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Kings Are Trying to Have Their Cake & Eat It Too



Doughty Post Game

The Los Angeles Kings are fully out of rebuild mode. They made that clear last summer when they traded for Kevin Fiala and made it even more clear with a deadline move for Vladislav Gavrikov and Joonas Korpisalo.

But the Kings aren’t committed to selling the future for the present.

They want to make a last run with Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty without selling off their premier future assets.

Sounds great right?

Unfortunately for the Kings, doing both is extremely difficult.

Prioritizing Winning Over Development:

On Sunday, I discussed the need for realistic expectations heading into next season. Understanding that, as the current roster stands, this team isn’t a legit Cup contender without significant development from young players like Quinton Byfield, or a trade to bring in superstar talent.

The issue is, the Kings seem unwilling to stick with either route.

They’ve spent the last two seasons trying to develop their young players in the bottom six while giving ice time to more experienced “trusting” players in an effort to win now.

That reliance on “trusting” players over young players has garnered plenty of criticism for head coach Todd McLellan in recent seasons, but I get it from his perspective.

It’s easy to say, “Just play Arthur Kaliyev over Alex Iafallo, he’s more talents and has a higher ceiling,” while watching on TV. I’m guilty of comments like that myself. But when your bosses are telling you to win now, you aren’t going with the young, unproven player.

You’re going to lean on the more known quantity. Someone who you know isn’t going to light the world on fire, but also isn’t going to make costly mistakes.

And Kaliyev over Iafallo is just an example, there are other instances of the Kings prioritizing winning now over development.

Spending a season in the NHL and working through the growing pains of being a first-year pro would have been the best course for Brandt Clarke’s individual development. But the Kings want to ice the best roster every night and dealing with a rookie who’s going to go through bad stretches of games doesn’t do that.

So, you send him down and let him dominate the OHL, a league he was too good for.

Rasmus Kupari’s been buried in the bottom six alongside Kaliyev for two straight seasons and the Kings kept Jordan Spence in the AHL for similar reasons they sent Clarke to the OHL.

In McLellan’s defense, he did give Byfield an extended look on the top line last season. And despite a lack of raw production from Byfield, it had a clear positive impact on his development.

But when the games mattered most, Byfield was relegated back down to the bottom six and more experienced players took his spot in the top six. Of course they did, the Kings were trying to win and Viktor Arvidsson is better than almost every 20-year-old in the NHL right now.

Being a win-now team isn’t good for player development, especially the development of top-end talent. You’re seeing the same issue in New York with the Rangers. Players like Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière have spent the majority of their careers on the third line and their development has stunted because of it.

Yes, there is some responsibility on the player to force themselves up the lineup, but that’s an extremely difficult task. It isn’t a coincidence that both the number one and two picks from 2020 have underachieved on teams that have prioritized winning over development since drafting the players.

While the number three pick from the same draft has excelled in an environment where winning mattered less and player development was prioritized.

All of that isn’t to say the Kings are making a mistake in prioritizing winning now, I get it. It will be a long time before they see players of Kopitar and Doughty’s quality in the organization at the same time. These are two generational talents and the Kings want to maximize their time with them.

But if that’s their attitude, they need to go all-in.

Committing to Winning:

This is where decisions become difficult but have to be made. If the Kings continue to do this half in half out thing with winning and player development, they run the risk of becoming a tweener team.

Always good enough to make the playoffs but never good enough to do damage. Trying to win with bottom-six players who are top-two round skill players that don’t fit the role. And a top-six that lacks the necessary firepower to make a deep run.

If they really want to win now while Kopitar and Doughty are effective players, no move can be off the table. They have to be willing to move some of their highly coveted prospects.

Yes, Helge Grans, and especially Brock Faber, were top prospects traded to help the team win now. But both were expendable given the abundance of right-shot defensemen in the pipeline.

They would need to be willing to trade a Kaliyev or Vilardi, if not Byfield or Clarke if they’re serious about winning now. If they aren’t going to take the time to develop these players into superstars, they need to trade for one and that’s going to cost a lot.

Surround Kopitar and Doughty with elite talent now and see what happens. Adding a star in Fiala, the emergence of Kempe into a star and the addition of a quality defenseman weren’t enough last season. And banking on young players developing into stars from the bottom six is a big risk that hasn’t worked out up to this point.

In the words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things, whole ass one thing.” The Kings are doing the former. If they’re serious about winning now, then be serious, and get aggressive. Make the moves that Dean Lombardi was never afraid to make.

A Healthy Balance:

The other option doesn’t have to be returning to the bottom of the league and becoming a lottery team either. The Kings can strike a balance between the two. But it involves giving some priority to younger players.

If the Kings move out a forward like Iafallo and promote Byfield, Vilardi and Kaliyev up the lineup they can balance winning now and developing players. It just comes with the acceptance that you aren’t a Cup contender right now.

You aren’t throwing your season away though. This top-nine still likely gets you into the postseason:

Viktor Arvidsson-Anze Kopitar-Adrian Kempe

Kevin Fiala-Quinton Byfield-Gabe Vilardi

Trevor Moore-Phil Danault-Arthur Kaliyev

Find a way to get Clarke significant ice time and you’re in a good spot.

Realistically, I don’t see this happening. McLellan has one year left on his contract and won’t risk a bumpy start and I imagine both Kopitar and Doughty are putting pressure on to win while they are still around.

The lineup above — giving Byfield and Vilardi a significant role over better players like Danault and Moore — isn’t the best lineup the Kings can ice. It doesn’t give them the best chance to win every night. Because of that, I don’t see the Kings moving in this direction.

Reason For Optimism:

One of the things that should keep fans optimistic is the later development of some of the players on the roster. Kempe broke out at 25 and Vilardi is just now breaking out at 23-24.

So, when I say they’re stunting young players’ development, it doesn’t mean ruining it. It just means the Kings are accepting that players like Byfield and Kaliyev won’t make a significant impact until around that time too.

Byfield can still take over the 1C duty from Kopitar, Vilardi and Kaliyev can replace Arvidsson and Moore and Clarke takes over for Doughty.

That just all happens two-three years after everyone expected. And comes after a few seasons of relative mediocrity.

Kings Need to Make a Decision

Whether it’s going all-in on winning now or taking a step back and giving more agency to young players. The Kings have to move in one direction.

Right now they run the risk of slowing the development of their young players without the short-term success to justify it. Losing in the first round or two of the playoffs while selling off first-round picks and fringe prospects for no reason.

If they want to win, do it, trade some real premier assets for help now. If not, start handing the keys over to the young players, even if that involves some growing pains.

The Kings have to decide what they’re going to do. They’re half-assing two things and they need to just whole-ass one thing.








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