Over the past several seasons, many Los Angeles Kings fans have joined together in bemoaning Darryl Sutter's love for slow, veteran defensemen with a reputation for a physical edge. Yet, one thing that Sutter's trust meant was consistency. Barring injuries, defense pairs rarely changed. This year, things are different. With Robyn Regehr retired and Matt Greene injured for the year, there is no go to veteran when Sutter wants a physical presence on the ice. In fact, that spurred the Kings to trade for a drop-in Greene replacement in Luke Schenn.
Now the complexion has changed yet again with veteran Christian Ehrhoff being waived and sent to the AHL. Rather than a physical presence, the veteran Ehrhoff was brought in for his offensive prowess. Sutter invoked the dangerous Vancouver powerplay of years past featuring the German-born defenseman. We wrote about how good Ehrhoff was, as recent as two seasons ago.
Hopes for a second pairing defenseman who was very capable on the power play quickly devolved into contentment with a new left-side third pairing defenseman. His even strength point production sits at just 0.47 per 60, which is essentially tied for next to last on the team. On the powerplay, he's taken a total of 12 shots all year. What's more, he has struggled in Sutter's system. Jason Lewis has detailed how he struggles to break the puck out. He also takes minor penalties more often than every other Los Angeles defender except Brayden McNabb. Finally, he's a negative scoring chance and Corsi relative player, despite his easier assignments.
To put it simply, Christian Ehrhoff hasn't met any of our expectations, and it's a very sad sight to see. Whether it's a culmination of injuries or simply age wearing on a player, Ehrhoff simply hasn't panned out for the Kings. This has, in part, spurred Darryl Sutter to test multiple defensive prospects out in the same year, and we've seen Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel log minutes in that same position as Ehrhoff. It seems almost unconscionable for rookie defensemen to get playing time when the reason isn't related to injury or suspension, but here we are. In those games that we've seen Ehrhoff replaced by kids, there haven't been many cries to usher the veteran back in their places.
What the Kings now have is a very young blueline. Alec Martinez is the elder statesman at 28 years old, and all other players are 26 or younger. It now seems pretty easy to imagine adding another older player into the mix. This is especially true when the blue line's age means there's one player in particular that is often the focus of Sutter's ire, Brayden McNabb.
On the topic of Brayden McNabb, remember when I said he had more penalties than Ehrhoff? It turns out that McNabb takes a lot of penalties given the amount of ice time he has. He only has one less than Drew Doughty, despite playing over five less minutes on average per night. Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez play more often as well, and both have lower penalty totals. To put it simply, it seems that the top pairing minutes are over-exposing the young defender. What were third and second pairing minutes and assignments last year have quickly evolved into first pairing minutes and duties for the defenseman in only his second full NHL season.
Production is another casualty of McNabb's game this year. His primary assist rate has tanked since last year, and he appears less able to contribute offensively on the whole. He has a potent slapshot that can clock north of 100 MPH, but we rarely see it. He's merely treading water on possession and scoring chance impact, whereas he was positive in those metrics last year.
What's perhaps most important about Brayden McNabb is the fact that Sutter doesn't fully trust him. McNabb was scratched the first game of the year to send a message. As any close game winds down to the final minutes, you can bet that Sutter has abandoned the McNabb-Doughty pairing for the more familiar Muzzin-Doughty grouping. It seems that Sutter is scared to put McNabb on a pairing with another defender he feels cannot carry the inexperienced blue-liner.
Last night against the Capitals, McNabb was paired with Gravel and played a near season low 12 minutes. Part of this was being paired with Gravel, but Muzzin and Doughty each played much more. In fact, combined, they played more time than is a NHL regulation game. Clearly this is the top pair that Sutter prefers, but for one reason or another, couldn't make it work with the rest of the top 4. Perhaps Martinez and Schenn could work as the second pair, but Schenn was brought in to replace Greene on the third pair - not to become a second pair defenseman.
Where does all of this leave the Kings? In a position to acquire a defenseman, of course. Adding a top 4 skater who can stabilize the pairings and contribute offensively could be instrumental in architecting another championship run. What's more, with a potential salary cap crunch looming that could force a partial dismantling of this Kings roster, it may be their last best chance at another cup in the near future.
We know that Dean Lombardi doesn't like rentals when it comes to trade deadline acquisitions. With the uncertainty of Matt Greene's status next year, McNabb needing a contract, and nothing guaranteed for new King Luke Schenn, a rental doesn't seem necessarily a given. After all, the Kings did try to retain Andrej Sekera, and it was likely roster uncertainty coming into this year that nullified that potential deal. With this possibility in mind, let's look at the candidates.
Let's get this out of the way, Dean Lombardi may be Keith Yandle's biggest fan. He openly campaigned for him to join the 2014 US Olympic Team. Dean also doesn't forget about a player. After acquiring Marian Gaborik at the 2014 trade deadline, Lombardi remarked that he had his eye on Gaborik for a long time, and the pieces finally came together. When the Kings acquired Milan Lucic at the 2015 NHL draft, Rob Blake commented that he was one of a very few select players for whom they would have made a deal of that size. If the circumstances are right, it's easy to believe the Kings would make the move.
So, what kind of player is Yandle? Well, over the past five years, he's the in the top fifteen of blueline point producers in the NHL at even strength. The closest King is Jake Muzzin at 28th. He has been equally effective on the power play. He is also having a very strong year this season as well, leading his team in possession and scoring chance metrics. The first problem is that those minutes contain extremely heavy offensive zone deployment- something that wouldn't be guaranteed to continue on the Kings. The second problem? He's on a playoff contending team.
It may simply not be possible to pry him from the New York Rangers, especially now that they are without defenseman Ryan McDonagh. They sit second in their division and it would likely take a "hockey trade" to acquire him. The Kings have a history of dealing with the Ranger, but are thin on prospects and draft picks, and may simply not have the pieces to make a trade like this happen. What's more, should Yandle hit the open market this summer, he'll likely command a salary in excess of 5M average annual value. That's simply too rich for the Kings, so it may be off on the premise that it's a rental deal to begin with.
Dan Hamhuis is a name that has jumped back into contention since he returned from injury after taking a puck to the face. He is another part of what was a very potent Canucks' blue line just a few seasons ago. Though 33 years old, he is still a very effective player and is one of those defensemen that does everything really well. While he doesn't have Yandle's offensive numbers, they're just as good as LA's best have been these past several years. His possession numbers have also always been very strong, and he's great for limiting an opponents' shots.
So what are the potential deal-breakers for a guy like Hamhuis? First of all, it would be an in-division trade in the regular season. Those don't happen very often (though it is true the Kings traded Linden Vey for a second round pick at the 2014 draft). Second, Hamhuis has a full no trade clause and is supposedly happy with his family in Vancouver. He wouldn't move teams unless he wanted to. Finally, thanks to the mess that is the Pacific Division, the Canucks are still in playoff contention.
The Canucks will reportedly assess their playoff situation in the near future prior to the deadline. With the recent injuries to Alexander Edler and Brandon Sutter, one has to think any reasonable person would see this as not the Canucks' year. Should things come together, it seems halfway plausible the Kings could put together a package for Hamhuis, even though they lack a first round pick. With the upcoming cap crunch, general managers are placing more value on picks and young players, which works in the Kings' favor here.
With Hamhuis commanding a salary less of 4.5M coming into his UFA season and his potential to likely look for a retirement contract, it doesn't seem impossible to think that the Kings could make this a new home for him, either. After all, they seemed prepared to offer Sekera that very same amount of money, and all the other pieces added this year could walk away in the off season.
Yandle and Hamhuis aren't the only names that have come up when talking Kings trade rumors. Kris Russell of the Flames is another name that has been out there, as well as the Maple Leafs' Roman Polak (we finally put the Dion Phaneuf rumors to rest, though). These names are credible simply because there are Sutter-type favorites. Darryl has a soft spot for grizzled veterans like these, and perhaps they fill a mental hole for him that was left by Robyn Regehr.
Unfortunately, these players' offensive reputations also match that of a Robyn Regehr or Matt Greene. While their numbers for this year look good, it's not the norm for either player. It's a similar tale for possession stats, though Russell's penalty kill stats are respectable. Adding a player like this wouldn't improve the offensive output of the defense, and it's not clear it would help from a shot limiting perspective, either. If it forced McNabb into a lesser role that he was able to flourish in, that would certainly be positive. However, how much better would he be in that role than Forbort or Gravel? A move like this doesn't guarantee a better top 4 or bottom pairing.
So, there you have it. The Kings could benefit from some help in the top four on defense, and the uncertainty with contracts doesn't force the addition to be a rental. If this is the Kings' last best shot at a playoff run, maybe now is the time to make a move. Who do you think the Kings should add? Vote in the poll and let us know in the comments.