The Los Angeles Kings are going to have to get used to life without starting goaltender Jonathan Quick.
Quick, 30, has been on the shelf since suffering a lower-body injury in the first period of the Kings’ season opener against the San Jose Sharks, and he’s not going to be back in action anytime soon. According to the Los Angeles Times’ Lisa Dillman, Quick underwent a “procedure” on Tuesday to help heal the ailment but his return is still months away.
After reports Quick could miss upwards of two months, Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi gave Quick’s recovery a timeline of “about three months,” according to Dillman, and that means there’s only a very slim chance Quick will be suiting up before the new year. Being without Quick for an extended period of time is about as bad a break as the winless Kings could have gotten this early in the campaign, especially with the way their goaltending has failed them thus far.
Since Quick went down, the netminding duties have fallen to Jeff Zatkoff, who was signed in the off-season to a two-year, $1.8-million deal. Zatkoff has left much to be desired in his performances, though. He started off strong, stopping all but one of the 16 shots he faced in relief of Quick in the season-opener, but Zatkoff’s next two outings have seen his goals-against average skyrocket to 4.37 and his save percentage fall to an ugly .839.
In the second game of the campaign, Zatkoff was beaten four times on 30 shots, and he didn’t even make it through the entire outing Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild. Zatkoff played only 40 minutes, allowing five goals on 16 shots before getting the hook in favor of backup Peter Budaj after two periods. Following the 6-3 loss to Minnesota, coach Darryl Sutter tried to downplay the issues in goal.
“You expect the guys that are in there to play as well as they can, and if they play as well as they can, that’s good,” Sutter said, according to LA Kings Insider’s Jon Rosen. “I mean, heck, that’s what you do, right?”
And while in some way that sounds like Sutter has confidence in his netminders, you have to worry how long it will be before Los Angeles presses the panic button.
The issue for the Kings is that unlike other teams — like, say, the Dallas Stars — who pack enough offensive punch to outscore their goaltending issues, Los Angeles is far from an offensive juggernaut. They dominate the puck possession game, to be sure, but no one would confuse the Kings for the sharpshooting Stars or high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins. In fact, since Sutter took over in Los Angeles in December 2011, only eight teams have scored fewer goals than the Kings. Therein lies the greatest concern with Quick on the shelf.
While Quick’s status as one of the few top goaltenders in the league is debatable, there’s no doubting his importance to the Kings. Unlike his counterparts Zatkoff and Budaj, Quick is a bonafide starting netminder, has game-stealing ability and is often integral to the Kings’ ability to win close games. And if the Kings aren’t getting that out of Quick for the next three months — a span of 40-plus games — it could severely damage their playoff hopes.
For as talented as Zatkoff may be, he hasn’t been able to show it yet in Los Angeles and the leash he’s been given over the course of the two outings is no doubt shortening. And though Budaj turned away all nine shots he faced in his season debut in the third frame Tuesday, he has a career 2.76 GAA and .903 SP. That’s not exactly top-calibre goaltending. The trouble is there’s not much in the way of easily acquirable goaltending help, especially given the Kings have roughly $1.6 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly.
Of the options available to them in the way of experienced starting netminders, most carry with them a cap hit so high the Kings can’t afford to even flirt with the idea. One of Dallas’ duo of Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi could be available, but both have cap hits above $4.5 million. Detroit Red Wings veteran netminder Jimmy Howard has long been a trade option, but his cap hit is nearly $5.3 million. And the cheapest starting option, Ondrej Pavelec, has been mediocre throughout his career and still comes with a $3.9 million cap hit.
There are cheaper options for the Kings, of course, but some of those could also be associated with higher costs for acquisition, such as draft picks or prospects.
Thomas Greiss, for example, pushed Jaroslav Halak for the New York Islanders’ starting job over the past two seasons and has a cap hit of $1.5 million. Prying him out of New York could be costly, though. The same goes for Bruins backup Anton Khudobin, but getting Boston to give up a good No. 2 option that’s earning just $1.2 million could come at a higher asset price than the Kings are willing to pay.
The cheapest options, then, are the third-string netminders who have at least seen starts in the NHL over the past few seasons. Netminders such as Pittsburgh’s Mike Condon and Florida Panthers third-stringer Reto Berra fit that bill, but the biggest question is if either, or any goaltenders like them, would actually be an improvement for the Kings in any way over their stop-gap duo of Zatkoff and Budaj.
It’s unlikely that Lombardi makes any snap decision after three straight losses to open the season, but if the losing persists and the Kings’ goaltending continues to be shaky at best, Lombardi might be forced to make a move. If that comes to pass, Lombardi will have options, but it will be a matter of finding a way to make the financial side work while finding a fit that will benefit the team in both the short- and long-term.
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