Free Agency 2017: Rob Blake, Kings Management Stick With Process Over Results

LA made some low-cost, low-risk signings rather than breaking the bank. That approach failed last year, but did they really have a choice this year?

I have a question for all you diehard Los Angeles Kings fans out there. Since the Kings’ first Stanley Cup in 2012, who is the most expensive unrestricted free agent (in terms of cap hit) LA has signed on the open market?

Time’s up. The answer, of course, is Teddy Purcell, at a whopping $1.6 million. Tom Gilbert is a close second.

Is this a cautionary tale about spending money on risky options, or a plea to spend more money on slightly less risky options? I’m not sure myself, and that’s why this article will sound a lot like I’m arguing with myself. (I do this regularly.) All I know is that, since giving Simon Gagne $7 million over two seasons in the 2011 offseason, LA has taken a remarkably cautious approach to the free agent market, at a juncture where other contenders have broken the bank.

Some of this is due to necessity. Last year’s Kings could’ve spent money on a big-time forward, but weren’t ready to run with Peter Budaj as backup and doled out money for Jeff Zatkoff, while the previous year’s edition was well-crunched after trading for Milan Lucic. Some of this is due to losing out on big free agents, such as Joe Thornton. The rest, though, seems to be an organizational choice, and it was followed again this year as Thornton was the only big-ticket free agent the Kings pursued. After coming up short on Thornton, the Kings settled for a very late Plan B in Michael Cammalleri.

The Kings’ approach this year was prudent, but it’s also closely in line with what they did last season.

  • Cammalleri and Purcell: both former Kings coming off disappointing seasons, but still fully capable of filling the net. Cammalleri had 31 points in 61 games in 2016-17, while Purcell had 43 points in 76 games in 2015-16.
  • Gilbert and Christian Folin: both low-scoring defenders coming off injury-plagued campaigns, expected to compete for a spot as the team’s 6th or 7th defenseman.
  • Zatkoff and Darcy Kuemper: both put up save percentages slightly below league average in their career prior to signing in LA, and both were essentially third-string on their own teams by the time the offseason rolled around./

LA also filled out the AHL ranks with Michael Latta and Zach Trotman last year; this year, they did so with goalie Cal Petersen and defenseman Stepan Falkovsky. I’d be more comfortable with nearly all of these signings if I hadn’t watched Zatkoff and Purcell crumble when given chances to succeed last year. I would have felt much better if the 2017-18 Kings had Alexander Radulov, Nick Bonino, or Kevin Shattenkirk at their disposal.

Then again, committing to any multi-year deal above $4 million would have been absurd unless LA had been able to get rid of one of their current multi-year deals above $4 million. And could LA have even gotten a scorer better than Cammalleri on a one-year deal? The forwards who signed for more than $1 million on a one-year deal during free agency were:

  • Thornton ($8 million to San Jose)
  • Chris Kunitz ($2 million to Tampa Bay)
  • Benoit Pouliot ($1.15 million to Buffalo)
  • Radim Vrbata ($2.5 million to Florida)/

Aside from Thornton, that’s three other guys who the Kings could have pursued, two who came in at double Cammalleri’s price and one who was also bought out of a contract. If you’re Rob Blake, you didn’t have many choices. Plus, you’ve already got 15 forwards with NHL experience.

Maybe LA could have maximized their current win-now status by going for another one of the above thirty-somethings, or maybe they could have REALLY maximized it by signing a big name and throwing themselves further into cap hell beyond 2017-18. I’m not sure a team with $61 million committed to 13 players in 2018-19 should be throwing out multi-year contracts, though.

The point of all this is to recognize that the Kings’ approach this year arose from the situation they find themselves in. This approach took absolutely nothing from the results of last year. And that’s okay! Those signings were brutal last year, but they have zero impact on this year’s Kings. (Unless Zatkoff surprises us, that is.) And if you’re going to argue that the process is broken, then consider that low-cost goalies and low-cost defenders have worked out well before in LA. Jhonas Enroth carried a career .909 SV% into Los Angeles and was terrific in a backup role in 2015-16, while Willie Mitchell (while considerably more expensive than either Gilbert or Folin) was once a low-scoring and injury-plagued defender who signed for a discount. There were other low-cost G options aside from Kuemper and 6/7 defenders are a dime a dozen, but the Kings found options they liked and grabbed them.

One problem: the low-cost scorer option hasn’t worked for LA recently. Like, at all. The Kings have gotten stretches of effectiveness from guys like Alexei Ponikarovsky and Devin Setoguchi, but Gagne’s the only “budget” forward who managed to put up points too. Is Cammalleri the guy to break the trend? That’s for a future article, but in general, stats folks love the signing, Kings-fans-who-are-tired-of-former-Kings-coming-back hate the signing (can’t blame you), and it’s flown under the radar of everyone else. Free agency offered the Kings very little to work with, and they bet on an uncertain option; hopefully they pushed their chips onto the correct aging forward.

Rob Blake is going to bear the ultimate responsibility for how Cammalleri, Kuemper, and Folin perform in Kings uniforms next season. If they struggle, don’t blame the route the Kings took in free agency this summer too much, but feel free to critique the choices. We got plenty of practice doing that last season.

Do you also have rambling thoughts about NHL Free Agency 2017? Feel free to spill them below in the comments.