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Kings' contract commitments are biggest concern as pivotal off-season approaches

Los Angeles needs to begin turning over its roster, and that starts by getting younger and deeper. Shedding big salaries won't be easy, though, with clauses tied to a couple big-money contracts.

The Los Angeles Kings won’t be playing playoff hockey this season. That’s not really news, though, is it? After all, long before Los Angeles was officially eliminated from post-season contention with Monday’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets, it had become fairly evident that the basement-dwelling Kings were bound to miss out on the dance.

Notable about Los Angeles falling short of the post-season, though, is that for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign, there’s no reason whatsoever to view this early summer as a blip on the radar. The same couldn’t be said when the Kings missed the playoffs back in 2014-15 on the heels of their second Stanley Cup in three seasons, nor was it the overwhelming sentiment when Los Angeles again fell short of post-season play in 2016-17. But this time? This time is different. This time the Kings didn’t simply miss the playoffs, coming up empty-handed in the final days because of an untimely loss or two. This time the Kings were flattened, run over, trounced en route to elimination, bounced from playoff contention with nearly three weeks left in the campaign. And now Los Angeles is preparing to enter the off-season seeking answers.

Here’s what we know about the Kings. They’re old, with an average age of 30.6, according to EliteProspects, which makes Los Angeles the third most veteran squad in the league. They’re also big, with the fourth-highest average height and highest average weight. With that comes a certain lack of speed, as anyone who has watched Los Angeles at all over the past season or two would attest.

But what we also know is that these Kings aren’t bereft of talent or a foundation. There’s skill to be found up front in captain Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty is a cornerstone defender. There are some secondary weapons, too, even if the majority are battling through tough years. Dustin Brown’s resurgence has carried over to this season and Tyler Toffoli has much more to offer. Alex Iafallo’s sophomore campaign has seen him up his point total, as well, and if he can put it together, Adrian Kempe can be a middle-six contributor. There’s also some talent in the system. Gabe Vilardi has promise. Kale Clague does, too. Jaret Anderson-Dolan hung around for a few games with the big club out of training camp, and Rasmus Kupari and Akil Thomas will be coming along in the not-too-distant future.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that the negatives far outweigh those positives, which has made it all too evident that the Kings need to use this off-season to makeover the roster. In attempting to do so, though, Los Angeles will face a few difficulties.

The first is salary constraints. The Kings are a cap-strapped club, presently projected to have $8.23 million in spending room come the off-season, and getting out of this self-made cap crunch is in no way going to be easy. The answer to their problem, of course, would be to rid themselves of a few high-priced deals for aging players. But that is oh-so-much easier said than done, particularly given the contract clauses Los Angeles must maneuver, which is the second hurdle and arguably the largest.

Take off-season signing Ilya Kovalchuk, whose addition hasn’t entirely backfired but certainly hasn’t paid dividends the way the Kings had hoped. Signed to a three-year, $18.75-million deal in the off-season, the 35-year-old has only managed 14 goals and 31 points in 60 games, with a mere four tallies on the power play, where some expected him to help most. Ideally, the Kings would do away with Kovalchuk, but he possesses a full no-movement clause. Thus, barring a buyout, he controls his future. That likely leaves the Kings stuck with Kovalchuk or opening themselves up to take a bath on the return.

The Kings find themselves in a similar situation with Dion Phaneuf. The 33-year-old defenseman, who carries a $5.25-million cap hit, has found himself a healthy scratch and been utilized as not much more than a third-pairing defender. Los Angeles would love to be free of that deal, but doing so is made all the more difficult by his 12-team no-trade list. A buyout isn’t an attractive option, either, especially when that would cost the Kings nearly $3 million in cap space this season and $5.5 million next.

So, possibly stuck with both veteran players and their salaries, how do the Kings go about freeing up cap space?

One such move could be to ship out Jeff Carter, who carries a $5.27-million cap hit and could draw some suitors as a middle-six scoring winger. The worry, though, is that Carter could hang up his skates and leave Los Angeles saddled with a cap recapture penalty. Another would be to move out Toffoli and his $4.6-million cap hit in order to find some extra financial flexibility. And another yet would be to explore the interest in Alec Martinez, who could be a solid second-pairing hand on a contender. The bold move, though, would be for the Kings to free up $5.8 million annually and find a new home for goaltender Jonathan Quick. The 33-year-old’s injury history is troubling, but a team in need of a starting goaltender – the Columbus Blue Jackets could be searching once Sergei Bobrovsky departs – could kick the tires.

The importance of additional cap space for the Kings is twofold. While it’s inarguable that Los Angeles needs to replenish its prospect pool, the Kings also need to add depth. They can’t afford to scrape by with the bargain-bin bottom six that they’ve been trotting out in recent years. They have to spend on speed and talent in the interim and transform this roster into a new-age group that way while they wait for their prospects to come along. In addition, Los Angeles could use the additional spending space to chase a prime-aged free agent instead of the veteran talent they’ve been chasing in recent years. Regardless of recent results, the Kings can be a destination for free agent talent, and with the group hitting the market this summer – Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Jeff Skinner headline the free agent class – there could be a big benefit to having the money to spend on landing one of the major pieces.

No matter how the Kings go about it, though, this summer will be the beginning of a process that Los Angeles hopes will end with another period of sustained success.

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