So far this year, I’ve probably seen a few less movies than normal. It always works like this in the early months of the year – when there isn’t as much that really interests me, and I get lazy, and don’t go to the movies as much as I may like. I also get caught up in other aspects of popular culture. This weekend, for the first time I can recall, I didn’t see any movies. This is because the two nights I usually watch them – Friday and Saturday – I did other things – Friday was the heartbreaking final game for my beloved L.A. Kings, who fell to their arch-rival San Jose Sharks, and Saturday, my wife and I headed to Toronto to see If/Then at the Princess of Wales theater. With nothing much else to write about this week, I thought I’d do an all-encompassing post on what has been distracting me from movies – the Kings, various TV Shows, some musicals and a few books (I’m on my 29th of the year – well ahead of my goal of 52 for the year). I’m sure I’ll be back soon enough with more movie reviews – Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is supposed to hit theatres this week and I really want to see Key and Peele’s Keanu as well. Until then, some thoughts on everything else. (Warning, this became WAY longer than I thought – feel free to skip if you like – I wrote it to give myself something to write about this week).
Game of Thrones (Season 6 Premiere) – I was late to Game of Thrones – my wife and I went back and watched the first five seasons last summer/fall – and to be honest, I’m not a huge fan. It’s a decent show, and has had some great moments, and I can watch Peter Dinklage do anything – but the violence against women in the show is tough to take – there is just so much of it, and much of it has been mishandled. It’s also a show where not all that much seems to happen – I feel like we’ve been waiting for Daenerys to actually try and get the throne forever, and other characters seem to just wander around not doing anything for a season at a time. In all honesty, if my wife didn’t want to keep watching, I probably would have given up – not because it’s not good, but because there is only so much time in the world – which is why there are quite a few TV shows I’m sure I’d like that I have never gotten around to. The Season 6 Premiere was this Sunday, and, it basically didn’t do anything to change my feelings on the show. Basically the episode spent its entire running time setting everything up, but didn’t do all that much. Maybe Season 6 will make me a believer, but overall, I’m pretty lukewarm on the show, and I don’t see that changing now – even if they’ve cast some great actors (Ian McShane and Max von Sydow) for this season – which couldn’t hurt, considering that there are a lot of bad performances in this show.
The Walking Dead & Fear the Walking Dead (Season 6 and Season 2) – I didn’t watch The Walking Dead Season 1 when it was on – I binged those episodes over the course of a weekend right before Season 2 – but since then, I’ve watched it as they air. It’s always been a hit or miss show – always been one where some episodes are amazing, and then they follow those up with a lot of filler. Quite often, it seems like the show adds a lot of padding episodes – ones where not a lot happens, just to fill out their seasons. But I’ve always defended the show, to a certain extent, because the highs were high enough to justify the lulls. No, I’m not going to claim I’m not going to watch Season 7 because of the idiotic cliffhanger finale of Season 6 – but I do think I’ll stop defending it so much. The 90 minute finale was long and drawn out – and while there were moments of tension, it did become overly repetitive. I did think Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal as Negan was quite good – and then they had to go ahead and botch the landing thoroughly and completely. Season 6 – especially the back half – had its moments (the episode of Carol and Maggie being held hostage, and then killing their way out, was one for the ages) – but it often felt like a long, slow tease for Negan’s arrival. There were episodes where nothing happened. There were silly and stupid moves on the part of writers – the way they handled Glenn’s “death” which was truly stupid, and didn’t fool anyone. To build all that up, and then not pay it off was bound to make people angry. But to build it all up, then give us Negan, and then just withhold one piece of the story – who he killed – was idiotic. No, despite what Scott Gimple and company said this was not “the end of this season’s story” and that season 7 is about that death and aftermath. This was about manufacturing a cliffhanger – which can be fine when done right. It’s cheap storytelling – and considering how often The Walking Dead went to this well in Season 6 – the finale, Glenn and dumpster, even the penultimate episode when Daryl was “shot” tells me that the writers are running on fumes now, and don’t really know what to keep doing. The Walking Dead was never a great TV show – but it’s often been a very good one. I fear that’s no longer true going forward. How they handle this storyline going forward – and whether they’ve learned anything from the fan and critical reaction to the finale (which has been almost universally negative) will determine if The Walking Dead is creatively bankrupt or not.
Onto Fear the Walking Dead then. I liked the idea of the show when they announced it – after all, the original series never really dealt with the immediate outbreak and aftermath of the zombie apocalypse – as it didn’t pick up until Rick woke up, when the world was already in the shit. I like the actors they cast as well – Cliff Curtis, Kim Dickens and Ruben Blades are all excellent. Still, I found Season 1 to mainly be a snooze – and Season 2 isn’t a whole lot better. I appreciate they’re trying to do something different with the show – focus on a tighter group of characters, not be so reliant on gore, etc. Yet, so far, nothing really about the show has grabbed me that much. It’s hardly a terrible show – but I almost didn’t even start watching Season 2 – and to be honest, if it keeps being this dull, I probably won’t finish.
House of Cards (Season 4) – With two kids under 5 at home, binge watching is not something my wife and I can do very easily. It takes us months to get through most Netflix shows – even ones we quite like (Jessica Jones, Orange is the New Black, Daredevil – although 4 episodes into season 2 of that show, and it’s a slog so far – although Elektra just showed up, so I’ll be back for the next one). The one exception we have is House of Cards – no, we cannot do it over a weekend, but a week, sure. The show has always fallen into the realm of “guilty pleasure” – it’s more than a little ridiculous and over-the-top. Yet the performances are so good, and it’s so gleeful in the extremes its goes to, that I hardly care – and lap up every season. Season 3 though was the weakest the series had done though, and I started to worry that the series had run its course. Not to worry – Season 4 hit on all cylinders, and was, once again, the guilty pleasure it always has been. Spacey and Penn are wonderful – of course – and it’s a pleasure to see them work together, or against each other, as they constantly get painted into a corner, and then try and get out of it again. You could argue that Season 4 ends with a cliffhanger – how the hell can Underwood get out of this jam – which is basically all his previous jams becoming public – but that’s not really a cliffhanger so much as a premise of the show. I’m not going to argue House of Cards is great art – but its great trash, and to quote Pauline Kael on movies “they are so rarely great art, that if you cannot enjoy great trash, there’s no point in going”. The same is true for TV.
Better Call Saul (Season 2) – To me, the best ongoing show on television right now is AMC’s Better Call Saul – which just ended its second season, which was even better than its excellent first season. It is true that I worried that the show would simply be a Breaking Bad rehash – but what’s been interesting about it is that while the two series’ basically have the same outline, they are much different in tone – Better Call Saul is much more low-key, much less cathartic than Breaking Bad – which often gave the audience the relief of violence, and Better Call Saul hardly ever does. Both series are about their main characters long, slow slide into criminal behavior – selling their soul off a piece at a time. I do think that Jimmy’s (a brilliant Bob Odenkirk) slide is more tragic than Walt’s though – what became increasingly clear as Breaking Bad went along is that Walt was always an asshole, he just finally allowed himself to become what he always wanted to be in the first place. Jimmy though is a genuinely nice guy – yes, he’s a little bit of a hustler and a conman, but generally a well-intentioned one. If it weren’t for Chuck (Michael McKean) – his older brother who he cares for, despite the fact that Chuck shows him little to no respect – Jimmy may have actually been able to avoid what we know he will become. We continue to watch, and wait for the inevitable – and at times, it is painful – sooner or later, we know he’s going to do something with Kim (the wonderful Rhea Sea horn) that will ruin her – and while we don’t want that to happen, we know it will. It’s also been great to see Jonathan Banks’ Mike (how the hell he did not win the Emmy for Season 1, I will never understand) going through his own slide. He’s on a parallel path to Jimmy, occasionally crossing, and he provides what little violence the show has, and once again, it’s a sad slide. Banks is always a pleasure to watch – even when he’s doing nothing. It is true that Better Call Saul is a spinoff, and it has never really escaped the shadow of Breaking Bad – but the fact that is true, and it’ still one of the very best shows on TV is a testament to how good Breaking Bad was – and how good this is.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson – No one was more surprised than I was that The People vs. O.J. Simpson ended up being the best thing on TV this year. I assumed that this would be a trashy piece of tabloid exploitation – but it ended up being a fascinating, well made, extremely well written and acted series, using the infamous Simpson trial to examine racism, misogyny, celebrity, violence and much more in 10, distinct episodes. This is not a show built for binging – each episode has its own arch, and its own emphasis, even as they each served the larger series. You will not see a better performance on TV (or perhaps anywhere) this year than Sarah Paulson’s excellent portrayal of Marcia Clarke – who has never been portrayed as sympathetically as she has been here. That doesn’t preclude the excellent work by Courtney B. Vance as Johnny Cochrane – nailing the showmanship, but also what lied behind that, Sterling K. Brown’s brilliant, understated work as Christopher Darden (the scene he shares with Vance in the finale – where they are both right, and both wrong, is a highlight), Connie Britton’s one episode master class, and even the three more divisive performances – David Schwimmer is wonderful as Robert Kardashian (I loved the diner scene, and cannot think of anyone else being able to say the words Uncle Juice with such conviction), John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, who become an outsider in the show, and the legal team he assembled, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson himself – particularly in the final moments of the series, where he realizes he won’t go to jail, but that he’ll never get his life back either – he is now a pariah. Whether this creative team will be able to repeat the success with Season 2 – about Hurricane Katrina (which, considering Treme, and those two long Spike Lee docs, I’m not sure there’s much left to say – although I would have also thought that about O.J. Simpson) remains to be seen. But for one season anyway, they nailed it.
I would love to see more live theater – plays or musicals – but with two kids, and living in Brantford, it’s not really possible. On our last trip to New York (more than 5 years ago now) – by wife and I saw five productions in four days – musicals Next to Normal, Promises Promises, A Little Night Music and American Idiot, and a play, David Mamet’s Race – and had a great time. With two kids though, it’s not possible to jet off to New York – or even see much in Toronto (who slate doesn’t always interest me anyway) – but there are two musicals I’ve experienced, in different ways, recently.
Hamilton (Soundtrack) – No, I haven’t seen the musical yet – my wife says we will even if we have to kill someone, but who knows when. I have listened to, and become obsessed with the soundtrack though – which is brilliant. But by now you either a) already know this b) are refusing to listen to the soundtrack until you see the show or c) are sick and damn tired about hearing about a show you cannot see. I have a lot of sympathy for those final two views, so I won’t say much else except a ranking of my top 5 songs 5. My Shot 4. You’ll Be Back, 3.Washigton on Your Side 2. Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down) 1. Wait for it (so yes, I prefer act 1 to act 2).
If/Then (Toronto Production) – Out of all the musicals I have seen on stage, Next to Normal was easily my favorite (I saw it twice) – and it’s one of my wife’s favorites as well. So even if the reviews of If/Then, the latest from the creative team behind Next to Normal, on Broadway were mixed we decided we should check it out when it came to Toronto. And no, If/Then is nowhere near as good as Next to Normal – the songs are largely forgettable, and the production is trying way too hard. And yet, it still made for an entertaining night at the theater. Often compared to the movie Sliding Doors (although I prefer the comparison to Lionel Shriver’s great book The Post Birthday World) – the play follows a woman, just out of a 12 year, childless marriage in Phoenix, who returns to New York. From there, her life splits into two – one where she gets a job in city planning, and one where she doesn’t, but meets and falls in love with a doctor just back from Afghanistan. There are other characters – her boss who she may be in love with, her best friend (Anthony Rapp), who is bisexual, but kind of in love with her and miserable in one half, and in love with a man in the other, and a lesbian couple, who are just there as a sounding board for the main character (played by Idina Menzel on Broadway, and Jackie Burns in the production we saw). The first act is rather lightweight, forgettable but enjoyable – the highlight being the amusing song “What the Fuck?” Darkness starts creeping in late in act 1, and takes over large parts of act 2. I appreciated what they were going for here – asking the rather clichéd question as to whether it’s possible to have it all (the great job, the great marriage, kids, etc) and giving it an optimistic outlook at first, and not nearly so much to end things. They don’t quite pull it all off though, and unfortunately, the production is really rather shallow. The penultimate musical number – Always Starting Over – is a showstopper however, and although I imagine Menzel was even better on Broadway, I have to say Burns is a more than capable substitute for Toronto audiences. No, If/Then is not Next to Normal – which, after all, is the rare musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the last until, of course, Hamilton) – but it’s still a decent night at the theater.
I read – a lot – because I basically commute on a train for two hours a day, and have nothing else to do (I listen to Podcast – next section – but pretty much only when I’m at work). I’m up at 29 books for the year so far, and here are some highlights.
You/Hidden Bodies – Caroline Kepnes – I hadn’t heard of Caroline Kepnes’ 2014 book You, until earlier this year (I think it was on one of those lists of “If you liked Gone Girl…” which I usually ignore, although I love Gone Girl) – but when I did read it, I pretty much loved it. On the book jacket, one review calls its main character – Joe Goldberg – a cross between Holden Caufield and Patrick Bateman – and that’s an excellent description. The book is told from Joe’s POV – as he works at a New York Book Store, decrying the stupidity of those around him. It’s there that he meets the beautiful Beck, an University student, who he falls in love with, and will do ANYTHING to get her, and keep her. He cyber stalks her (and has access to her e-mail, etc) – and will eventually kill for her as well – something he has done in the past. You is a disturbing book, as it traps you inside Joe’s mind, and you really do feel for him to a certain extent – the people he kills, and even Beck, do seem annoying or do betray him in some way – but then you realize you’re only seeing things from Joe’s point of view, and the fact that you agree with him is disturbing. The follow-up book, 2016’s Hidden Bodies, could be called Joe Goes to Hollywood – is that is precisely what he does – he finds another woman, and more people to kill that are in his way, and the sick dance continues – where you root for Joe and see his POV, and then are disturbed by it. Kepnes is a good writer, and I’m fascinated to see where Joe goes next – the novel ends on a cliffhanger, so a third book is all but guaranteed (although, I think, that perhaps it should end – before Joe really starts to repeat himself). As it stands, these two books are disturbing, entertaining and a fascinating look at misogyny and murder.
In the Lake of the Woods – Tom O’Brien – This is a book I had not heard of, but our good friend Joe Goldberg from You recommended. It’s easy to see why Joe loved the book – the main character in the book also stalks the woman he loves, but in a more traditional way. The book is about a Vietnam vet turned politician, whose career is derailed when his role in the My Lai massacre is exposed. In the days after suffering a humiliating primary defeat, he and his wife retreat to a remote cabin in Minnesota – and a few days later she disappears. The book has three different kinds of chapters. The most traditional is a third person narration – although not the normal, omnipotent narrator, but a writer, who admits his own obsessions and biases, and what he doesn’t know. The second are the Hypothesis chapters, where the writer spins various theories about what happened. The third is Evidence chapters, which is basically interview segments with some of the players involved. O’Brien weaves the past and present together – and never does solve the central mystery (be warned those who insist on closure) but has written a masterful book – the best I’ve read so far this year. Yes, the book is two decades old, but it’s brilliant, so if you haven’t read it, do so.
Movie Freak – Owen Glieberman/Better Living Through Criticism – A.O. Scott – More relevant to movies are these two books by movie critics. Owen Gleiberman’s Movie Freak is a more traditional book, where the former EW critic recounts his life and obsession with movies from his childhood to today – as well as offering a glimpse inside EW during his time there, and his own life, where it’s safe to say, he wasn’t always a very good person. The book recalls Roger Ebert’s Life Itself – although not as good or as deep, but anyone who likes Gleiberman (who was one of the first critics I read, during my time as an EW subscriber in the late 1990s, and who I kept up even after I stopped getting the magazine delivered), it is a lively and entertaining read. You cannot say the same about A.O. Scott’s Better Living through Criticism, which isn’t the easiest read, but it is a vital and important one about the nature of criticism, and why it’s so important. In an era where film critics – and really, critics of all kind, are becoming an endangered species, Scott lays out the history of criticism, and why it matters in a fascinating way. It is a must read.
I was late to Podcasts – like many, I think, I didn’t pay too much attention to them until season 1 of Serial made it completely impossible to ignore them. I loved that season, and since then, I’ve started listening to more and more of them. The Podcasts I listen to basically break down into four categories – True Crime, NPR, Entertainment and Comedy. So a few quick words on each.
True Crime – I have admitted my love of shows like Dateline in the past, as well as many True Crime Documentaries and Series, as well as books. Yes, I think there is a line that some cross between informative and exploitive – and that’s certainly true of Podcasts as well – I’ve sampled a few other True Crime Podcasts, and stopped, because of this. But the good ones are great. I quite like Generation Why, in which two friends go over a case – either famous or not, and offer their own opinions on it. I don’t really care for it when they venture outside of the True Crime realm, for mysteries like aliens or Bermuda Triangle, or whatever – but that’s just me. One I’ve started listening to recently that has a similar format – True Crime Garage – can also be quite good (I could stand with a little less of them telling me how much they like the cut of someone’s jib, but that’s a small part of it). I think I disagree a little more with them as well – I think there may be a few more factual inaccuracies that I noticed, but they are relatively new – and I think they continue to get better, so I’m sticking with them. Two other new ones that I have varying opinions on are Casefile – a great New Zealand based podcast. It is informative, disturbing and really well done – and one of the best things about it is that because it’s based in New Zealand, you get different cases than the others (for instance recently, at three of the other True Crime podcasts had an interview with Juan Martinez, prosecutor of Jodi Arias – and yeah, he’s an interesting guest, but no, I didn’t need to listen to three or four different interviews with him). CBC’s Someone Knows Something seems to me to be a deliberate attempt to replicate the success of Serial, focusing on one case, week after week. What I cannot help but think though is that there really isn’t much to talk about in this one case – the whole thing seems awfully padded. It’s interesting, and I’ll keep listening, but it’s far from great. For something (at least occasionally) lighter, Criminal, is quite good. Yes, it can get dark, but often they have less serious crimes (episodes recently have been about a poisoned tree and missing whiskey) – and they’re fairly short (25 minutes) – and well researched. True Murder with Dan Zupansky is referred to by many of the other podcasts as the Godfather of True Crime podcasting – and his weekly show, where he interviews the author of a true crime book, is endlessly interesting – the quality varies with the guest to be sure, but it is an essential true crime podcast. My favorite though is probably Sword & Scale, which is a bi-weekly podcast that delves into one case each episode, and finds some of the most disturbing ones imaginable. If you never want to sleep again, listen to Episode 20, and a variety show host/puppeteer on Christian Television and his online activities. Sword & Scale has typically stayed away from the more infamous cases – and delves a little deeper than most – which is probably why it’s my favorite.
NPR Podcasts – Like any good liberal (hell, I’m a liberal Canadian, putting me fairly left on the political spectrum in America – although oddly, I haven’t really responded to Bernie Sanders, and find myself rooting for Hilary Clinton – but hell, it’s not my country – vote for who you want), I like NPR and their Podcasts. Their newest is Embedded, and I’ve liked what I’ve heard enough to keep listening. It’s a weekly, about half hour show, where the reporters dig into one story, by, yes, embedding with those involved. I also quite like the NPR Politics Podcast, despite my being Canadian, because American elections always fascinate me (perhaps because I can be a dispassionate observer) – and they are doing great work on this one. Planet Money is a favorite of mine as well – 20 minute pods about various economic issues (I am an accountant after all). Pop Culture Happy Hour could fit into the next section as well – but this weekly roundtable talking about, you guessed it, Pop Culture moderated by the great Linda Holmes, is always interesting – even if I have no interest at all in what they are talking about. The granddaddy of them all is This American Life, which I adore. For a while, after Serial, I went back listened to most of the back catalogue of This American Life episodes, and it really is quite amazing – a document of the last 20 some odd years in America.
Then there is Serial, season 2. Like the rest of the world, I was addicted to Season 1 – but not so much season 2. I think it was a savvy move to not try and replicate season 1 – not really do a True Crime podcast, and not concentrate on a case where the facts are really under dispute – we all know what Bo Bergdahl did, the real question was why, and whether he was responsible for any American deaths. I still listened every two weeks to the new Serial, but was hardly obsessed with it the same way I was with Season 1. I think the move to every other week was deadly – it killed any momentum the show had – I honestly forgot when they were coming out. Still, it was a very good, very informative Podcast. Had Season 1 not come out, than Season 2 would probably look better? I will still be there for Season 3 (which was originally scheduled – I think – for Spring 2016 – although with the move to every other week on Season 2, I don’t know if that’s still the case).
Not surprisingly, another area of Podcast I listen to are movie related – I’ve basically settled on four, after trying out quite a few (and finding many rather annoying for one reason or another. Basically, if it’s part of the “Filmspotting Network”, I’ll listen. The original Filmspotting with Josh Larsen and Adam Kempenar and Filmspotting SVU with Matt Singer and Alison Wilmore, are insightful, funny and offer a good conversation about various films – the original focusing more on what in theaters, and SVU on what’s on demand. Josh and Adam are more likely to disagree and have (good argument) but Matt and Alison are more likely to make me laugh – and perhaps discover some smaller films on demand (it’s where I first heard about Karyn Kusama’s excellent The Invitation) a few years ago. Yes, I could stand both podcasts to be shorter – running 90 minutes, at least, is a little long, but for the most part, I’m down with both. My favorite of this group though is the newest one – The Next Picture Show – where four critics of the late, great film site The Dissolve get together and do two podcasts in one week (and take the next week off) – one focused on an older film, and one on a newer one that is somehow connected (by genre, theme, etc) to the older one. Keith Phipps, Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias and Genevieve Koski are the group now (producer Koski stepping in for Rachel Handler, who got a job in New York) – and their conversations into classic films are quite good – framing them in a new light, especially when compared to what came next. The one issue I have with this Podcast is sometimes, they hop on movies too close to release – for example, this week they have paired John Carpenter’s 1976 masterpiece Assault on Precinct 13 with Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room – which won’t have even hit Toronto by then, let along most places. I’m going to do my best to see Green Room this week – but I’m certainly not go to listen to a 45 minute Podcast devoted to a film I am dying to see, and want to go into as fresh possible.
The best movie podcast out there – in fact one of the best podcast period is You Must Remember This by Karina Longworth, who delves into Hollywood’s past, telling stories of their dark history. The highlight of this podcast is certainly the 12 part series Charles Manson’s Hollywood – which takes a different look at Manson and his crimes and his connection to entertainment than I’ve seen anyone else do. She’s followed that up with a very good series entitled MGM Stories, and is currently in the middle of a series on the Hollywood Blacklist. Before that, there was a series called Star Wars – about what Hollywood stars did during WWII. The earliest episode are – not surprisingly – a little spottier. They were basically stand alones about one star or another – although there are some real gems in there as well. In short, if I was making a list of my favorite podcasts – the one that I listen to as soon as it drops – this may well be my current favorite.
Finally, my last two podcasts fall into the comedy category – I guess. There is no doubt that Judge John Hodgman is a comedy podcast – a weekly case, or docket clearing, by Hodgman who rules on all matters great and small, and which makes me laugh more consistently than just about anything else these days. The other is WTF with Marc Maron – which has become a standard. Not every WTF is great – it does depend wildly on the guest – but you can never tell which one will be. I learned this when I nearly skipped the David Spade episode a while back – thinking I couldn’t care less about David Spade, and it turned out to be one of the best recent episodes. So even though I care nothing about Steve-O – I’ll at least give his most recent one a listen.
The Los Angeles Kings
I’ve put my beloved Kings as the last entrant, since it is the furthest thing from movies on this list, so you’re more than welcome to simply skip it. I love the Kings – and I have since I was 6, when they acquired my favorite player – Wayne Gretzky. There were A LOT of horrible years after Gretzky left. All that changed a few years ago, when the Kings actually became good. They’ve made the playoffs in six or the last seven years, won two Stanley Cups (the first in Franchise History) alongside another run to the Conference Finals in there. For a three year stretch – between 2012-2014 – the Kings won two cups, 10 playoff round and 41 Playoff Games, and could rival the Chicago Blackhawks for the closest thing to a dynasty the NHL can now produce in the Salary Cap Era. Now, two years later, the Dynasty talk is done – and the questions as to whether the Kings are all that good anymore are real. That is because in the last two years, the Kings have won zero playoff rounds, and only one playoff game. Yes, they had their best Regular Season in quite a while, leading their division for most of the season, before blowing it in the last week 9thatr shootout loss to Winnipeg, meaning they had to play San Jose instead of Nashville, looms large right now). But the question remains about the Kings – what happened, and can they recover?
The answer to the first question – what happened – really is quite simple. GM Dean Lombardi has talked about valuing loyalty in his team, and that is precisely what he has done. He handed out big contracts to Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick and Marion Gaborik, and just recently to Anze Kopitar, alongside Jeff Carter’s large, long-term contract (that he acquired), and Drew Doughty’s – which he signed before the first cup run, and smaller multi-year deals to the likes of Matt Greene, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez. He refused to buy out Mike Richards’ contract after the second cup run – preferring to believe Richards would regain his form, and letting the amnesty buyout period go away, before getting himself in a lot of trouble the next year – demoting Richards to the AHL, trying to find someone, anyone to take him, and then “terminating” his contract under strange circumstances, which involved throwing Richards under the bus (which didn’t, and doesn’t, sit well with me – Lombardi aired Richards’ demons to try and justify himself, which is the opposite of loyalty to me).
The biggest problem the Kings have had though is simple – ever since Slava Voynov proved himself to be a horrible human being, by being charged with felony domestic violence, eventually pleading no-contest, serving some (not nearly enough) jail time, and “self-deporting” (before he could be actually deported), they Kings have struggled with their depth on the blue line. Don’t get me wrong – there are things that are FAR more important than hockey – and domestic violence is one of them, and I am glad that Voynov is no longer a L.A. King or an NHL player (and no, I didn’t like much of what Lombardi had to say about Voynov during the season long legal process, and was embarrassed to be a King fan when they allowed him to practice with them – resulting in a fine). But, the truth is, Lombardi had a plan for defensive depth, and Voynov being an awful person screwed it up – and Lombardi hasn’t been able to fix it in two years.
This was the main reason why the Kings lost in 5 to the San Jose Sharks – there were others, but this was the main one. As long as the Kings could ice Doughty, Muzzin and Martinez on the backend, they could get away with everyone else – as soon as Martinez was hurt in Game 1, their lack of depth hurt them, Luke Schenn (who, I cannot imagine being back next year) was supposed to be a replacement for the injured Matt Greene – playing a few minutes a night as the sixth D-man – giving him top 4 minutes was, to put it mildly, not good. Lombardi’s decision to re-acquire Rob Scuderi at the trade deadline was also a head scratcher – the Pens and Hawks had already given up on Scuderi this year, and even if all the Kings had to give up was Christian Erhoff – who never fit in L.A. – Scuderi still has a year left on his deal after this one, and Erhoff didn’t. Scuderi did what he could in the playoffs – but he’s clearly not the same player he was a few years ago, when he was one of the Kings best d-men. Jamie McBain wasn’t awful in the series – but he wasn’t really good either. And Brayden McNabb was fine – nothing more or less.
The concerning thing going forward is that this team clearly needs to add a top 4-defenseman if they’re going to be great again. But how will that work? Doughty, Muzzin and Martinez area all under contract for next year – so far so good – but then again so is Scuderi and Matt Greene (who may, or may not, come back). Then there’s McNabb, not to mention Gravel and Forbert, who they used on occasion. One assumes, they’ll let McBain and Jeff Schultz (who they have used occasionally) go. But where is a top 4 defensemen going to fit. They’ve locked themselves down a little bit.
They also need to improve their forward depth as well. Despite the playoffs, I still think Kopitar, Gaborik, Carter and Toffoli are fine in your top 6 – and while I shudder at another long term contract, if they resign Milan Lucic, he fits as well (for now – please don’t let it be a 8 year contract though – anything longer than 3 is really risking it in my mind). That still leaves a spot open. Can Tanner Pearson finally lock it down? The Kings had Dwight King play there in the playoffs and that did not go well. The bottom 6 also needs some work. Gone will be Vinny Lecavlier – who played quite good for the Kings since coming over, making their biggest need up front a third line center. No, Trevor Lewis (who is UFA), Andy Andreoff or Nick Shore are not going to get it done there. And the rest of the bottom six – Dwight King, Kyle Clifford, Nic Dowd, Jordan Nolan, etc are all useful players – but not much else. A shakeup there wouldn’t be a bad idea (but keep Lewis – I love Lewis).
The biggest question mark is Dustin Brown. There were a lot of people – myself included – who didn’t like the long-term contract he got when it was signed – he was already trending downward at that time, and it’s continued. And he’s going to make nearly $6M a year until 2022. That’s WAY too much for a third line winger. Can the Kings find someone to take Brown, and what will the return be. Best case scenario is that they have to take a problem contract back – but maybe it’s a problem contract on a player who can be more useful for the Kings. (For the record, I don’t have a problem with Jonathan Quick – yes, the back breaking goal in Game 5 against Pavelski was a muffin – but overall, I don’t think he was the reason the Kings lost the series).
Will Lombardi actually do this though? That’s the question. Lombardi has already gone through a few different “eras” as GM of the Kings – when he took over, and the Kings sucked, he was all about stock piling draft picks and prospects, and signing “bridge” players until those picks and prospects were ready. When the Kings got better, he was about adding players to make them go from good to great – Dustin Penner, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Marion Gaborik. Lombardi seems to think he’s still there – handing out those loyalty contracts to his players, and trading away picks and prospects for the likes of Andrej Sekera (who helped the kings – though not enough) and Milan Lucic (who was good for the Kings – but good enough to justify what they gave away for him?). What Lombardi needs to be now is heartless. He needs to trim the fat, and bring in some new blood. The Kings do not need a rebuild – I’m not talking about tearing it down to the ground – but they need a retool. For an example, they need to look at the team who just beat them – the San Jose Sharks. While the core of the Sharks team – Thornton, Pavelski, Burns, Vlasic, etc. – hasn’t much changed since the Kings reverse swept them in 2014 (take out Niemi in net, and add in Jones) – they are still a very different team than that one. They had 10 new players on the team that beat LA compared to the team that lost to them. GM Doug Wilson has made his mistakes over the years – like every GM does – but he’s made smart decisions to replace the depth around that core, and that helped them. That is what LA needs to do. If they do that, then yes, I think the Kings can be a great team again. A Cup team? Maybe, maybe not – there’s so much that goes into being a Cup team – including luck – that you cannot control. But a team capable of more than the last two years? Definitely. But, we shall see. The Kings have not played like themselves the past two years – or perhaps, even sadder, they have. And this is just the new Kings.