as well – but if he’s sent down to Manchester, he will no longer be waiver exempt, meaning recalling him would be a risk.
I said at the beginning of the year that I thought the Kings would win the Stanley Cup within Five Years. I still believe that. Did I believe this was their year? No, and the reason was simple – this season the Kings essentially played with one first line center (Kopitar) and two third line centers (Stoll, Handzus). They are moving towards playing with one first line center and two second line centers (Schenn, Loktinov) or, if Schenn turns out, eventually two first line type centers. This is a good thing. But it is also something that takes time. Perhaps Schenn or Loktinov come in next year and become a Logan Couture – a 30 goal scorer out of the gate – but probably not. They will need a few years to grow. The Kings are still heading in the right direction – even if that is so hard to admit right now, a day after another devastating playoff loss.