Jimi Hendrix might have inadvertently summed up the Kings’ 48 games prior to the NHL All-Star break when he wrote that “manic depression is a frustrating mess.”
They went 16-4-4 in their first two dozen games, soaring through a period that saw them almost completely unfettered by injuries as they ascended to top of the leaderboards for goals, goals against and points percentage in the West.
Since, they’ve won just seven of 24 games and only three of their past 17, leading to a coaching change and some hand-wringing from general manager Rob Blake, whose moves hemmed him in literally from Day 1 of free agency, let alone the season itself.
Now, as first-time pro bench boss Jim Hiller moves into his new role as head coach and a former top man, D.J. Smith, joins the staff as an assistant, the Kings will seek to maintain their tenuous postseason position by actually playing like a playoff team again in a season before which team president Luc Robitaille said “the goal is to win it all.”
“We have 34 games left. Our job is to get into the playoffs,” Blake said Monday, shoving the goalposts forward. “Our team was built and assembled to get into [the] playoffs, and that’s what we need to do. So, that will be judged on wins and losses.”
What’s been going well?
Hiller spearheaded an about-face on the power play last season that awakened the Kings from a profound, years-long slumber with the man advantage. While their power play has been average in 2023-24 – Viktor Arvidsson’s injury in training camp as well as the departures of Gabriel Vilardi and Sean Durzi, coupled with pricey pickup Pierre-Luc Dubois’s pitiful two power-play points, have all contributed to its decline – the penalty kill has picked up some of the slack.
Even as the Kings’ typically strong discipline – penalty differential had been a strong suit under McLellan – broke down in a smattering of ill-timed penalties, many in the offensive zone, the PK remained resilient. That was in stark contrast to its poor performance last season, particularly in the playoffs when it ceded goals on more than half of the Edmonton Oilers’ power plays en route to a first-round loss.
“Penalty killing right now is first [in the NHL], power play is 15th, or right around that area,” Blake said. “It’s been that way all year. Our power play took a jump last year, but it isn’t at the level we want.”
For much of the season, rival coaches, from Stanley Cup winner Bruce Cassidy in Vegas to first-year head coach Greg Cronin of the Ducks, praised McLellan’s year-over-year adjustments. Even at the bitter end, McLellan was backed by veteran leaders Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty.
Now, it’ll be up to Hiller, Smith and defensive guru Trent Yawney to make in-season adjustments to improve the power play and five-on-five competitiveness while keeping the penalty kill humming.
What’s been going wrong?
Early in the season, the Kings were able to roll four lines and, essentially, three pairings, all while making few if any lineup changes from night to night. They also rode 36-year-old veteran goalie Cam Talbot, whose early-season excellence behind a system that dominated the puck and limited chances against earned him an All-Star nod.
Of late, Talbot’s numbers have ballooned and by the time he arrived in Toronto for the All-Star festivities, No. 3 goalie David Rittich (who was waived early in the season but promoted after Pheonix Copley sustained a season-ending injury) had overtaken Talbot’s net. Goaltending was a glaring area of need last season and last summer, and it remained so this week, with limited options to address the void between the pipes.
Compounding matters and weighing down PDO figures (a metric combining save and shooting percentages), have been the Kings’ well-documented scoring woes. As the stench of their recent stretch has wafted through their dressing room, the Kings have broken the three-goal barrier just twice in 17 tries, and barely so in a 4-2 win in Nashville heading into the pause, as an empty-net goal sealed a win in which Blake admitted his club did not play well. Their defensive game has also slipped amid deflating losses and slumping postures.
“We need, again, individuals and the team, that’s numerous individuals and that’s positions from the defense to forwards and goaltenders. We need to be better,” Blake said.
What could change?
Where most teams that were struggling to the extent that the Kings have would be working the phones to call up minor-leaguers and shake up their roster via trades, the Kings may end up with fewer options rather than ever soon.
On one hand, the impending return of Arvidsson, a spark-plug winger who has yet to play this season after undergoing his second back surgery in two years in October, could elevate the Kings’ play and better balance their forward lines as well their power-play units. On the other hand, though the situation is fluid, it could mean the Kings are again back to carrying a roster that’s at least two players short. That could jeopardize the spots of promising but waiver-exempt youngsters, including emergent talents like Alex Laferriere and Samuel Fagemo, as well as lottery picks Brandt Clarke and Alex Turcotte.
The Kings have $8.5 million against the cap invested in the not-as-advertised Dubois (20 points, two on the power play, in 48 games with a minus-16 rating, by far the worst on the roster) and over $11 million in actual cash being paid to the aloof pivot in each of the following two seasons, after his no-movement clause takes hold. That won’t represent much in the way of cap savings given that they are paying roughly that differential between Dubois’s actual payout and annual average value in retained salary and cap penalties again next season for two contracts that originated in Philadelphia: those of Columbus defenseman Ivan Provorov and former Kings center Mike Richards.
That’ll all come closer to the fore as the Kings stare down a March 8 trade deadline and a July 1 free agency period overflowing with uncertainty. Quinton Byfield, who was identified by Blake and McLellan as a bright spot during this dark period, is headed toward restricted free agency. As his profile rises, so do his price and the potential for an offer sheet from another franchise that might encumber the cap-strapped Kings.
Heart-and-soul center Blake Lizotte, whose lower-body injury seemed to be trending in the wrong direction during the break per Blake, is also a restricted free agent, along with Jordan Spence, Arthur Kaliyev, Carl Grundstrom and Jaret Anderson-Dolan. Matt Roy, who had been a top defenseman over the course of McLellan’s tenure, appears headed toward his best chance to get paid handsomely in his career, as the 28-year-old could become an unrestricted free agent July 1. As he did with leading goal-scorer Trevor Moore and since-departed Alex Iafallo, Blake had hoped to negotiate an extension for Roy during the season, a ship he has now twice indicated has sailed.
On Monday, Blake neither ruled out the possibility of trading Roy nor a player “of importance” and “with term,” as a separate question was phrased. Blake referred back to his overarching statement, which took the Kings out of the measured space in which they’d been operating and into a fight-or-flight mode.
“We are a win-loss team. That’s exactly where our team is, everything we dictate and from this point forward is based off of wins and losses,” Blake said.