During his introductory press conference as new Los Angeles Kings’ GM, Rob Blake curiously emphasized a shift in philosophy — rather than personnel — when asked about how he would address the team’s lack of scoring. True to his word, the Kings appear set to enter training camp with roughly the same roster that saw them finish just outside the playoff bubble at the conclusion of the 2016-17, save for Michael Cammalleri replacing Jarome Iginla as the token veteran winger and Pierre Turgeon brought on board as an “offensive coordinator.”
With nearly $7 million in cap space and two open roster spots, options remain should Blake choose to recruit a reinforcement or two. The free agent crop has been picked pretty clean at this point in the offseason, though some skilled players remain unsigned. None of these players are without their share of warts, but all could contribute under the right circumstances.
Might as well get the biggest fish out of the way first. Yes, he is 44 years-old. No, he would not do anything to address the Kings’ lack of speed. Anyone who has watched this team long enough would surely have no doubt he would be just another in a long line of future Hall of Famers to fall off a cliff while wearing a Kings’ sweater.
For all those reasons, it is hard to blame the league’s general managers for not wanting to be the ones left holding the bag when Jagr finally looks his age. Still, it is a bit curious he has yet to receive an offer from an NHL club. He managed to play all 82 games while contributing 46 points. He had a sizable drop-off in goals, potting only 16 after a rather amazing 27 the year before. He scored on only 8.8% of his shots on goal, easily the lowest number of his legendary career. It also would have put him between Anze Kopitar (8.0%) and Tyler Toffoli (9.7%) on last year’s Kings.
Unlike Iginla and Vincent Lacavalier before him, Jagr continues to be an elite play driver at his advanced age, with a 6.7% relative Corsi last season. Utilizing his smarts and size to protect the puck, he could potentially pair with Kopitar to consistently tilt the ice in the Kings’ favor.
The fit is not perfect. With Jagr showing a preference for tax-friendly locales in the past, money would certainly be a factor in where he plays next. But if faced with the option of taking his act to Europe or accepting a team-friendly, incentive-laden deal with an NHL team, he could end up a real bargain for a team willing to roll the dice on his age-45 season.
Perhaps no player better personifies the great divide between hockey traditionalists and stat mavens than Cody Franson. The big, puck-moving defenseman consistently puts up strong possession numbers, while absorbing criticism for turnovers and bone-headed plays.
The game has become infiltrated with more analytics-savvy front offices than ever, so it is fair to say if the perception of Franson was completely untrue, some team would have locked him up as a potential bargain by now. He is a puck-mover that can’t skate. He’s got size that he doesn’t use. He has a big, booming shot, yet has never scored more than 8 goals in a season.
All the said, the Kings’ answer to a lack of right-shot defensemen was the depth signing of Christian Folin earlier this offseason. The 26 year-old is the type of blue liner coaches seem to love, playing with snarl and sacrificing their bodies (and their stats) for the good of the team. While that is perfectly acceptable as a guy to compete with Kevin Gravel as the team’s 7th defensemen, it should not stand in the way of the team upgrading their bottom pairing.
All his shortcomings aside, Franson could solidify the Kings’ young defensive corps. He understands the possession game and would not be relied upon for tough defensive assignments. There are no indications that he’s “bad in the room” or had any personality conflicts with teammates or coaches. At the end of the day, he is an average NHL defensemen, a “middle-four” guy, if you will. That has value. And really, are we going to let him help the Blackhawks by accepting their rumored PTO invite?
The best of the rest
The Kings do not necessarily have to look outside the organization to boost their scoring this upcoming season. Old friend Andrei Loktionov will be in camp on a professional tryout, looking to crack the club’s bottom-six. Youngsters Adrian Kempe and Jonny Brodzinski both got taste of NHL action last season, flashing some signs of speed and skill.
Michael Mersch has seen his prospect status take a bit of a hit, even though he increased his scoring pace in an injury-shortened season, scoring 24 goals in only 52 games last year with the Ontario Reign. The big left winger is not eligible for waivers and would most certainly be claimed by someone. Look for him to get every opportunity to stick with the club out of training camp.
Kempe, Brodzinski and Mersch all seem very likely to crack the line-up one way or another this year, due to normal attrition that comes with the grind of an NHL season. While many of us would prefer to see them jump ahead of Jordan Nolan and Andy Andreoff on the depth chart, there is no guarantee than any of them will make meaningful contributions. For a club with championship aspirations, it would seem wise to put less pressure on the youngsters by having them in a reserve role heading into camp.
So who is left on the open market? Brian Gionta is an under-sized winger with a scoring touch, but at his advanced age he has become a drag on possession and would likely only hurt the club more than he would help. P.A. Parenteau fits a similar mold, though with a few inches and a few years on Gionta, he leverages his modest skills into better production. He has never had a relative Corsi under 1.3% while playing mostly on bad teams. He would not be a guy you count on for top-6 minutes, but as a third-liner who can chip in on the second power play unit, he has value.
Thomas Vanek was lauded for his “bounce-back” season in Detroit, even though he essentially matched his production from his previous two years in Minnesota. At age-33, he should be expected to chip in his share of goals, but he will not do a whole lot to drive play and was largely sheltered in Detroit (71.1% oZS). Still, with the curious change of perception about him, expect him to be holding out to exceed his $2.6 million deal from last season. With Mike Cammalleri already on board for a paltry $1 million, it would seem unwise to offer a similar winger like Vanek much more than that.
As currently constructed, the Kings should still be expected to exceed their offensive production from last year with improved health out of Anze Kopitar and Tyler Toffoli. Marion Gaborik, Cammalleri, Kempe and Brodzinski should give them enough options to round out a respectable enough top-6. As usual, it is a lack of skill from their depth forwards that will be a drag on their scoring. The addition of one or more of the aforementioned free agents could swing a few more points their way, enough to get them back into the playoffs.
They could also break camp with what they have, giving some of the younger players an opportunity to cement a role with the club. They can then leverage the added cap space for a potential mid-season trade, when they can better identify their shortcomings. Of course, this runs the risk costing them young talent or draft picks, whereas hedging their bets by signing a player now would only tie up some of their available cap space.
Whichever path Blake chooses to take, the Kings have been a notorious “cap team” throughout their run of success. With multiple unmovable contracts already on the books, they have been wise to resist the urge to tie up valuable cap space on a mediocre free agent the last two years. Whether by trade or on the open market, expect Blake to use that flexibility to improve his roster this season, sooner or later.