Pacific Division Overview: Kings look to return to contention amid organizational turnover

Jonathan Quick’s health, Anze Kopitar’s ability to rebound among major questions facing Los Angeles.

Here’s the Los Angeles Kings edition of our Pacific Division Overview series in anticipation of the Golden Knights’ regular season, which opens Oct. 6 at 5:30 PT.

Los Angeles’ 2016-2017 Season

The 2016-2017 season was an unlucky one for the Kings. In the first game of the season, star netminder Jonathan Quick went down with an injury and quickly (pun intended) was ruled out for the majority of the season. Though the team received solid goaltending from backup Peter Budaj, it was the second time in the last three years that the two-time Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings did not qualify for the playoffs.

2016-2017 Roster Highlights

Offensively, Jeff Carter carried the Kings on his back, leading the team in goals (32) and points (66) while scoring nine game-winning tallies in the process. Carter’s linemate Tanner Pearson scored a career-high 24 goals and 44 points, but it was Carter who really drove the team.

Captain Anze Kopitar had a down year after signing an eight-year, $80 million extension last summer. The 12-goal and 52-point season was the worst performance of Kopitar’s career and fell far short of the consistent 70-point campaigns he has produced in years past.

Former captain Dustin Brown saw a slight increase in production but still managed just 36 points after producing five straight 50-point campaigns between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012. His $5.875 million cap hit for another five years is considered one of the worst contracts in the NHL and makes his decline that much more concerning. Similarly, Marian Gaborik has four years remaining on a deal with a $4.875 million cap charge but can’t stay healthy and has recorded just 21 and 22 points in the past two seasons, respectively.

Jake Muzzin was often sluggish and ineffective last year and finished the season with a career-low and team-worst minus-21 rating, also seeing a drop in production from 40 points in 2015-2016 to 28 last season. The Kings are thin on the blue line, especially after losing Brayden McNabb in the expansion draft, and can ill afford sloppy play from a top-four defenseman.

Most Significant Offseason Moves

The Kings locked up both Tyler Toffoli and Pearson to multi-year team-friendly extensions. Toffoli, who is coming off a down year after missing 19 games and recording just 34 points, signed a three-year, $13.8 million extension, and Pearson signed a four-year, $15 million contract. Both players are core components of the Kings’ offense.

Additionally, Los Angeles signed winger Mike Cammalleri to a low-risk, high-reward one-year, $1 million contract. The 35-year-old, who started his career in Los Angeles and played with Kopitar and Brown in 2007-2008, is coming off the worst season of his career (10 goals, 21 assists in 61 games) and has not scored a goal since Jan. 3. However, he’s a candidate for a bounce-back year and could provide some much-needed production for a scoring-starved offense.

Lastly, the Kings organization has undergone significant changes, as general manager Dean Lombardi and head coach Darryl Sutter were both fired and have been replaced by Rob Blake and former Kings assistant coach John Stevens, with Luc Robitaille serving as president of the organization. The message from management indicates that the Kings will stay the course despite recent negative results. However, elite defenseman Drew Doughty has added some pressure to the mix by recently stating he might not re-sign with Los Angeles if the Kings do not return to perennial Cup-contender form.

Previewing Los Angeles’ 2017-2018 Lineup

Cammalleri and Jonny Brodzinski have been competing for the third slot on the top line with Kopitar and Brown, though Brodzinski seems to have the edge for now, and the “That 70’s Line” of Carter, Toffoli and Pearson will remain intact. There are still several defensemen competing for a few slots, including Oscar Fantenberg, who has impressed during camp. For now, here’s one possibility for how the Kings will start the season:




Bottom Line

Even though Los Angeles has won two Stanley Cups in this decade, the current roster has multiple holes and lacks scoring ability. Though there’s elite talent at each position, the lack of cap flexibility limited the Kings’ options this offseason and will force the Kings to make do with the current personnel. But there are several major questions facing the team entering the 2017-2018 season.

For one thing, will Quick be healthy enough to lead his team to the postseason? Can backup Darcy Kuemper be reliable enough to give 31-year-old Quick adequate time to rest? Kuemper’s 3.13 goals-against average and .902 save percentage in 17 starts last year in Minnesota aren’t reassuring indications of his ability. Also, can Kopitar rebound and return to his typical All-Star and Selke-worthy play? Can Brown contribute offensively and return to previous form to at least somewhat justify his contract? Cammalleri was a smart signing but brings question marks of his own with injury concerns and a lack of recent scoring.

With a more open system under Stevens, the Kings will have to strike a balance between creating more offensively and continuing to employ the team’s go-to strong defensive play. Even with Kopitar, Doughty, Quick, Carter, Toffoli, etc., Los Angeles has a very steep hill to climb to return to playoff action, let alone Cup contention.