Assessing the Kings' Defense Part 3: Does the Market Hold the Answer?
At times the Kings' defense this past year has been described as inadequate, or a poor image of its former self. Are the free agent and trade markets the way to solve that?
This is part three of a three part series on the woes of the Kings defense, what they should do differently, and how they should utilize this off season to address their deficiencies.
You can read part one of the series here, and part two is here.
Before we dive into this topic at all, let me start by saying that the premise of this article should not be taken as given. As I laid out in part two, I believe this is a good defense that could be even better if they were used more effectively. That being said, it's pretty obvious that the defensive performances don't match those of the high point with the 2013-2014 when the Kings could lock down a game while leading in the third period. What could the Kings do to get to the good ole days of... two years ago?
Defining the Need
So, if you agree that the Kings could use a defenseman, then what do they actually need? Reporters covering the Kings will tell you that the Kings need a right-handed defenseman who can play on the second pair - and that's exactly right in this case. The top four of Brayden McNabb, Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, and Alec Martinez seems to be one of necessity, not ideal deployment. Multiple times we've seen McNabb make a mistake only to be replaced by Rob Scuderi on the top pair while he brings up the bottom pairing. So why not go back to the old pairing of Jake Muzzin and Drew Doughty? In post game quotes this March, Darryl Sutter actually admitted that he didn't like splitting up Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez. Given who plays more minutes each night (Jake Muzzin), it seems fairly clear who Sutter thinks is carrying that pair.
What also factors into this equation is defenseman handedness. Alec Martinez is a left shot who has largely been asked to play on his off side these past two seasons. The team has indicated multiple times that they prefer opposing handedness for their defensive pairings. The problem of a finding a right shot defenseman is a big one, though. Indeed, when the Kings scoured the market last year for a deadline acquisition, they ended up acquiring a left shot in Andrej Sekera. This preference isn't all voodoo and superstition either. Handedness can have a direct impact on the performance of your defensive pairs, so the Kings are right to have this preference.
Quick Assessment of the Cap Situation
The salary cap is projected to raise to 74 million, albeit optimisticly, including the five percent inflator from the players. This is a decent bump over the 71.4 million from last year, and very much needed given Anze Kopitar's pricey extension is kicking in. I've taken some liberties with personnel decisions and assumed the following salaries for returning players - Milan Lucic, 5.5M; Trevor Lewis, 2M; Brayden McNabb, 1.25M; Nick Shore, 700K; Nic Dowd, 700K.
With Matt Greene and Jordan Nolan returning from injury, and Kevin Gravel taking over Luke Schenn's roster spot, this gives us a 23 man roster at just under 73.2M. Obviously it's been widely suggested that Trevor Lewis could and will get more on the market, and the number for Lucic may still be on the low end of the spectrum. Replacing Lewis with an ELC type salary gives us more room, but this gives us a common ground to start with. The Kings will be close to the cap, but vacating one roster spot would allow them to accommodate any ELC or a bridge contract on the smaller side.
In part two of the series, I engaged readers to suggest what free agent acquisitions or trades they'd like to see to help the defense. Here they all are, assessed with a few sentences each.
Keith Yandle - Dean Lombardi's love of Keith Yandle is no secret. There's no question he can help a team offensively from the blue line. However, his reputation may have exceeded his abilities, and as a free agent, he's probably due a large contract because of that. Given that it would take moving a current roster player out and the Kings may be over-committed to a defenseman that's already 29, this one seems like a pass.
Kris Russell - Player nearing 30 who has a reputation for being a great shot blocker. We already have this player.His name is Alec Martinez and he puts up more points.
Dan Hamhuis - It's a shame that there was literally no discussion about this guy at the trade deadline. Speaking seriously, Hamhuis is a great all around defenseman who I personally would like on the Kings. Here are the issues: he is 33 and will want a retirement contract, he has said he likes Vancouver and stability for family is paramount, and he is a left shot. Paying him a fair salary would also likely mean moving out a current key member of the defense. Is it worth that for a player that may only last another 3 years? Sure, in a different cap scenario it could be like the Sharks adding Paul Martin, but that's not where we are at.
Cody Franson - A trade! He's a large right-handed shot with decent offensive numbers and good possession numbers. What's more, he's on an affordable contract! However, the Kings had a chance to trade for him at the 2014-2015 deadline and didn't. The Predators did and didn't re-sign him. He tested the market that summer and got less than expected at 3.325M. Maybe there's some personality trait there that teams don't like. I could see that being a reason the Kings stay away.
We already covered Kris Russell, Dan Hamhuis, and Keith Yandle. Who does that leave? Brian Campbell. Sure he's 36 and coming off a huge contract, but there's a reason for that - he is still very good. No doubt he'd want to finish his career with the Panthers, but a two year deal could work for a team if the price is right. That team probably just isn't the Kings, given they'd need to move or not re-sign a key piece for a temporary solution.
For this section, I've identified three potential trade targets. All of them are young, right-shot defenders that could become a part of the team's core. They range from unsuspected but reasonable to downright implausible and blockbuster, but if you make it this far, you're stuck with me.
What's to like: he's a fast defender with great smarts and passing. He's not small either at 6'1". You can see his combination of assets makes him great at controlling the flow of play, but his weak shot means he doesn't show up offensively, making him a bit under the radar. Sometimes offense develops late, and with his one remaining year at 1.125M salary means he could be had without sacrificing a current roster player. The promise - his expected goal relative numbers are as strong as Marc-Edouard Vlasic from the Sharks.
What could go wrong: He is still a large unknown, and has bounced around Buffalo's pairings. The Kings may give up some good assets on trade to get a player that doesn't work out, or worse, doesn't play the way Sutter expects.
What it would take: It depends on how much value Buffalo puts in the strength of his underlying fancy stats. Los Angeles and Buffalo have been trade partners before, and the give wasn't too bad for Brayden McNabb. He could be had for a 2nd to 4th round pick and a decent defensive prospect (perhaps Gravel or Forbort).
What's to like: As you can see from the WARRIOR chart above, his contributions to offense are tremendous. He's also only 22 and is a product of the USA (Dean Lombardi is preparing speeches already). He also has decent size and can be physical, which the Kings value.
What could go wrong: His strong offensive numbers may be buoyed by his stellar 2013-2014 year, and thus he could be over-valued. Given the amount of chatter about him on the market, his value may even be inflated, especially given his age. He is also due for a contract this year, so even a bridge contract could force out a roster player for someone that is an unknown quantity.
What it would take: Quite a bit. He was a ninth round pick in the first round of the 2012 draft. He could warrant a high pick, even a first, along with a top prospect (Kempe) or cost-controlled forward (Pearson).
What's to like: A lot. Tyson Barrie is a game-changing defenseman. For defensemen with over 2000 minutes in the last three years, he's nestled between Mark Giordano and P.K. Subban in points per 60 minutes. His scoring chance numbers show it's not all just offense, too.
What could go wrong: Uh, a lot. The reason I even considered Barrie is that he could be entering contentious contract negotiations similar to what former Avs player Ryan O'Relily did, who went on to earn a 7.5M contract from the Sabres. They also have the same agent. The range for Barrie has been tossed around as 6-8M, and it would only begin to make sense for the Kings on the lower end of that. That's not counting the changes to the roster it would necessitate. Are there any bad habits that have been instilled by previous coaching? Are they fixable?
What it would take: Significant assets. Consider giving up next year's first round pick, Alec Martinez, and Adrian Kempe. This is after the fact that you realize it only works if you find a trade partner for Dustin Brown, too. Now you've got a top-heavy defensive structure like Chicago in which you pay your core players a lot and rotate replacement/young players in the bottom three spots. That's kind of against the Kings' philosophy, and there's no guarantee it would work.
Part three concludes our look at the Kings' defense this past season and what adjustments, through both deployment and personnel, that they can make.
Thanks to corsica.hockey and @MimicoHeroo for all included stats!