It was an expansion-draft trade. As a team rumored to be protecting four or five defensemen from the Seattle Kraken later this month, the Nashville Predators knew they were in position to lose a useful forward. They shipped right winger Viktor Arvidsson to the Los Angeles Kings for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2022 third-round pick rather than lose him for nothing.
Nashville’s intentions were obvious. The subtext was far more interesting from the Kings’ perspective, however. What did the trade represent for them? The Kings have spent the past several seasons lying in the weeds, with Rob Blake behaving as conservatively as any GM in the NHL, piling up picks and prospects. Did the Arvidsson deal signal the end of the rebuild phase? It certainly appears that way if you examine the circumstantial evidence.
Blake took over as GM in 2017 following a season in which the Kings missed the playoffs and ended their mini-dynasty era by axing the coach and GM that helped them to Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014: Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi. Blake began his tenure fairly modestly. He hired coach John Stevens in hopes of eschewing the team’s lumbering, heavy style under Sutter. After L.A. responded well in Blake’s first season, returning to the playoffs with a 98-point campaign, there was a blip of false hope. He signed left winger Ilya Kovalchuk to an ill-fated three-year pact and handed star blueliner Drew Doughty an eight-year, $88-million contract that was destined to age poorly given he was already 28 at the time. Blake got a new-GM reality check as the Kings sunk in the standings the ensuing season and were forced into proper rebuild mode.
That’s when Blake wisely retreated to an imaginary bunker and began planning for the future. From 2018-19 to present day, a run in which the Kings missed three straight post-seasons, Blake sold off championship-team stalwarts in defenseman Jake Muzzin, left winger Tanner Pearson, right winger Tyler Toffoli, defenseman Alec Martinez and center Jeff Carter. In Blake’s first four drafts, spanning 2017 to 2020, the Kings drafted 32 players. With each team having the right to pick seven times per draft, that means Blake was plus-four on picks over than span, an extra pick per draft. The Kings picked 11 times in the first two rounds across those four drafts, including five times in the first round. They also made no significant free-agent signings during the 2019 and 2020 off-seasons, with their highest-profile spend being a one-year, $1.2-million deal for left winger Andreas Athanasiou.
Across the past few seasons, the Kings’ prospect arsenal has swollen into something significant. In The Hockey News' Future Watch 2021 magazine, our panel of active NHL scouts and executives graded the Kings’ crop of 21-and-younger talent as an ‘A,’ good for the third-overall rank. The Kings placed six players inside the overall top 100 NHL affiliated prospects: center Quinton Byfield (2nd), center Alex Turcotte (13th), defenseman Tobias Bjornfot (46th), left winger Arthur Kaliyev (51st), left winger Samuel Fagemo (75th) and defenseman Brock Faber (78th). Each of those players was selected in the past two drafts alone, and that list doesn’t even include potential building blocks such as defenseman Helge Grans, right winger Akil Thomas, center Rasmus Kupari and, having graduated to the NHL level, centers Gabe Vilardi and Jaret Anderson-Dolan and defenseman Mikey Anderson. Given the Kings will add yet another prospect to their crop with the eighth-overall pick in the 2021 draft, the idea that they have achieved a critical mass of young talent is believable.
The Arvidsson acquisition starts to make sense when viewed through the lens of a team that feels it’s ready to start pushing. The Kings evidently now believe second- and third-round picks are expendable. They’re maxed out on young assets. Vilardi’s back has healed to the point he’s ready to sink or swim with a larger role in the NHL. We should see Byfield make the team from Day 1 next season as a full-time big leaguer. Kaliyev showed well in the AHL and especially at the 2021 world juniors and seems ready to compete for a permanent NHL gig. Turcotte will or should be expected to push for a spot out of camp next season, albeit he didn’t light up the AHL in his pro debut this season. Goaltender Cal Petersen established himself as the team’s No. 1 and, despite some late-season stumbles, still graded out as an above-average stopper at 5-on-5 despite facing one of the league’s tougher workloads. The young pieces are there and, considering Doughty and top center Anze Kopitar delivered resurgent performances in 2020-21 suggesting they still have some good hockey left, it’s time for L.A. to throttle up.
The first step was acquiring a reliable top-six winger to (probably) pair with Kopitar. That’s Arvidsson. The Kings still have roughly $15 million in cap space – with zero UFAs to re-sign among their 2020-21 regulars and just three low-impact RFAs to “worry” about in Athanasiou, left winger Trevor Moore and right winger Matt Luff. The Kings will have some legitimate money to play with, especially once the expansion draft passes. Sure, the Kraken are most likely to use their claim on an affordable player from an unprotected group that I project to include Athanasiou, Brendan Lemieux and defenseman Kale Clague. But might the Kings also pursue a side deal in which the Kraken take on goaltender Jonathan Quick, who has two seasons left at a $5.8-million AAV? It’s a pipe-dream idea, especially if the Kings still like having Quick as an experienced 1B. Then again, he's an "old" 35 given his taxing, athletic style of play, and he just had shoulder surgery. If the Kings feel ready to be aggressive, they have the extra draft capital to dangle if necessary, including that 2021 first-rounder in a draft class that doesn’t project to be epically great and was also the most challenging to scout in a generation thanks to COVID-19. If there’s ever a draft in which first-round picks are dice rolls and thus could be sacrificed, it’s this one.
And if the Kings free up additional money – perhaps even if they don’t – they could become buyers in a robust defenseman market this summer. The Kings reportedly want to acquire a left-shot partner to play with Doughty. The best free-agent options on the left side are mid-tier types such as Mike Reilly, Alex Goligoski, Ryan Murray, Jamie Oleskiask and, oddly enough, Martinez. The right-shot options are particularly interesting. Dougie Hamilton tops the list, of course, with the Carolina Hurricanes making his early-negotiating rights available via trade, but other righties slated to hit the market include Adam Larsson, Tyson Barrie and David Savard. The Kings would be a fascinating destination for Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, who is likely to be traded in the next week or two, though his teammate Zach Werenski would be a better fit for L.A. on the left side.
What matters here if you’re a Kings fan is the idea that, for the first time in several seasons, Blake is in position to pursue some significant upgrades. Arvidsson shouldn’t be the only one. With the NHL expected to return to its traditional divisional alignment for 2021-22, the Kings should find themselves in position to make a run in the Pacific. The Vegas Golden Knights will be the class of the division, and we can probably concede the No. 2 spot to Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers, but the Kings look like they can hang with Calgary, San Jose, Vancouver, Anaheim and the expansion Kraken. With one or two more major additions? The Kings could have a ceiling of a top-two team in the Pacific next season. Assuming their management feels this way – and the Arvidsson deal suggests as much – they shape up as one of the most interesting teams to watch this off-season.