On December 2, 2018, the Los Angeles Kings made a minor roster adjustment by claiming winger Brendan Leipsic off of waivers from Vancouver.
This was the second waiver claim made by the Los Angeles Kings in two days, coming a day after Los Angeles General Manager Rob Blake claimed another winger, Nikita Scherbak, off waivers from Montreal. Considering the Kings are sitting last in the entire National Hockey League standings, it’s hard to see these moves as much more than just cosmetic.
Last season Los Angeles found itself with 98 points to end the regular season, and comfortably in a playoff position. Despite being the lower seed in the playoffs, they were the favourites of many to beat the upstart Vegas Golden Knights in the first round. A team that averaged nearly three goals a game in the regular season (2.9 according to NHL.com), the Los Angeles Kings could only muster three total goals in a four game series that saw them swept out of the playoffs by the expansion Golden Knights.
To say this season has gone poorly for the Kings would be like describing the Hindenburg disaster as “a bit of a rough landing”. This season, the Kings are barely averaging 2 goals per game (2.1 according to NHL.com), are conceding over 3 goals per game (3.1 according to NHL.com). And whereas last year they finished the season with 98 points, they are currently on pace to finish with 59 points. A difference of 39 points! To put that into context, the Buffalo Sabres were just a horrible team last season, finishing last in the entire league, and yet they still finished with 62 points. To go from a playoff team to last in the league within just a few months, is just stunning. Oh the humanity!
So what have the Los Angeles Kings done to try to right this sinking ship? Well, Rob Blake made every General Manager’s favourite move on November 4 by firing coach John Stevens, and naming Willie Desjardins as interim coach. At that stage the Kings were 4-8-1. That move has largely been equivalent to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, the Kings having gone 6-10-0 since then, still firmly holding onto last place.
So what’s gone wrong? The season started with optimism when Los Angeles won the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes, signing the former all-star forward to a three-year contract in the off-season. Additionally, they managed to sign their Norris-trophy winning defenseman Drew Doughty to a long-term contract, ensuring they wouldn’t have to risk losing him for nothing in free agency in 2019. It would be easy to point to the injuries of starting goaltender Jonathan Quick, and back-up goaltender Jack Campbell as reasons for their decline, and that is fair to a certain extent. After all, last season they conceded less than 2.5 goals per game, and as mentioned earlier they are now conceding more than 3.1. However, that doesn’t explain the even greater drop in offensive production.
A primary point of concern would be the aging core of the team. Here is a list of players who earn more than 4 million dollars against the salary cap that have contracts that expire well into their thirties. (Courtesy of capfriendly.com)
- 28-year-old Defenseman Drew Doughty – 11 million until 2027 – 37 upon expiry
- 31-year-old Centre Anze Kopitar – 10 million until 2024 – 37 upon expiry
- 35-year-old Winger Ilya Kovalchuk – 6.25 million until 2021 – 38 upon expiry
- 34-year-old Winger Dustin Brown – 5.875 million until 2022 – 37 upon expiry
- 32-year-old Goaltender Jonathan Quick – 5.8 million until 2023 – 37 upon expiry
- 33-year-old Centre Jeff Carter – 5.273 million until 2022 – 37 upon expiry
- 33-year-old Defenseman Dion Phaneuf – 5.25 million until 2021 – 36 upon expiry
- 31-year-old Defenseman Alec Martinez – 4 million until 2021 – 33 upon expiry
That’s a problem. The only player on their team earning more than 4 million per year that will be under the age of thirty when his contract expires is the underperforming 26-year-old Tyler Toffoli. This is a huge problem for the Kings. The team is up against the salary cap roof, and those aforementioned contracts are becoming increasingly difficult to move as their productivity declines.
Consider, for example, star free-agent signing Ilya Kovalchuk. Nine times the 35-year-old winger has scored 30 or more goals, including two fifty-goal seasons. In a season that is one-third completed, he has scored five. Five goals. That’s it. He would need to slightly improve to score even 15 for the season. What about 10-time 20 goal scorer Jeff Carter? This season he is on pace to collect less than 15 goals. Last season Anze Kopitar scored 35 goals. This season he is on pace to collect 20. Cast your eye up and down the line-up, and the regression from last season to this season is ubiquitous and severe.
So what needs to be done? The Kings recognize that they need to get younger and faster, anticipating that such changes will lead to them becoming better. But they haven’t done anything to make themselves younger and faster. As much as I love Brendan Leipsic, he has shown himself to be little more than a depth player. I mean if the Vancouver Canucks felt that Leipsic couldn’t help their pitiable forward group, that tells you something. Rob Blake needs to make a bigger move than just waiver wire pickups.
Hockey analyst and insider Elliotte Friedman quotes one NHL executive as saying that “when a General Manager needs a lifeline, there’s thirty others throwing you anchors”. I acknowledge that being a General Manager isn’t easy. Improving your team isn’t easy. Taking risks isn’t easy. We hear that all the time. Well guess what? My job isn’t easy all the time. Your job isn’t easy all the time. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we can sit on our hands and do nothing, complaining to everyone who will listen that our job is so hard. General Managers are paid to do a job, and they are paid well. I’m sick of hearing excuses from them and sections of their fan base telling us that it’s too hard for them to make the necessary changes. Until GM Rob Blake makes a big move, shaking up the core of this team, any other changes are just lipstick, or rather, Leipsic, on a pig.
Thanks for reading. How would you address the issues surrounding the Kings? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section. Also feel free to yell at me on Twitter. @CanberrasCanuck
stats from NHL.com and hockey-reference.com
salary research from capfriendly.com