When the Los Angeles Kings were eliminated from the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs last week, it marked just the first time in five seasons (and four playoff appearances) that they didn’t advance past the first round.
While the the team and fanbase were justifiably disappointed with the results, it’s not the end of the world. The Kings have won two of the last three Stanley Cups, and their best players — Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty — are locked up for years to come.
But what is concerning is that the cash-strapped Kings will be facing their first offseason full of turnover since they initially won the Stanley Cup in 2012. While they’re expected to be on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders come next season based on their core alone, it’s going to take a lot of work from general manager Dean Lombardi to build another champion.
Here’s five suggestions of how the Kings can ensure their status as a 2016-2017 Stanley Cup contender:
1. Re-Sign Milan Lucic
Milan Lucic made a huge impact in his first season as a King, scoring 20 goals and netting 35 assists as the primary left-winger alongside Anze Kopitar. While he has his flaws — bad penalties, primarily — the team would not have had the success they had without his toughness and scoring ability near the net. Lucic, who will turn 28 in June, is set to hit the open market this offseason, and while it was originally speculated that he wanted to be closer to his hometown of Vancouver, he’s recently made it crystal clear that he wants to stay in Los Angeles. Some reporters have said that he might sign a five-year, $25-million contract, and, if that’s the case, Dean Lombardi might already have the contract drafted and awaiting a signature.
2. Get rid of Dustin Brown and/or Marian Gaborik
While Dustin Brown will always have the distinction of being the first King to hoist the Stanley Cup, the sad truth is that his days in Los Angeles might be numbered. Brown has been the team’s captain since 2008, and the organization loves his intangibles. But his production has continued to trend downward, as he hasn’t scored more than 20 goals in a season since 2011-2012. Couple that with his contract, which has six years and an annual cap hit of $5.875 million left on it, and it’s easy to see why he might be the most-expendable piece of the Kings’ core. Lombardi is expected to either trade Brown or opt to leave him unprotected in an expansion draft, should the NHL go that route. Meanwhile, Marian Gaborik, who has five years and a $4.875 million annual average cap hit remaining, could find himself in a similar situation.
3. Acquire a Shut-Down Defender
The Los Angeles Kings have not been the same since the domestic violence arrest and subsequent release of Slava Voynov. The Russian blue-liner provided a second-shut down defender alongside Drew Doughty, and paired with Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and others to establish the Kings’ defense as one of the best in the league. Since 2014, the Kings have tried a number of players in the rotation, including Brayden McNabb, Jamie McBain, Jeff Schultz, Christian Ehrhoff, Luke Schenn, Derek Forbort, Rob Scuderi and Kevin Gravel, and have still not been able to find a replacement. As a result, it’s becoming more and more apparent that Voynov’s long-term successor might be someone outside of the organization. One name being floated around is Jacob Trouba, a 22-year-old restricted free agent for the Winnipeg Jets, who has posted three-straight 20-point seasons. While Trouba would be a good fit for the Kings, acquiring him would require the Kings to tap deep into their slowly deteriorating farm system.
4. Reshuffle the Bottom Six
One of the key reasons the Kings were able to win two Stanley Cups in three years was their ability to get production from all four lines. That’s why it’s not surprising to see their struggles coinciding with the disappearance of their bottom two lines. The trio of Kyle Clifford, Dwight King and Jordan Nolan, who are scheduled to make more than $4 million combined next season, had just 27 points all season. The two brightest spots on the third and fourth lines were Trevor Lewis and Vincent Lecavlier, but the former is set to hit free agency and likely won’t be re-signed and the latter is retiring. It might be time for head coach Darryl Sutter to give Nick Shore and Nic Dowd, who were in-and-out of the lineup all season, and Andy Andreoff, who played a single playoff game, a chance at more regular minutes.
5. Let the Kids Play
Since he took over coaching duties for the Kings in 2012, Darryl Sutter has shown a certain stubbornness when it comes to playing young players while they learn the system. Players like Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson were able to earn the coach’s trust and established themselves as key contributors, while others like Jordan Weal and Linden Vey were shipped off to other organizations. If one thing became clear this season, it was that the Kings can’t continue to rely on their current core of players to play a full season, especially as they continue to get older. Instead, the team should give some of their younger players a chance to contribute to the big club. Those players, who have shown glimpses of ability, are Andy Andreoff, Nick Shore, Michael Mersch, Derek Forbort, Kevin Gravel and Nic Dowd. There are also a ton of prospects knocking on the NHL door, including Jonny Brodzinski, Nick Ebert and Paul LaDue.