It wasn’t the only restricted free agent task the Los Angeles Kings had on their plate this summer, but it was the most pressing: with Alex Iafallo filing for arbitration and his hearing date set for July 20, the Kings were on a timeline to get a deal done. And Wednesday, they did. The two sides came to terms on a two-year, $4.85-million pact that will keep the middle-six winger in Hollywood for another couple of seasons.
As far as the contract is concerned, too, it’s not a bad bit of business by the Kings.
Iafallo, who was nabbed as a college free agent in April 2017, hasn’t been an offensive juggernaut in Los Angeles, but he’s been a consistent scorer through his two big-league campaigns and he displayed significant growth last season. His 33 points tied him for sixth in Kings scoring, his 15 goals were fourth-best on the club and there were only four forwards who were leaned on more heavily by then-coach Willie Desjardins. Those were an increases in every category for Iafallo, and under new coach Todd McLellan, who will be tasked with turning around a popgun attack and making the bottom-feeding Kings into a respectable, contending outfit, the 25-year-old is a prime candidate to take another step forward and remain a fixture of the top six.
But with Iafallo now signed, Los Angeles GM Rob Blake needs to begin to turn his attention elsewhere. Yes, that means to RFA winger Adrian Kempe and, to a lesser extent, RFA defender Matt Roy, who had the option to but did not file for arbitration. Beyond taking care of what in-house business remains, though, what the Kings need to begin addressing is the future of the roster and the shape this roster will take.
Indeed, as we begin the true doldrums of the off-season, we do so looking at a Los Angeles roster that is largely the same as the one that was iced at the conclusion of last season. To wit, among the departures are Desjardins, goaltender Peter Budaj and a handful of low-level free agents, including Brendan Leipsic, Jonny Brodzinski and Nikita Scherbak. Dion Phaneuf was bought out. Added to replace those who’ve headed elsewhere have been Mario Kempe, Martin Frk, Joakim Ryan, and the Kings have also inked a number of entry-level pacts, including a three-year deal with promising prospect Akil Thomas and one-year contract with 2012 draft choice Nikolai Prokhorkin, who had himself a solid KHL campaign and is expected in the Kings’ lineup next season.
This isn’t what was expected, though. As we headed towards the deadline last season, there was talk about Los Angeles moving veteran players such as Ilya Kovalchuk, Jeff Carter and even Jonathan Quick. When none of the three were moved, some believed the Kings would get to work when the draft and free agency rolled around, shifting out some of the old guard for picks and prospects in an effort to kickstart a real rebuild. But it’s mid-July and that hasn’t happened. So, what’s going on?
At a glance, it would appear Los Angeles is primed to wheel and deal. What they have on their roster is a glut of mid- to late-aged players who aren’t long for the organization. Case in point, only Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty have contracts beyond the 2021-22 campaign. Quick does, too, but his pact expires in four seasons. After that, eight of the 17 players signed for next season who aren’t currently on entry-level deals see their contracts run out following the upcoming campaign. That gives the Kings plenty of trade bait. Or does it?
The reality is that most of what Los Angeles has at their disposal is the kind of talent, especially after last season, that would have to be sold at a loss, which is to say that the Kings might not take an absolute bath on the returns but they’re definitely not going to be heralded as the winners of many potential swaps.
Take Kovalchuk, for instance. Though he had suitors when he was on his way back to the NHL from the KHL, teams aren’t going to be lining up to give the Kings anything worthwhile for a 36-year-old who scored 16 goals and 34 points last season and carries a $6.25-million cap hit in each of the next two seasons. And the same goes for several others. Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis won’t fetch much. Jeff Carter, while he might intrigue some teams, is a retirement risk. Dustin Brown, who has actually done well to rejuvenate his career, has a no-trade clause. And while teams might be willing to call and offer decent returns for defensemen Alec Martinez or Derek Forbort, neither are players Los Angeles is likely all too keen on shedding.
Truly, the best trade chip in the Kings’ possession might be Tyler Toffoli. The 27-year-old winger is in the final season of a three-year pact that pays him $4.6-million per season, he’s a three-time 20-goal scorer who once cracked the 30-goal plateau and he has three seasons of 47 points or more. But even Toffoli comes with an asterisk, because he might be more unattractive now than he’s ever been. He scored a mere 13 goals and 34 points last season and that’s in a full 82-game campaign with the second-highest average ice time of his career. It was an objectively bad season for the winger, one that has surely damaged his trade value.
If you don’t believe that, consider Tanner Pearson. Once so closely associated with Toffoli as part of the Kings’ ‘That 70s Line’ alongside Carter, Pearson had a dreadful start to the 2018-19 campaign and wound up shipped out of town in a one-for-one deal for Carl Hagelin. Not a knock against Hagelin, but if Pearson would have been traded one year or two years earlier, most would have expected Los Angeles to receive a package or equal roster player, not an aging winger who had posted three points in 16 games – again, three points in 16 games – at the time of the trade.
But that’s the position the Kings are in right now, not only with Toffoli but others on their roster. Los Angeles is, in a sense, stuck. On the heels of a campaign that was almost across-the-board awful, the Kings have very little of value, very few players who are coming off of seasons strong enough that they’re tantalizing additions and, frankly, very little reason to then trade those players for next to nothing if it would then mean forcing square pegs into round holes or putting young players in positions that would hurt their development.
And maybe this is the plan after all. Maybe the idea is to let these contracts expire or let some play their way into rental territory before selling them off to the highest bidders. That wouldn’t be the worst play, as it would at least allow the Kings to accrue additional picks. And for those that walk, they walk. It’s not as if there’s no help on the way. A panel of scouts ranked not one, not two, but six of Los Angeles’ prospects in the Top 100 of The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2019 issue. Thomas, Rasmus Kupari, Gabe Vilari and Jaret-Anderson Dolan were all among that group. Defensemen Kale Clague and Mikey Anderson aren’t all that far off. Cal Petersen is a promising goaltender, too. The Kings had themselves a nice first couple rounds at the draft, as well, landing Alex Turcotte, Tobias Bjornfot and Alex Kaliyev with their first three picks.
If the Kings were going to take a real, honest-to-goodness shot at being one of the more improved squads next season, it had to go beyond a change behind the bench. Moves had to be made. But that they haven’t thus far might tell us two things: that they may not be ahead of the season and that Los Angeles might be just fine with letting things play out, spending another year at the bottom of the standings and really digging into their future once they get at least one more draft under their belt. And in the draft-and-develop era of the NHL, that’s honestly not the worst plan.
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