In almost every way, making the playoffs earlier than expected is and has been a fantastic development for the Kings.
Sometimes when your legs start moving at a faster rate, you might stumble a little. With that in mind, it’s fascinating to watch the Kings continue to move away from their rebuild and climb the ranks where they’re not far off the NHL’s biggest spenders.
Consider some of the fuel the Kings consumed trying to skyrocket through the ranks, and maybe put this rebuild totally behind them.
After acquiring and signing Fiala, Kings extends Kempe
In one of the most dramatic moves this offseason, the Kings traded defensive prospect Brock Faber and the 19th pick in the 2022 NHL Draft for the rights to Kevin Fiala. The Kings handed Fiala an audacious seven-year contract with a cap of $7.875 million hit at the end of June.
Weeks later, the Kings kept their in-house scoring threat alive, signing Adrian Kempe to a four-year contract with a cap of $5.5 million.
Now, these expenses vary between “reasonable enough”.
Adrian Kempe, signed 4×5.5 million by LA, is one of the top six scorers who had a great breakout season. Very effective player from the start, even if you have to give back defensively. #LAKings pic.twitter.com/sIpQPmeynK
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 9, 2022
And potentially quite nice.
Kevin Fiala comes in below market value at $7.9 million, on average, over the next seven years 💸 pic.twitter.com/Kma4hEyl6U
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) June 29, 2022
Still, the combined cost (nearly $13.4 million per year for several years) of Kempe + Fiala really drives things forward. It’s no longer your Kings who spend little and rebuild.
Are the Kings really out of their rebuilding phase, though? Well, they kind of have to be, short of a pivot or two. Let’s think about a salary cap prospect for the Kings and their place in the Pacific Division, Western Conference and NHL.
The Kings’ salary cap is rapidly shrinking
Via Cap Friendly, the Kings own nearly $6.5 million in cap space. This screening includes 17 roster spots covered.
Sean Durzi is headlining a whole bunch of RFAs, while the Kings also face decisions on which veteran defenders could be unrestricted free agents in Alexander Edler and Olli Määttä.
With both Drew Doughty and Sean Walker injured last season, young Kings defensemen Durzi and Jordan Spence handled the high roles remarkably well. For the majority.
(Any defender is going to struggle against Connor McDavid.)
Given the emergence of Durzi and Spence, and the hopeful healthy returns of Doughty and/or Walker, the Kings might be able to say goodbye to a veteran defenseman or two.
At the attacker level, they might also see a prospect or two make a jump – filling a spot on the roster for less.
With that in mind, the Kings are not necessarily need to trade one of their two goalkeepers Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen. Still, the duo cost a combined $10.8 million in salary cap space; Quick enters a contract year at $5.8 million, while Petersen’s $5 million cap lasts through 2024-25.
Swapping one of the two might end up making at least some sense.
[And NHL teams in need of goalies may very well be better off going the trade route]
Barring a Quick or Petersen trade, the Kings plan to enter next season pretty close to the salary cap. It’s a pretty quick climb to a team that didn’t seem ready for the throne as recently as last offseason.
(Although even then they made investments to get closer to a proficient level in the trade of Viktor Arvidsson and the signing of Phillip Danault.)
Larger expenditures lead to higher expectations and greater risks. What if the Path of Kings was less of a straight line and more of a journey with ups and downs?
What if the Kings had exceeded expectations in 2021-22?
Sometimes a team makes the playoffs earlier than expected and then overreacts.
The Kings need only look to Pacific Division opponent Vancouver for an example of being too hasty.
After losing in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, the Canucks have dropped three times in the first round and missed the playoffs once. Then the real downfall happened, as the Canucks missed the playoffs four years in a row (2015-16 to 2018-19).
Yet in 2019-20, the Canucks didn’t just survive the qualifying round in the odd playoff bubble setup. They beat both the Wild and the Blues in series, then pushed the Golden Knights to a Game 7.
In the Jim Benning days, the Canucks always seemed to be trying to force the process to speed up. Sometimes that meant adding the kind of veterans you hoped were the last missing pieces before they actually had most of the pieces that matter in place. Throwing it down the field rarely worked for Vancouver, and at times it seemed like the whole process had actually hurt the development of young players like Elias Pettersson.
Now the Kings haven’t blundered the Benning way. Sure, Danault’s contract was risky, but he’s the kind of player who can really get things done at a reasonable price. For a team that played structured hockey but couldn’t really finish, a game breaker like Kevin Fiala could be a godsend.
And the Kings still possess most of the elements of an NHL-ranked farming system. It’s not as if they had “mortgaged their future”.
Perhaps the point, then, is to practice a little patience. Or at least accept a certain degree of uncertainty.
An annual tradition: the WAR Roster Builder agency’s post-draft and pre-free ranking screening.
UFAs are NOT included, nor are non-LTI injuries. pic.twitter.com/iU1nmnW8m3
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 9, 2022
Many variables in the West
Look around out West, and you can convince yourself that the Kings are clearly a playoff team.
Although the Avalanche looks solid, there are many paths others could take. The Flames might not be powerhouses without Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk or both. The Canucks and Jets are hoping last season was just a hiccup, and the Golden Knights are really hoping they get back to form.
All of these variables create a blurry outlook for Los Angeles. Maybe it all clicks into place, and a team that has a lot of the “process” part of being a successful team, right…
… Will he have any luck scoring more goals on all those occasions?
On the other side, the Kings can also go through growing pains. If that happens and the other teams in the West improve a lot, a playoff appearance isn’t guaranteed.
It may sound bleak, but it’s only a cause for concern if the Kings lose sight of what has been an impressive vision in their rebuild. They enter this difficult stage where the “potential” must translate into production. Sometimes it’s not just a linear upward flight, but a journey with peaks and valleys.
Keep a cool head and the Kings could really be onto something. Either sooner or later.