In his exit interview, Rob Blake said that the Los Angeles Kings were banking on internal improvements this summer. To not expect any big moves that drastically change the team.
That turned out to not be true.
This trade gave the Kigns a great player, no question. But it also left a few holes in their roster. And now, with no cap space to work with, the Kings have to look at internal options to replace Vilardi, Iafallo and Kupari.
Blake’s original statement about relying on internal improvements wasn’t true, but now it has to be. There isn’t another massive trade coming, or at least not one that adds forwards onto the roster.
It’s time for young players to step up. Fortunately for the Kings, they have an abundance of players who can make that step.
Replacing Rasmus Kupari:
Replacing Kupari is by far the easiest task. Not only is he the weakest of the three players traded, but the Kings already have a better player slotted into his spot right now.
With Dubois taking one of the two center spots behind Anze Kopitar in the lineup, Blake Lizotte will be pushed down into the fourth-line center role. A role he’s played plenty of and excelled at in the past.
He spent the majority of last season as a third-line center and did well. But the fourth line is a more comfortable spot for Lizotte.
Kupari grew into that fourth-line role well last season and still has the tools to be more. He’s a bigger and faster player than Lizotte with more natural skill, but Lizotte’s been the more productive player by a wide margin.
Lizotte’s posted double-digit goal totals two seasons in a row and is a responsible two-way player. Outside of his size, he’s an ideal fourth-line center.
It’s possible that Lizotte is traded this summer to ease cap concerns, in which case someone like Trevor Lewis or Jaret Anderson-Dolan would take his spot on the fourth line. But for now, Lizotte feels like a lock for this spot.
Replacing Gabe Vilardi:
I’m guessing most people view Dubois as Vilardi’s replacement, and that’s fair. They were the two main pieces of this deal so it’s natural to compare their numbers at the end of next season.
But looking at where they fit into the lineup, it’s a one-for-one type replacement. Dubois won’t play on the right-wing opposite of Kevin Fiala next season in the middle-six.
The Kings need someone to fill that goalscoring void left behind in the middle-six and they have a few good options.
Of course, the Kings will take a hit defensively here. However, I think some of the discourse around Vilardi’s play is overblown. He was excellent both statistically and to the eye test defensively, but the claims that he’s one of the league’s best defensive forwards is too far. The Kings will feel the effects of losing Vilardi’s defensive play, but it’s not going to be a game-changer.
This feels like Arthur Kaliyev’s spot to lose. It’s the same spot he was penciled in for last season before Vilardi swooped in and took it from him in training camp and Kaliyev now has the chance to reclaim it.
Kaliyev’s coming off an interesting season. He had a subpar training camp, started the season really strong and then broke his ankle which he never fully recovered from.
Despite a poor second half, Kaliyev finished with 13 goals and 28 points in 56 games. A 19-goal pace playing just under 12 minutes a night.
Solid numbers which look a little less impressive when you factor in more than half of his goals coming on the power play.
Still, Kaliyev has the tools to replace Vilardi’s production in the middle six. He doesn’t have the hands, or the board play or the 200-foot game Vilardi has. But, what he does have is a world-class shot and that goalscorer’s instinct. The ability to find soft spots on the ice and find pucks that other players can’t.
Playing with a superstar like Fiala, and potentially another high-end player like Dubois, should do wonders for Kaliyev’s production. He’ll never be a play-driver or someone who wows you with his complete game. But if you consistently set him up with chances, he’ll score a lot of goals.
There are still concerns about his skating, he needs to improve if he has any hope of keeping up with Fiala, but he made big strides in this area last summer and is expected to do the same this summer.
Kaliyev won’t bring the complete package Vilardi brought last season, but would anyone be that surprised to see Kaliyev hit 23+ goals and 40+ points playing on a line with Fiala? Because I sure wouldn’t be.
Samuel Fagemo will be attempting to do what Vilardi did last season. Outplay Kaliyev and force his way into a middle-six spot in the lineup.
And he has the tools to do it. Not quite the shooter Kaliyev is — few players are — he still has a fantastic shot. He’s also a better skater and better at attacking defenders one-on-one compared to Kaliyev.
There are still big question marks surrounding Fagemo’s defensive game and his one-dimensional play style though. Fagemo does one thing, score goals. He’s finished every season of pro hockey he’s ever played with more goals than assists and doesn’t provide much else outside of that.
However, if you’re going to do one thing really well, goal scoring is a good niche to have.
Right now, it feels like Kaliyev takes Vilardi’s spot in the lineup and Fagemo replaces Kaliyev on the fourth line. But I wouldn’t rule out Fagemo taking this spot with a strong camp.
The team expected big things from Fagemo last summer and were ready to give him a roster spot and a subpar camp ruined that for him. I doubt he’s looking to make that same mistake this summer.
Replacing Alex Iafallo:
In a way, I think replacing Iafallo might be the most difficult task here. Vilardi’s the better player, but the Kings have other goalscorers in the system.
There aren’t too many players like Iafallo though. You rarely find young players who play the responsible, reliable game that Iafallo brings. Someone who can play in any situation, on any line and provide solid secondary offense.
Todd McLellan always referred to Iafallo as the team’s deodorant, someone who cleans up the stink left behind by others. That’s a difficult quality to replace with young players.
One thing that should make it easier to replace Iafallo is the fact that, whoever replaces him, likely starts on the fourth line. Assuming the top three left wings are Quinton Byfield, Trevor Moore and Fiala, in some order, it gives Iafallo’s replacement a more sheltered role.
From a purely stylistic standpoint, Alex Turcotte feels like the perfect replacement for Iafallo. A Swiss army knife of a player who can play up and down your lineup and plays a complete game.
He brings the added benefit of more skill and a higher offensive ceiling than Iafallo. Some people have soured on Turcotte’s offense, not without reason, but those that have played against him still see an NHL-caliber forward. Here’s a quote featured in a recent HockeyNews article from a Pacific Division AHL player.
“His vision. His hands. His passing ability. It’s NHL level; there’s no other way to put it. It’s leaps and bounds better than what you usually see in the American League.”
As is always the case with Turcotte, it all comes down to health. The Kings will want to play things slow with him given his concussion history. But if he shows up to camp healthy and gives the Kings reason to believe he can stay healthy in the NHL, this would be a good spot for him.
He played a lot of center with the Ontario Reign last season, and I still think his long-term future is up the middle, but playing wing gives him a good chance to get NHL experience.
As a responsible, versatile forward with some genuine offense, Turcotte could be a great option to replace Iafallo … if he’s healthy.
Again, stylistically, Jaret Anderson-Dolan makes a lot of sense. He only appeared in 46 games last season but was consistently praised by the coaching staff when he was in the lineup.
When describing Anderson-Dolan’s play, they often used the same adjectives they would for Iafallo. Responsible, reliable and trusting.
He’s been squeezed out by the Kings’ abundance of forwards in the past and now feels like the best time for him to establish his place on the roster. It might be his last chance too.
He’s bided his time and done everything that’s been asked of him, now he needs to command a spot in the lineup.