It’s time for another edition of the THN Hot Seat, an ongoing series of THN.com columns in which we nominate a member of every NHL franchise who will be dealing with phenomenal amounts of pressure in the 2022-23 season.
The person we pick for the Hot Seat will be either an NHL player, GM head coach, or team owner. In this file, we’re breaking down the Los Angeles Kings.
KINGS HOT SEAT: DREW DOUGHTY, DEFENSEMAN
WHY: The Kings are an up-and-coming group who pushed the Edmonton Oilers to seven games in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series last spring, but the reality is they’re still a team transitioning from their glory days, Cup-winning era of the early part of the aughts. Ownership and management has kept together key components from those Cup-winning teams, at forward, and on defense and in net, while trying to find new elite contributors to form a new core to sustain them through the next decade to come.
That has not been an easy or quick task for L.A. GM Rob Blake, who has had to be patient with his youngsters, and seek out veterans well in advance of their twilight years to solidify the lineup. But last season, a group finally made the jump to be a post-season team. New acquisition Philip Daneault was terrific in his first year as a King, while youngsters Adrian Kempe, Michael Andersson and Sean Durzi all established themselves as dependable NHLers. Unfortunately, the Kings suffered a massive setback when veteran star blueliner Drew Doughty went down in the first week of March with a wrist injury that required surgery and put him out through the rest of the season and playoffs. It was a devastating injury to a player with the highest ice time average of any Kings player. It may have been the difference between L.A. beating Edmonton and losing in the opening round.
The 32-year-old Doughty is not an analytics darling. Still, he is the Kings’ top-paid player at an average annual salary of $11 million per season, and his contract lasts another four years after this coming season. If he cannot regain his all-star level of play, Los Angeles will have an extremely difficult time replacing the quality minutes he brings to the table. It also means the Kings will have to lean on goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen more than they did last season, and considering Quick is now 36 years old (and in the final season of his decade-long contract) and that Petersen had a sub-par regular season (including a .895 Save Percentage), that is not going to be ideal.
Blake did improve the Kings’ offense with the free agent signing of former Minnesota star winger Kevin Fiala, who agreed to a seven-year, $55.125-million contract after his negotiating rights were acquired from the Wild. L.A. now has an impressive first line of Fiala and fellow winger Kempe and cornerstone center Anze Kopitar. Their second line is also small, but offensively potent, with Danault centering wingers Trevor Moore and Viktor Arvidsson. But it’s their back end, and Doughty’s health status in particular, that is most in question.
If Doughty can return to an above-average level of competition, the Kings could be in the mix for the No. 2 spot in the Pacific Division and home-ice advantage in the playoffs next spring. If not, a fourth-place finish in the Pacific is more likely for L.A. The Kings are still a team on the rise, but to truly flourish, they need Doughty to be an anchor on defense and chip in a decent amount of offense. If that does not happen, the road to prominence will be far rockier for them.