This season's trade deadline is February 28, not quite six weeks away. The Kings have 20 games between now and then, exactly half of their remaining schedule. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that the Kings will be in roughly the same position then as they are now, in the thick of the 4-12 seed playoff hunt, a couple of wins from the top, a couple of losses from the bottom. Whether they do this by alternating wins and losses or by streaking one way and then the other, is anybody's guess. But I don't think we're going to see the Kings in the top three at the end of February, and I don't think we'll see them suddenly turn into sellers either.
Last year, you'll recall, Dean Lombardi mentioned somewhat cryptically that the Kings needed three things but never bothered to tell us what the three things were. Undeterred, many of us concluded that the three things were:
- A top-six sniper, preferably on the left side.
- A bottom-six cagey veteran who scores in overtime.
- Maybe a veteran depth defenseman.
- Maybe a veteran back-up goalie.
Yes, that's four things. Lombardi went out and got Fredrik Modin for the 210th pick in the draft if the Kings win the cup, and shipped Teddy Purcell to Tampa for Jeff Halpern. He basically filled need number #2 twice, which turned out to be a good thing, because Modin was great, but Halpern sucked.
Now it's a year later. And what are the Kings' needs? It's just my opinion, but:
- A top-six left wing.
- A top-six center.
Put a pin in the debate on these two points for a second. As far as points 3 and 4 from last year, I don't think these qualify as needs. On defense, the Kings have solid veteran presence in the form of Rob Scuderi, Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, and exciting new blood (if not exactly "new" anymore) in the form of Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Alec Martinez. I would be disappointed if Martinez weren't still with the team come playoff time. Barring injuries, I'm going to say the Kings are okay on defense. (Any problems they may have been having lately must be solved by Doughty and Johnson turning on the juice, getting focused, pick your cliche -- not by bringing in yet more wily old-timers.)
Back-up goaltender? I feel about Jonathan Bernier this year the way Murray and Lombardi felt about Jonathan Quick last year, except it's the back-up we're talking about. Bernier is it. He's not going anywhere. (I do expect to start hearing people -- and by people I mean people in comments sections -- say Martin Jones needs to be "given a look," just in case. He doesn't.)
So, need 1 and need 2.
Top-six Left Wing
Ryan Smyth, Kyle Clifford and Alexei Ponikarovsky are each excellent in their own way, but only Smyth (especially in tandem with Williams) is a legitimate top-six. If we're lucky, Scott Parse may be starting his second training camp in April, so it's probably not a good idea to count on him stepping right in (think Williams last season). With the bottom-six (Michal Handzus, Wayne Simmonds, Clifford, Trevor Lewis, Brad Richardson, Ponikarovsky) being more solid than I have ever seen it in years, I think there has never been a better time for Lombardi to make a big splashy move -- if possible, under the Lombardi Doctrine -- to bring in someone genuinely threatening and productive for LW1.
Second Line Center
Jarret Stoll and Michal Handzus are excellent and useful, but neither one is a genuine, consistent second line center. The fact that the Kings have two go-to face-off guys is a luxury we all appreciate. But it comes at the price of having someone who can generate offense on the second unit. Handzus is not replaceable. He is the hub of the defensive system. Stoll? His assets are his experience, his great shot (when he hits the net) and his face-off ability. But it's not hard to imagine Stoll being shipped off to parts unknown in exchange for the mythical missing piece.
At this point, I'm stuck, because:
I don't think Lombardi will make two top-six moves, but I don't think he wants to address center before left-wing; yet, Stoll, of all the pieces he has, strikes me as the most vulnerable (Kopitar, Smyth, Brown, Williams, Simmonds, Handzus, Scuderi, Doughty, Johnson, Greene, Mitchell all having about zero chance of being moved, in my opinion). Lombardi could of course opt to bargain only with prospects and picks (no roster players), but what kind of top-six help would the Kings be able to get without giving up prospects none of us wants to lose (e.g. Brayden Schenn, Andrei Loktionov, Tyler Toffoli, to pick three names)?
Let's play this out a bit. Assume Stoll is expendable (I like Stoll; I'm just following the cold logic). Assume there is Magic LW Sniper who is available at the deadline and this magic player is expensive (or is about to become expensive) and his team needs to shave a few million off its payroll. Assume Stoll, a second roster player (e.g. Brad Richardson), a blue-chip prospect (e.g. Thomas Hickey) and a high pick go the other way. Assume this makes the first line of Magic-Man/Kopitar/Brown really, really dangerous and we all are ecstatic about it.
Who centers the second line?
Magic Man / Kopitar / Brown
Smyth / ??? / Williams
Clifford / Handzus / Simmonds
Ponikarovsky / Lewis / Parse*
*I'm looking ahead to the playoffs, assuming Parse returns and is capable of playing fourth line minutes.
I think -- not that you have to join me out on this limb -- this is one of the reasons Lombardi was back east last week, to check in on Andrei Loktionov (who wasn't there as he had returned to Russia for his father's funeral). I forget where it was mentioned that Lombardi wanted to see Loktionov, so assume it was via Hammond. The question is, why is that an important tour stop? I may well be reading too much into this, as is my habit (and my right as a blogger). But I really don't see any urgent need to see how Loktionov is doing, just to possibly call him up to play fourth line minutes. And Lombardi has already ruled out using him on the wing. So I think it's reasonable to conclude Lombardi is gauging whether or not Loktionov is ready to step in to a C2 role this year. (Maybe it would just be clearer to say: C2 is the only position Loktionov can be considered for, since Kopitar is C1 and Loktionov is by definition a top-six center.)
(Yes, I know what you're thinking. Schenn. The problem is, he's playing for Saskatoon now, and they're likely to go deep into the CHL playoffs, so there's really no way to factor him into the Kings' plans for this season.)
So, just following the thought to its conclusion, assume Lombardi decides Loktionov is ready. Assume a trade like the one I described above actually occurs. We would have:
Magic-Man / Kopitar / Brown
Smyth / Loktionov / Williams
Clifford / Handzus / Simmonds
Ponikarovsky / Lewis / Parse
That's my best guess at what Lombardi is going for this spring. Of course, my best guess is liable to be 100% wrong, especially since Lombardi always seems to do something I didn't expect. So if you prefer, just think of this post as "what absolutely will NOT happen." But I think it makes sense.
In Part 2, we'll look at who might be available.