The Los Angeles Kings have the second-highest payroll against the cap of any team in the league, behind only Chicago. And that’s before Drew Doughty’s massive new contract kicks in for 2019-20.
They’ve added talent this summer in Ilya Kovalchuk and basically maxed out their spending limits barring one or two very, very small moves to round out the roster.
But here’s a question for you: Where does any of this get them?
Kovalchuk helps, probably a decent amount. He’s 35, sure, but even if he’s just a sheltered-usage power-play specialist he’ll probably get to 45 or 50 points with relative ease. That’s his offensive talent level. The question is, though, whether they were an “adding a 35-year-old maybe-borderline-elite scorer” away from really doing anything of note in the league this season, or the next, or the one after that?
One wonders what the Kings thought they were last season, because they were the second-to-last team in the playoffs in the West, playing in a crap division that certainly padded their point total. Moreover, they got elite goaltending all year from a group that doesn’t traditionally provide it as well as a 61-point season from Dustin Brown.
Can they reasonably expect that kind of production from Jonathan Quick and Brown next year? Probably not. Quick is 32 and his .921 save percentage was the second-highest of his career, albeit not that far out of his career average (.916) that this is some egregious Marc-Andre Fleury-like abberation. Nonetheless, goalies don’t just get better as they age, so assuming he faced the same workload (almost 1,870 shots) and stops his career average, that’s 10 extra goals against. Probably about three points in the standings.
But do you think the Blues, who were the first team out of the postseason, maybe added some points to their own totals this summer? That’s a problem.
Meanwhile, I don’t think anyone is overly optimistic that Brown is a reliable 60- or even 50-point guy, so what do the Kings do when he turns back into a pumpkin? The obvious answer is, “Hope Kovalchuk covers for him.” But even if you shuffle everyone on that side of the ice down one spot in the lineup, I’m not sure Kovalchuk adds 10 goals to your total above and beyond what an outsized Brown season did.
The thinking, maybe, is that adding Kovalchuk solidifies the Kings’ position within the Pacific, especially as Anaheim could be on a downswing and Vegas certainly won’t be a 109-point team next season. But even given the general weakness of the division where does this team realistically see itself in the West? Can’t be much higher than the current seventh if they’re being honest with themselves.
One might argue that this team, with the same core, won a Cup in 2012 as a 95-point eighth seed. But that was when Anze Kopitar was 24, Doughty 22, Mike Richards and Jonathan Quick 26, Jeff Carter 27, Slava Voynov pre-deported, and Justin Williams on the roster. Now all those guys are six years older, Voynov maybe coming back to the NHL (though probably not with the Kings) after years away, Richards basically forced into retirement, and Williams toiling fruitlessly for Carolina. Kovalchuk makes up for some of that, but not all of it.
Is this team anything other than, if we’re being generous, a second-round out? Because they got swept out of the first round last year (by an expansion team ha ha ha) and still needed unexpectedly great years from two wrong-side-of-30 players to do it.
And the larger point is that the ghosts of the Dean Lombardi era will be haunting this team for a while, and short of signing John Tavares they weren’t going to be able to steer this ship away from the rocks of inevitability. They’ll likely be worse this year than last. And the year after that as well.
By the time we get to 2020-21 (and barring any amnesty buyouts they might be able to pull off), the Kings will have about $57.9 million committed to just nine players. Those players? Well, it’s not pretty: 38-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk; 36-year-old Dustin Brown, Dion Phaneuf and Jeff Carter; 35-year-old Jon Quick; 33-year-old Anze Kopitar and Alec Martinez; 31-year-old Drew Doughty; and the spring chicken, 28-year-old Tanner Pearson.
That doesn’t include their likely plans to re-sign Jake Muzzin and Tyler Toffoli, who are currently 29 and 26, respectively, already more or less out of their primes. Other guys will have gone by then, assuredly, and others will have matured into usefulness. One can probably even see the Kings making trades to offload one or two of those bad deals.
But boy that’s a lot of money committed to a lot of guys who have already played a hell of a lot of games. This attempt to wring a little more competition out of a group that already won two Cups comes off as at least a little bit sad, if we’re being honest. Like, trying to whip Brown and Phaneuf into giving you anything more than they already have seems needlessly cruel, doesn’t it?
As with the John Carlson thing in Washington, you couldn’t reasonably let these players walk, but paying Kopitar and Doughty a combined $21 million until they’re in their late 30s is only likely to piss the fans off four, five, six years down the line. People in Chicago aren’t exactly enthused at the price tag for Toews and Kane anymore and we’re like three years into those deals. Those two guys at least had a little more youth on their side at the time.
One wonders if the Kings pursued Kovalchuk so aggressively because they made the playoffs last year. If they fall a few points short, as Brown only puts up 45 points or Quick is only a little above average, does the front office try to make something happen in free agency this summer, or do they just let this thing turn to rust?
You can never really blame a team for wanting to be competitive after a surprisingly good season. That’s in these guys’ blood. And it’s admirable in its way. But at the same time, you don’t get style points for how spectacularly you crash. That just makes it harder to put the ship back together again, and that should have always been the Kings’ long-term plan.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.