In being defeated 4-1 by the Blackhawks Monday in Chicago, the Los Angeles Kings missed out on a golden opportunity to insert themselves back into the Western Conference's final wild card slot. Had they won, L.A. would have pushed Winnipeg out of that slot (by virtue of their tiebreaker advantage over the Jets) and kept pace with the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames in the race for second and third place in the Pacific Division. Instead, they're now: two points behind Winnipeg with no games in hand; three points behind Calgary (the Flames have played one more game, but will hold the tiebreaker over the Kings if it comes to that); and five points behind the Canucks with the same amount of games (six) remaining.
For weeks now –��to be specific, since February, when they reeled off eight straight wins after an abysmal January – many have been talking as if the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings were going to be a low-seeded team potential playoff opponents needed to respect, if not fear. And who can blame them? The incredible manner in which L.A. won its second championship in the past three seasons, the team's collective spine that showed astonishing bend and no break, represent sufficient evidence on which to base a healthy trepidation of squaring off against them at the most important time of the year.
But that charge back to the playoff race has obscured a question that was being asked of the Kings as they stumbled out to a 21-18-12 record, and that question should be asked again now: what happens to Los Angeles' roster if they fail to make the post-season?
It's well-known Kings GM Dean Lombardi has been loyal to his players, and he's been rewarded for it. But if he goes from being the league's top team to being out of the playoffs in one season, that loyalty is going to face serious scrutiny – and Lombardi will face pressure to make change. And that isn't going to be easy: he’s got more $56.8 million invested in salary cap commitments to just 14 players next season – and that's if you don't count the $4.166 million that will be owed to suspended defenseman Slava Voynov, who is facing domestic-assault charges. Should Voynov be acquitted and reinstated, the Kings will have nearly $61 million tied up in 15 players. If the salary cap ceiling in 2015-16 comes in at $72 million, the Kings will have less than $13 million in cap space.
And with that, they'll have to find a way to take care of unrestricted free agent forwards Jarret Stoll and Justin Williams and defensemen Andrej Sekera and Robyn Regehr, as well as restricted free agents Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and backup goaltender Martin Jones. Something was going to have to give even if the Kings won it all again this year, but if they collapse in these final few games – and with a 5-4-1 mark in their past 10 games, that's not out of the realm of possibility – the question becomes how much has to give.
In any case, Lombardi, assistant GM Rob Blake and the rest of team management will look at the value of re-signing aging veterans Stoll, Williams and Regehr. Sekera is just 28 years old and has started to fit in well with the team after being acquired from Carolina at the trade deadline, but he is due a massive raise on the $1.75 million he's earning this year; bringing him back may well necessitate further changes.
In addition, the Kings are almost certainly going to have to buy out center Mike Richards. The 30-year-old has four more years left on his contract, and the buyout will free up some of his $4 million cap hit, but not all of it. And that means it will likely take change that runs deeper into the organization than many L.A. fans may be prepared to accept. Maybe such change will affect captain Dustin Brown. Maybe Lombardi has to unload one of his young talents in order to convince another team to take on one of the Kings' contracts. And then there's the potential of an opponent signing a player like Toffoli (who is third in team scoring with 22 goals) to a massive offer sheet; the Kings have every right to match, but is there a dollar threshold a rival could pass that would make Lombardi just take compensatory draft picks?
It's all compelling as the day is long. And although it seemed as if the Kings were going to avoid a day of reckoning with their current group for a while longer, their recent levelling-off could trigger a series of moves that drastically remakes the face of NHL hockey in L.A. for the franchise's next competitive cycle.