Dissecting the Defense
The Kings have nine defensemen. That's too many. What gives?
The dust has settled. It has been a full month since the Kings signed Keaton Ellerby and Jeff Schultz in successive moves. I think I can finally articulate some clear thoughts on the matter.
Alright. There has to be a reason, right? Dean Lombardi is almost uniformly good at his job. He built an elite team and he didn't do it by luck. He has picked good moments in most instances to sell high and buy low (the Jeff Carter/Jack Johnson trade being a perfect example). I suppose it's worth noting that he's definitely buying low on Keaton Ellerby and Jeff Schultz. However, getting half off a pack of gum doesn't seem very useful in the long run.
Let's take a deeper look at the players in question.
Keaton Ellerby is a big defensive defenseman. He was drafted in the first round by Florida in 2007. He has 20 points in 160 career NHL games. Most notably, he's first cousins with Shane Doan, which should have given everyone in the room a jolt when Dean Lombardi considered acquiring him. However, he was acquired for slightly more than peanuts, and he filled out the roster competently enough for 35 games to make me not completely hate the world when I read that he would return to the Kings next season at a low cost.
Then the Kings signed Jeff Schultz.
Jeff Schultz is a big defensive defenseman. He was drafted in the first round (wait, didn't I just write that?) by Washington in 2004. He has scored a bit more often than Keaton Ellerby, but it isn't hugely important in either case. Neither is going to score enough to justify a spot over the other guy...or any other guy for that matter. Jeff Schultz's claim to fame is his 2009-10 season in which he led the league in +/-. His league leading +/- and Keaton Ellerby's family ties are actually one after the other on the big list of things I'd worry about when acquiring a professional hockey player (note: they come in at #166 and #167). According to Wikipedia, Jeff Schultz was dubbed "Mr. Nasty" by Pierre McGuire. From an objective standpoint, that's enough reason to never acquire him.
The second note in each of those paragraphs is key. Lombardi is clearly targeting guys that were once highly regarded. He's done this several times. In fact, he almost always does this. Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, Mike Richards, Patrick O'Sullivan, Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, and so on. Every single one of these players has some sort of prior high pedigree. They all had knocks on them for various reasons, whether it be a bright media spotlight or literal, severe father issues. Those guys didn't all come as cheaply as Schultz or Ellerby, but the basic idea is the same.
The Kings currently have nine guys that could play defense in the NHL at varying levels. Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, Robyn Regehr, and Matt Greene can essentially be penned into the lineup if the roster stays in tact. Willie Mitchell is in if he's healthy. That leaves Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez, Ellerby, and Schultz. While acquiring one or the other makes some sense, acquiring both Ellerby and Schultz basically pushes a talented player out of the pipeline. Muzzin or Martinez will almost have to hit the road or you risk completely losing value on the player. You can question Robyn Regehr all you want – trust me, I agree with you – but he's in the opening night lineup unless he gets hurt. A thousand words could be written about his acquisition and I don't think it would be enough to cover the confusion his re-signing has caused me.
Now, there is value in depth. Willie Mitchell – and Matt Greene to a lesser extent – poses a huge risk for the upcoming season. He cannot simply be counted on to play 82 games. It would be a wonderful luxury if Willie were able to compete for a majority of the season. Unfortunately, it isn't something that can be counted on. Having players ready to step in and take his place is nice. It would be great if Alec Martinez could step in should Willie Mitchell's knee not hold up. It's awesome to have that kind of depth. Why are the Kings sacrificing that in order to give Jeff Schultz and Keaton Ellerby looks?
One could argue that the Kings haven't technically sacrificed that depth, but it sure looks as if it's heading that way. Most rosters carry seven defensemen. A special circumstance – such as the one presented by Willie Mitchell's knee – could make an eighth defenseman apropos. Nine is never going to happen. Why not just waive Schultz or Ellerby, you ask? Well, if they're just going to be waived, why sign them at all? One defenseman has to go, period. Ellerby and Schultz have no value whatsoever. Lombardi could bury them in the minors, but the Kings also have seven ADDITIONAL defensemen under contract. Five of them played in Manchester for at least a few games a season ago. At least one of the remaining two should or at the very least could crack the roster this year. Does it make sense to take minutes away from, say, Derek Forbort or Nicolas Deslauriers so Jeff Schultz can maybe play defense for the big team if about three other guys get hurt? Couldn't Andrew Bodnarchuk do the same thing? Doesn't make much sense to bury a player like Schultz, but it never made sense to sign him to begin with.
My biggest problem with these two contracts is the timing. Players like Jeff Schultz or Keaton Ellerby (or Davis Drewiske or Ben Lovejoy or Kent Huskins or T.J. Brennan) are often available because they're replacement level players. The Kings may already have another one in the aforementioned Andrew Bodnarchuk. A seventh or eighth defenseman is almost always available for almost always very little. Should the situation arise down the line, an average-ish NHL defenseman that chews 12 easy minutes without unmitigated disaster is usually available. There is no reason to hamstring yourself in summer because you're afraid of something that could handcuff you in winter.
Steve Montador, Greg Zanon, Ryan O'Byrne, Mark Fistric and many others are still unrestricted free agents. None of them are any good, but neither are Schultz and Ellerby. The point is that if Lombardi feels he has to give some NHL depth guy a look to see what he has in the tank, he can do so freely, easily and completely risk free in about a month.
Some people tout the importance of NHL experience. While I do agree that it matters, no one should be going out and looking for dregs just because they have played in the big leagues. Schultz and Ellerby have never displayed that much talent to begin with. When Schultz produced his best season in the NHL, he did so on the back of a 1069 PDO because he was playing the majority of his ice time with Mike Green, Alex Ovechkin, and Nick Backstrom. He isn't going to repeat that in LA. A season later, those three players played with him for a majority of his ice time again. However, as Mike Green's game lagged due in large part to injuries, Schultz's production and possession numbers collapsed. I'm not buying that Schultz's talent has driven the majority of his own success in this league.
Trading Martinez or Muzzin isn't necessarily the result of Lombardi signing Schultz and Ellerby. He could, again, choose to waive a player that he just signed. I honestly hope he does, even if it costs a prospect playing time. It just doesn't seem very likely.
Perhaps he had previous designs on trading one of the two. Maybe he doesn't like one of them. Maybe Sutter doesn't like Martinez. Whatever the reason is, it's silly. Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez have some value. Muzzin likely has more at the present moment. They have value because they're good at hockey. Muzzin likely has more at the present moment. If you were handed this roster and told to make it fit the NHL rules, one of those two would likely be your best bet to move. While there are other roads to travel, the Kings could wind up having to trade a good player because they acquired too many bad ones.