Yes, just another armchair GM wondering what a guy who gets paid to do the job is thinking. This column isn’t meant to impugn the job Rob Blake has done as Kings GM. The team is almost universally regarded to have the best prospect pool in NHL, so he’s quite obviously done a remarkable job in accumulating talent. One could argue he waiting too long before conceding the team was in need of an overhaul, and flipping dependable veterans like Alec Martinez, Jake Muzzin and Tyler Toffoli for young assets and draft picks. But all in all, if your team is number 1 in something like prospect quality, you get to take credit for that.
In the title, I say they’re ready to compete. This isn’t to imply they’re some kind of Stanley Cup favorite or anything, but they’ve shown me enough in a limited sample size, despite a brutal schedule and significant injuries to multiple key players, that they could be very much in play for a postseason spot in a very competitive Western Conference. Stars like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty are playing as well as they ever have. Sean Walker and Matt Roy have emerged as two of the NHL’s best young defensemen. One-time captain Dustin Brown is aging like wine in an age when most NHL players age like bread. Cal Peterson is in the process of wresting the starting goalie job away from multiple time Stanley Cup hero, Jonathan Quick. There are a lot of reasons to be excited.
Oh, there are flaws. For one, they’re not deep. We saw how badly their defense sagged after Walker and Roy suffered injuries in the same game – Walker taking an errant slapshot to the eye, Roy on the receiving end of a brutal cheap shot into the boards by Minnesota’s Kevin Fiala. They’ve also got a few too many place holders keeping seats warm for whenever the prospects get called up. There’s nothing wrong with guys like Trevor Moore, Blake Lizotte, Michael Amadio et al as human beings, and they probably deserve to be employed in the NHL, but no team with designs on contending is giving them significant ice time. And there’s of course the big one, which has been the big one for several seasons now. The “experts” will tell you it’s secondary scoring. Secondary scoring is just a fancy way of saying…well, scoring. Funny thing about ice hockey, it’s a difficult sport to win games in if you don’t have guys who can smash the puck into the net with some kind of frequency. Kopitar is a likely Hall of Famer, and one of the best two-way players of this generation, but has always been a pass first guy. He’s on the top line with Brown and Alex Iafallo. Brown leads the team in goals to date with seven, but is unlikely to sustain that pace considering his last (and only) 30-goal season was thirteen years ago. Iafallo is a nice player with terrific CORSI and ‘goals for percentage’ numbers, but has never broken the 20-goal threshold. The only name hockey casuals will recognize from the second line is Jeff Carter, who is well past his prime as a goal scorer, but still a tremendous defensive forward and elite penalty killer. So where are the goals going to come from?
That deep prospect pool, right? Well… here’s the thing. None of the Kings’ top prospects are that Alex Ovechkin type scorer. I mean, Ovechkin is a unicorn and one of the greatest to ever play, so maybe his standard is unreachable. But there’s no Leon Draisaitl. No Alex DeBrincaat. No David Pastrnak. No Sebastian Aho. Name whomever you want.
Top prospect Quinton Byfield profiles more as a Kopitar type, and while that’s nothing to shake a stick at, it’s not an elite goal scorer. Alex Turcotte is a relentless energy guy and plays both ends of the ice, but again, not an elite scorer. Arthur Kaliyef has the talent profile to potentially develop as a goal scorer, but persistent concerns about his work ethic make reaching his ceiling prohibitively unlikely. The other guys: Gabe Vilardi, Samuel Fagemo, Rasmus Kupari, Carl Grundstrom, Jared Anderson-Dolan and a handful of others all project to be quality second and third line player – a tremendously valuable collection of assets there – but again… no elite scorer.
It’s hard to find an top end goal scorer. There’s maybe one Auston Matthews, or Nathan MacKinnon, or Patrick Kane to draft every year or two.
That’s what makes the Kings disinterest in grabbing one this season all the more perplexing. It’s the consensus missing piece to the contention puzzle. But when the salary cap troubled Vegas Golden Knights made Max Pacioretty available during the off-season, the Kings weren’t interested despite having the most available cap space in the league. When Winnipeg’s disgruntled sniper Patrick Laine became available early in the season, the Kings once again demurred, and Laine was ultimately flipped for fellow disgruntled stud Pierre-Luc Dubois and Jack Roslovic. Even when Alex Galchenyuk, a former third overall pick whose production never quite lived up to his immense talent, was essentially free to a good home with zero long term commitment, nothing.
Where are the goals going to come from, if not grown on trees?
Back to the current squad, all the Kings’ best players are north of 30. Kopitar? The 14-year veteran is now 33. Doughty? The 9-time all star is 31, having averaged an absurd 26 minutes plus of ice time over his career. Brown and Carter are both 36. If they wait too long to make another charge at a title with their current veteran core, they’ll have to replace them too.
It’s a frustrating and peculiar complacency being shown by the organization. It’s one that poses the question, what is it exactly that they are waiting for?