Our 2019-20 season postmortem series continues. Next up among the seven teams whose seasons have officially ended: the Los Angeles Kings (29-35-6), who have mostly crept around the Pacific Division dungeon early in the era of GM Rob Blake – but are starting to build an exciting foundation for the future.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Blake was named GM in April 2017. While the franchise made the playoffs in his first season there and occasionally positioned itself as a win-now operation, such as when it signed Ilya Kovalchuk, the underlying plan has been to rebuild through the draft. Before Blake took over, the Kings were perennial contenders for much of the Dean Lombardi era, and winning two Stanley Cups meant dealing way a lot of draft picks. The Kings picked once in the first round from 2013 to 2016.
Under the Blake era, the Kings began to stockpile, keeping their first-rounders in three consecutive years (and adding one via trade) to nab Gabe Vilardi, Rasmus Kupari, Alex Turcotte and Tobias Bjornfot. The Kings picked no higher than fifth overall during that span, however, and thus did not net a prospect ready to jump directly to the NHL. With the kids slow-cooking, that meant icing a roster relatively bereft of exciting young talent to start 2019-20. Championship stalwarts such as defenseman Drew Doughty, centers Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, right winger Dustin Brown and goalie Jonathan Quick remained aboard, but all are on the wrong side of 30. The rest of the roster was filled out with lower-ceiling depth players such as center Michael Amadio and defenseman Sean Walker. The 2019-20 campaign wasn't an engineered tank job, but Blake was clearly conservative in his roster construction, making no major off-season additions.
It thus wasn’t a surprise to see the Kings go 4-9-0 in October and spend most of the season outside the playoff picture. Even when the Kings were winning Cups, they weren’t a potent offensive club, and the scoring was even more arid this season. Only the Detroit Red Wings had fewer goals. The Kings actually averaged the fourth-most shots on goal per 60 in the league at 5-on-5 and the third-most shot attempts at 5-on-5, but they owned the second-lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league and generated the 17th-most scoring chances per 60 at 5-on-5. They just don’t have any pure finishers anymore. With Tyler Toffoli traded during the season, they boasted just one 20-goal scorer in Kopitar, who totalled 62 points. No other King finished with more than 43 points.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
This wasn’t a bad defensive hockey club. In 5-on-5 play, the Kings allowed the fifth-fewest shots on goal and 10th-fewest shot attempts against per 60 minutes. Goaltending was a strength overall, too. Prospect Cal Petersen joined the team after it traded Jack Campbell to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Petersen went on a heater, posting a .922 save percentage across eight appearances and winning his final four decisions. The wily Quick even found some magic, posting a .927 SP after the all-star break compared to .896 before it. The Professional Hockey Writers Association even revealed Quick as the Kings’ Masterton Trophy nominee this week. The puck-stopping propped up the Kings in the winter, helping them win their final seven games heading into the March-12 shutdown.
The Kings also enjoyed some mini-breakouts, most notably that of left winger Alex Iafallo. Entrusted with the biggest role of his career, logging close to 19 minutes per game, he set career highs with 17 goals and 43 points. Ideally, the Kings’ high-end prospects will push him down the depth chart when they’re ready, but he could become a key long-term depth cog.
Kopitar has alternated good and bad seasons for the past five years: 2015-16 Selke year, ugly 2016-17, 2017-18 Selke year, ugly 2018-19 and a strong bounce-back in 2019-20. He surpassed the previous season’s 82-game point total by Game 68. He led the Kings in goals, assists and points. He averaged 21:02 of ice time. With Kopitar on the ice at 5-on-5, the Kings outscored opponents 45-36. Kopitar’s most common forward competition consisted of Gabriel Landeskog, Evander Kane, Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan MacKinnon, Logan Couture, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Getzlaf, Sean Monahan, Rickard Rakell and Barclay Goodrow, a group that outscored the Kings by just a 10-7 margin with Kopitar on the ice. He kept the Kings in a lot of games by coming close to cancelling out other teams’ best forwards.
As unabashed sellers, the Kings made their trades with the future in mind. Sending Campbell and Kyle Clifford to the Toronto Maple Leafs yielded left winger Trevor Moore, a 2020 third-rounder and a 2021 conditional third-rounder. Blueliner Alec Martinez brought in a 2020 and 2021 second-rounder from the Vegas Golden Knights. Trading defender Derek Forbort to the Calgary Flames netted a 2021 conditional fourth-round pick.
The Toffoli deal was Blake’s biggest, of course. On top of securing a 2020 second-rounder and conditional 2022 fourth-rounder, Blake scored prospect Tyler Madden, a feisty, shifty pivot, from the Vancouver Canucks. Our 2020 Future Watch panel of active NHL scouts and team executives named Madden the NHL’s 68th-best prospect. To land a ranked prospect and second-rounder for an expiring asset was a big win for Blake.
All that stockpiling will pay off at the 2020 draft. It would’ve been nice to secure an extra first-rounder, like the Kings did last year with the Jake Muzzin trade. But Blake’s trades do bring his total to three second-rounders and two third-rounders, amounting to six selections in the first three rounds. The Kings pick 11 times overall.
They hold the league’s fourth-highest odds to win the June-26 draft lottery at 9.5 percent. They can fall no further than seventh. Since this year’s draft class is loaded, picking anywhere in the top 10, give or take, brings the potential to land a franchise player.
The Future Watch panel placed the Kings’ farm system 13th in their organizational rankings, but that number is deceiving. The rankings include every team’s 21-and-younger prospects, meaning players like Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes count toward teams’ developmental grades, and the Kings had no 21-and-under youngsters at the NHL level for the majority of the season, excluding the late-addition Vilardi and Bjornfot’s three-game taste.
The reality is: L.A.’s farm system is pretty robust. It includes seven of the top 100 prospects in Future Watch’s individual rankings: Turcotte (11th), Bjornfot (32nd), Samuel Fagemo (66th), Arthur Kaliyev (67th), Madden (68th), Vilardi (73rd) and Kupari (77th). Tenacious, well-rounded center Turcotte should be a game-changer when he reaches the NHL level, and it was extremely encouraging to see Vilardi, plagued by a major back injury after being picked 11th overall in 2017, charge into the NHL with three goals and seven points in 10 games before the shutdown.
It was easy enough to sell off some UFAs in trades, but Martinez had another year at $4 million, so his departure gives Blake some cap breathing room. The Kings already have 16 players signed for next season. A flat cap would still mean more than $20 million available, and the Kings have no high-impact players needing lucrative new deals right now. They’re in pretty strong cap shape. They could chase a major UFA if they wanted to, but will they? It’s still too early for this team to contend, so Blake may stay conservative at least another year.
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