Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Los Angeles Kings - A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats (But It Takes A Long Time)

Kings Prolegomena - A Taylor-Made Problem

Playoffs-or-else mandates are fine for coaches. That is, telling a coach that if he doesn't make the playoffs in a certain year he will be fired. He probably knows that anyway, and while it might have him riding a goalie or star player a little harder than he might normally, it's not going to change anything long-term. Playoffs-or-else mandates for general managers, on the other hand, can be disastrous and set franchises back years for the sake of one man's job. It is an inherently foolhardy strategy.

Let's not mince words: Dave Taylor got extraordinarily unlucky as GM of the Kings. He nabbed Adam Deadmarsh and Jason Allison as 2/3rds of a top line, and both players ended up suffering career-ending injuries. The Kings could have been a real force in the West early in the decade - certainly not a Cup winner, but one of those Carolina-type teams that goes on a deep run and gets the fans excited. In 2006, one year after the lockout, it appears he was given a playoffs-or-else mandate. He made a deal at the deadline: He traded Denis Grebeshkhov and Jeff Tambellini to Long Island for UFA to be Mark Parrish and Brent Sopel who had a year left on his deal. Now, Tambellini has really come to nothing - he's a peripheral NHL player. Grebeshkhov himself walked away from the Islanders to sign in Russia, and was later traded for Marc Andre Bergeron, but has now turned into a solid defender. The Kings really didn't get hurt by this deal, even though Parrish and Sopel are mediocre players. It's probably a good thing that Parrish walked away - he was since bought out by the Wild last off-season and it will be surprising if he has an NHL job. The problem is the thinking behind the deal - Grebeshkhov and Tambellini were recent Kings 1st round picks, and both were tossed away for two marginal talents.

Taylor had a young team returning to Los Angeles, but it was also surrounded it with veterans who may be on their last legs - Craig Conroy, Jeremy Roenick, and Luc Robitaille all suited up for the 2005-06 Kings. What emerged was a flaming wreck despite the good mix of vets and youth; Taylor forgot to acquire a goalie, and the goalies' cumulative .894 save percentage sunk the season, and he was fired. He's not the only GM to engage in this behavior in recent times.

The Atlanta Thrashers used this scorched earth policy as well - on the cusp of making the 2007 playoffs, they dealt young defender Braydon Coburn for Alexei Zhitnik, a trade that while not among the worst of all time is certainly among the worst of the last ten years. This flagrant disregard for the future was compounded by trading a 1st round pick for Keith Tkachuk, who left at the end of the year. Their 2nd round pick was traded for Vitali Vishnevski, a player whom they likely could've gotten for much cheaper had they waited. In the 2007 draft, Atlanta didn't pick until pick number 64, and for all their deadline wheeling and dealing they didn't even win a playoff game that year. Yet somehow, Don Waddell still has a job.

If you're a team president or team owner reading this, don't tell your general manager he has to make the playoffs or he will be fired. Don't even give him this sense. This will only hurt your franchise - you might make a little more money that season, if he does wrangle up enough veteran players to shove your team through, but ultimately your franchise will be much worse off. Dispatch him the old-fashioned way - make him believe his job is safe, then fire him on his birthday.

Finally, A Team Smart About Goaltending: Ersberg and Quick had a combined .909 save percentage, which while not great, the Kings were still below league average in goals allowed. Only spending a combined 1.2 million dollars on goalies frees up plenty of money to do other things, money which the Kings didn't spend last season, but which they certainly can in the future.

Like What Other Things? It remains to be seen if the Kings will spend anything this off-season. They already have a full compliment of players signed, whether they want to demote some players who spent a year on the big club, or...

... Trade? Dany Heatley has requested a trade out of Ottawa, and Los Angeles seems to be most likely destination. With Jack Johnson not developing as planned, there are certainly a number of things that can be worked out. Heatley would make this club a playoff contender, but he may not be the best long-term option.

Dustin Brown is So Awesome: Dustin Brown drew 63 penalties last season - 20 more than the next-best penalty drawer (Evgeni Malkin). This is utterly incredible - 63 penalties drawn, at .2 goals per penalty, works out to be 12.5 goals for the Los Angeles Kings. Brown is the best player in the NHL that people don't know about - if the Kings get good, he's going to be a large part of why.

2009-10 Projected Lines

This is a player who is RFA in 2008-09
This is a player who is UFA in 2009-10
This is a player who is RFA in 2009-10




Players On The Horizon: Center Trevor Lewis scored 53 points in Manchester, he may be groomed to replace Handzus. Defenseman Vyacheslav Voinov came to the AHL as an 18 year old and put up solid-looking numbers for a player of that age - he is probably two or three years away, but there is definitely potential there. Thomas Hickey and Colton Teubert are two other d-prospects with excellent pedigree who should be threatening the LA roster in a year or two's time. Jonathan Bernier is a highly-regarded goaltending prospect.


Michal Handzus: The Kings seem to have excess depth - Center Oscar Moller played reasonably well in his first season, and Trevor Lewis is going to get his chance at the big squad. If the Kings do take on any big contracts in trade, this albatross is likely to go the other way. Handzus was 4th on the team in scoring, but he is big, slow, and injury-prone, three things that don't play well in the new NHL. Why the Kings signed him to a 16 million dollar/4 year deal coming off ACL surgery is a mystery.

Jack Johnson: Promising young defenseman has fallen behind Doughty on the depth chart, his NHL numbers to date are 120 games, 22 points, -42. He will likely be a solid player, but can Los Angeles keep waiting for him to break out with so many other defensive prospects in the pipeline? If they do, a solid trade chit might be reduced to nothing.

Teddy Purcell: Someone might take a flyer on this guy, who has put up ridiculous numbers in college and the AHL level.

Brian Boyle: He may be waiver fodder, but he could fetch a very small piece back. He cannot seem to get his game going at the NHL level.

Free Agent Discussion

Left Wing

Alex Tanguay (4/19) - Tanguay has a Stanley Cup ring and 98 games of playoff experience. He brings 20 goals and 40 assists at least - when he stays healthy, that is.
Mike Knuble (2/6.2) - Veteran LW/RW has scored at least 20 goals every year since 2003.

The market is thin on left wings - the Kings may simply choose to move Handzus to left wing, and to sign a third-line center or promote Trevor Lewis.

Conclusion: The Kings are a team that's saving money - whether they'll spend it is anyone's guess. They have a tremendous outlook for the future, especially if their bad contracts can go away and they can sign good contracts as they start to get better. This is likely not the year for the Kings to make the playoffs, but 2010-11 should provide opportunities to acquire players for cheap - it's time for GM Dean Lombardi to start taking advantage of teams that need to sell. This club looks like it's going to contend for a Stanley Cup in 3 or 4 years time - Kings fans have suffered through six seasons without the playoffs, and there's still some suffering ahead. Regardless, if Kings management can make the right maneuvers, there might be a Stanley Cup parade in downtown Los Angeles in the next decade.


  1. You probably won't think the Kings are that smart when it comes to goaltending when they make a Huetesque desperation signing in a couple years when they are "on the brink."

    Your universal position that "elite" goaltenders are overrated certainly seems supported by recent evidence. The marginal difference between the 1st best goalie and the 45th best goalie appears to be much much smaller than the marginal difference between the 1st best forward and the 400th best forward (both the goalie and forward being marginal starters). I'd much rather pay for that difference with only 55 million to spend than overpay for "elite" goaltending.

    Why do you think this has changed (if it has)? Pre-lockout it was basically impossible to win the cup without an elite goaltender. Now it appears that unless you have absolutely terrible goaltending, you can compete and win. Do you think maybe improved butterfly goaltending techniques/training and/or bigger goaltending equipment is the reason?

  2. Your claim that it's the marginal difference between the best and an inbetween goalie vs the marginal difference between the best vs worst forward is interesting, but I'm not sure that's why goaltending is so overrated in the NHL. Just looking at all these rosters, as I've been lately, there's a ton of goaltenders making between 5 and 7 million dollars. You don't see many goalies making between 2 and 3 million. This tells me that the 'going rate' for an NHL starter is around 5 million. But what's the difference between the 20th best goalie and the 40th best goalie? Is there really one? You've got these backups and random goaltenders around the league posting .910 to .940 save percentages.

    With Minnesota, for example, Nicklas Backstrom is going to make 6 million dollars, he has a lifetime .923 save percentage in 170 games. Backup Josh Harding has a .920 save percentage in 58 games. Now Harding's probably played against worse competition than Backstrom, so let's lower Harding's save percentage as a starter to .910. Is it really worth paying 5 million dollars more to Niklas Backstrom to prevent 26 or so goals a season? I just don't think it is.

    As for goaltending technique, I can't really speak to that - I certainly believe that the huge padding and butterfly style have created all these goalies who can post .915+ save percentages, but I have no evidence for that.