After a disappointing season in which the Los Angeles Kings failed to make the post-season – let alone defend their Stanley Cup championship – there was little doubt that changes would be coming to the roster. However, whatever moves the Kings do make, they would be wise to keep the next couple of seasons in mind.
According to Jon Rosen of L.A. Kings Insider, the Kings and Andrej Sekera, Los Angeles’ big acquisition at the trade deadline, have started discussing a potential contract to bring Sekera, an unrestricted free agent as of July 1, back to the Kings next season. But if Sekera, who was highly sought after and could earn himself a big buck on the open market, wants to get paid what he’s worth and the Kings pony up a contract worthy of Sekera’s services, things could get extremely tight when it comes to staying salary cap compliant. And Sekera, as good as he is, shouldn’t be the biggest of the Kings’ concerns.
This off-season, the Kings have nine roster players heading for free agency of some type. Sekera along with defenseman Jamie McBain and forwards Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll are all eligible to go to unrestricted free agency, while forwards Tyler Toffoli, Andy Andreoff, Nick Shore, Jordan Weal and goaltender Martin Jones are headed for restricted free agency.
While it’s beneficial for the Kings to have the opportunity to issue qualifying offers to a number of their RFAs this off-season, the concern isn’t just about what happens in 2015-16. Instead, Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi needs to concern himself with next off-season, when Anze Kopitar, inarguably the star of the Kings, heads for unrestricted free agency.
Currently under contract on a deal that has a cap hit of $6.8 million (it pays him $7.7 million next season), Kopitar is going to be looking for a raise come 2016-17. Trouble for Lombardi is that Kopitar is deserving of every cent of whatever raise he gets, so Lombardi will have to make sure to manage his money properly to lock his star pivot up next off-season. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Kopitar’s next deal land him somewhere in the $7.5-8.5 million range for average value – a far cry from what some stars make which means Kopitar could get paid even more that, as crazy as that may sound.
Heading into this off-season, though, it means Lombardi has to make tough decisions, the first of which will be what exactly to do with Mike Richards. Richards, the one-time star center with the Philadelphia Flyers, has seen his game slip to the point he spent two months in the AHL this past season.
Many believe he can still be an effective NHL player if put in the right situation, but he has a cap hit of roughly $4 million and is under contract for four more years. That’s money the Kings can’t – or don’t – want to keep on payroll with a number of free agents pending. For Richards, a trade out of Los Angeles would likely mean the opportunity to rejuvenate his career and there’s little doubt he would accept any trade that gave him a shot to play elsewhere. If Richards stays, things get tricky. But even if he’s gone, it will be tough sledding for the Kings and they’ll have to say goodbye to some players.
Williams, the Game 7 hero who has been part of two Stanley Cups in Los Angeles, isn’t a lock to be brought back, but if the Kings do keep him, he’s due for a pay raise from the $3.65 million he’s averaged over his current deal. It seems unlikely that Lombardi would put his team in further financial peril by locking up Williams, however, so he and Stoll (who ran into some legal trouble this off-season) are headed for free agency. That takes care of this season’s UFAs, but what about the RFAs?
When it comes to Toffoli, his raise will probably be a bit heftier than the $1.4 million extension that Tanner Pearson inked earlier this year. This season, Toffoli notched 23 goals and 49 points in 76 games and has shown he can consistently score in the NHL. If he gets an RFA deal worth $2-3 million, that will limit the Kings’ cap flexibility, but on a team that has at times been stunted offensively, that’s a deal Lombardi needs to make to keep some goal-scoring in house.
After Toffoli, focus will shift to the bottom-six players the Kings currently have, including Weal, who scored 70 and 69 points respectively in his past two AHL seasons, and Shore. Likely, both will get new deals this off-season of varying dollar amounts, but every penny will count, especially with the salary cap reportedly set to increase to a mere $71 million.
No matter who the Kings sign, it moves the needle ever closer to the tipping point, which could force Lombardi to part ways with players he didn’t expect to have to move out quite yet. That could mean any of his young players will, at a moment’s notice, become too pricy for the Kings to keep.
With success is bound to come trouble with the salary cap. It has happened to every team that has won in the past decade. The Chicago Blackhawks were twice gutted, had to ship out Nick Leddy to stay cap compliant and will be shedding salary again this off-season. The Boston Bruins were forced to move Johnny Boychuk before this season began for the same reasons.
For Los Angeles, losing Kopitar isn’t an option – put plainly, it’s not going to happen no matter who has to move on. That’s why Lombardi and the Kings need to spend smart. If they don’t, it could result in more post-seasonless years.