At this time last season, the Kings were battling the Anaheim Ducks for first place in the Pacific Division, a fight Los Angeles would eventually lose. That resulted in a first-round date with the San Jose Sharks and we all know how that went. The Sharks won the series in five games and would go on to the Stanley Cup final. Meanwhile, the Kings went home having won a single post-season game after missing the dance the year prior.
Now three seasons removed from their second Stanley Cup in 2013-14, the Kings have missed the post-season for the second time and more than ever there has to be tough questions asked about the direction this team is going. The first playoff miss could have been chalked up to bad luck. A bounce here or there and maybe it’s Los Angeles, not Calgary, who earns the final Pacific division playoff spot in 2014-15. The single playoff win against the Sharks that followed was a bit of an eye-opener, but the strong finish in the standings gave some hope for a rejuvenated Kings team. However, after Los Angeles was eliminated from post-season contention Sunday night, it marked the second time in three seasons that the Kings won’t be seeing the playoffs and it’s worth wondering if there are grander changes coming.
That includes tough roster decisions, to be sure, but to say moves need to be made to improve the roster would be to state the obvious. This season’s Kings were the dominant puck possession team we’ve come to expect, but scoring was a chore in Los Angeles. With a few games left in the season, the Kings’ 182 goals for are the fifth-least in the league and Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli are the only players who have scored with any consistency.
A lack of offense plagued Los Angeles almost from the outset of the campaign, and it continued to haunt them as their season officially slipped away. The loss that eliminated the Kings from playoff contention was a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Arizona Coyotes. These are the same Coyotes who’ve allowed the second-most goals against, 249, in the entire league. That they held Los Angeles to a single goal in a game that was as must-win as must-win gets for the Kings is telling.
Improving offensively isn’t going to be easy, though, in large part because scoring costs money and dollars aren’t on Los Angeles’ side. Per CapFriendly, the Kings are set to have roughly $13.7 million in cap space next season, plus whatever extra salary comes their way via salary cap increases. The Kings will have to use that money to pay up to retain Toffoli and Pearson before dishing out deals to other restricted free agents they wish to keep around. If the Kings have about $8 million to spend in free agency, the chances GM Dean Lombardi can use that to acquire a difference-making offensive talent are incredibly slim. (And one would surmise it will be Lombardi who’s tasked with turning things around in Los Angeles. Winning two Stanley Cups has given Lombardi a cushion and ownership likely has faith he can right the ship.)
But without the money to add a big piece in free agency and without a bluechip prospect on the horizon, how do the Kings go about increasing the offense? Lombardi could test the trade market and make a blockbuster deal — and there are some big moves that could potentially be made — but possibly the most impactful move Lombardi could make is changing things up behind the bench.
Over his past five and a half seasons in Los Angeles, Darryl Sutter’s done nothing short of a wonderful job. Lombardi’s design and vision for the team brought the roster together, but it was Sutter’s style and guidance that helped lead the Kings to two championships, over which time he has won 223 of his 421 regular season games. He’s a good coach and arguably one of the best in the league. However, after missing the post-season twice in three seasons, winning only a single playoff game in three years and having an almost non-existent offense over that span, it might be time for a change.
It can’t be understated the impact coaching can have on a franchise. Say what you will for the team the Maple Leafs have been able to assemble, but Toronto likely isn’t as set to compete without Mike Babcock. Look at the Minnesota Wild in their first season under Bruce Boudreau. Or what about the Columbus Blue Jackets with John Tortorella at the helm? Even winning teams have taken the next step with a fresh face. Try Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh, or, going back further, Dan Bylsma with the Penguins before that.
It’s not as if Sutter’s past victories will keep him safe, either. In St. Louis, Ken Hitchcock, one of the winningest coaches in league history, was shown the door because the Blues were underperforming. The same happened in Boston, where Claude Julien was fired by the Bruins because the franchise expected more this season. And this is to say nothing of the Florida Panthers firing Gerard Gallant early in the campaign because the Cats weren’t quite where they had expected early on — this coming mere months after Gallant led the team to a division title.
And Sutter seems to be in a similar position as those coaches who’ve been replaced in recent years. Few would suggest that the Kings’ window is closed, per se, but it’s definitely shutting at a rapid pace, so maybe what the Kings need, despite their success under Sutter, is a new voice behind the bench who can revitalize the team with philosophical and stylistic changes.
The Kings have been built a certain way. This much is true. But using this same roster to play a more offensive game isn’t out of the question. That will require a coach who has that vision for this team, though, and that seemingly isn’t the way Sutter’s Kings have been asked to play. Sutter’s teams have played a grinding, defensive style that is predicated on possessing the puck and waiting for opportunities. Los Angeles won two Stanley Cups this way, sure, but the rest of the league has caught on to the system and evidently found a way to shut it down. Make no mistake, this hasn’t been one season of less-than-satisfactory offensive production from the Kings. This has been going on for three seasons. Los Angeles has the ninth-lowest scoring offense since the start of 2014-15 with 627 goals for.
This isn’t to say pure offense is the way to go. We’ve seen the Dallas Stars go all-offense and it has yielded mixed results. Likewise, the high-flying Winnipeg Jets are set to miss the post-season once again. But if there is a coach who believes he can potentially spark the Kings and stop that title window from slamming shut, it could very well be worth hearing what he has to say and considering what it might look like in practice.
If Lombardi did want to make a play to land a new coach, this summer provides him with an intriguing opportunity. Lindy Ruff will likely be available as his deal with the Stars expires and Hitchcock is available for hire should a team be able to persuade him to step back behind the bench. Julien has already landed in Montreal, but the man he replaced, Michel Therrien, had the Canadiens in a good position before he was terminated. Gallant also remains without a job, as does recently fired New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano. There are several other coaches, including AHL bench bosses such as Travis Green, Sheldon Keefe and Dallas Eakins, who could also be in the mix.
So, will Sutter be given his walking papers? It’s hard to say. It wouldn’t be surprising were Lombardi to afford Sutter the courtesy of having one last attempt at turning this thing around. He was given a three-year contract extension ahead of this season, after all. That said, Sutter is going to be entering 2017-18 on thin ice. Lombardi and the Kings might be able to stomach missing the post-season twice in three seasons, but the threat of a third miss in four campaigns will almost certainly signal the end for Sutter.
The reality is, though, that it’s difficult to see how the current coach with a similar roster will yield a different result come next season. And maybe that means the time is now for a coaching change in Los Angeles.
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