The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin Assesses the state of LA Kings Hockey

On May 26, one and a half months after the season was put on pause due to the COVID-19 outbreak, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman officially announced the “NHL Return to Play Plan,” which included 24 of the 31 teams returning to the ice to play out the remainder of the 2019-2020 season.

With the Kings being on the outside of the 24 NHL teams resuming play this season, it’s time to reflect on the season that was, assess, and look forward toward the brightness that is the Kings future.

Following Bettman’s announcement, senior writer for The Hockey News, Matt Larkin, broke down in detail each non-playoff team’s season, addressing the good, the bad and the ugly…

You can read Larkin’s analysis here: 2019-2020 Season Postmortem: Los Angeles Kings

Based on his assessment of the Kings season, I took the time to dig deeper with the weekly host of The Hockey News Live and The Hockey News Podcast.

Here is that conversation with LAKI:

Q: Goalie play for the Kings in 2020 was among the Top 10 in the NHL for least amount of Goals Against, Goals Against per Game and Short-Handed Goals. What changed for the Kings defensively in new year?
A: This is interesting, because I think it’s true for so many teams right now. You have teams that on paper appear to be sound defensively, when in reality it’s masked by great goaltending. You saw that in Arizona, you saw that in Nashville with Juuse Saros. The Kings were not necessarily a bad team, I think they still have remnants of Darryl Sutter’s coaching in their system with so many holdovers from his teams, especially with Anze Kopitar. The Kings were a pretty tight checking team and that’s still a strength, but the difference this year was for the first time in several seasons they had above average goaltending. The goaltending has finally bounced back. Now it’s a question of was it a hot streak specifically towards the end of the year or can it be sustained again next season?

Q: Following the Jack Campbell trade to Toronto on February 4, Cal Petersen posted a .922 save percentage and won his last four starts. Jonathan Quick also bounced back with a .927 save percentage after the All-Star break. How do you see the goalie situation playing out in the future?
A: I think a good template to follow would be what we’ve seen in Nashville. Juuse Saros is finally taking over in net ahead of Pekka Rinne. Rinne, who’s been their elder statesman has been the franchise institution for the Predators and were we’re now seeing him secede from that starting roll. As for the Kings, I think we’ll see something close to 40-50 games for Quick and 30-40 games for Petersen next season. Looking ahead, if you take into account Quick’s injury history, I think we’re going to see Petersen cementing himself as the starter maybe as soon as next year, and for sure the season after.

Q: Alex Iafallo had a breakout year, finishing second on the Kings in points, power-play goals and ranked second among forwards in Time on Ice. Where do you see Iafallo slotting into the roster in the coming years?
A: Iafallo is a guy who crept up under the radar to start his career. This year he really took advantage of the opportunity he was given. His ceiling isn’t crazy high. He’s not a guy who’s going to score 40 goals in a season, but he showed he can be a part of the solution in the long term. As a team rebuilds, I think a guy like that is the perfect type of player to slowly be moved down the depth chart and end up in your middle six forwards or third line. I would compare him to an Alex Killorn type of player. A few years ago, he was getting a chance to be a first liner and as Tampa Bay kept producing more and more really good young players, he moved down the lineup. Now he’s used all over the top nine. I think that’s the template the Kings should follow. Especially with the number of high-end prospects that the Kings have. With that said, without a doubt, Iafallo has earned a top nine forward spot long-term.

Q: As you noted in your piece on the Kings, Anze Kopitar was your MVP of the team. You also pointed out that he has alternated from good year to bad year and back for the past five seasons. What is the biggest factor to him breaking that trend next year and repeating as the team MVP according to Matt Larkin?
A: It’s really tough because Kopitar is not the only player that has had this pattern. Jeff Skinner has it, Alexei Kovalev throughout his career had it. Certain guys just seem to alternate between good and bad years. In Kopitar’s case of finding consistency, it’s a matter of supporting cast. The good news is, the Kings have some players coming up now, especially at center that can take the pressure off of him.

If you look at the recent glory days for the Kings, with Jeff Carter still in his prime and they had Mike Richards, you didn’t see as much inconsistency in Kopitar’s stats. Maybe it is a matter of trying to do too much due to the pressure to lead and perform. If we’re talking strictly about what can change the trend, the number one factor is getting a supporting cast.

Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images

Q: The Kings sold at the trade deadline. What did you make of their moves?
A: I’m really liking what Rob Blake is doing. It took a while to get a sense of his strategy. I’m wondering if he’s starting to follow the template of his brief ex-teammate in Colorado, Joe Sakic. When Sakic took over in Colorado, it wasn’t clear what he was doing and then in a matter of a few years Colorado had great prospects, had a lot of cap space and made some very good trades to add to their prospects. Blake seems to be doing something similar. He played possum and waited to the right moment to move some of the players near the deadline. To sell Tyler Toffoli and not only get a 2nd-round pick, but also get a legitimate prospect in Tyler Madden is very exciting. And of course, to move Alec Martinez who had an extra year on his contract for two 2nd-rounders was smart because by the time the Kings are back in playoff and Stanley Cup contention, Martinez won’t be in his prime.

Looking forward, Blake’s ability to get 11 draft picks this year is perfect timing because from everything I’m hearing, this an extremely deep draft.

Q: According to a panel consisting of current scouts, NHL Executives and Directors of Scouting, the Kings prospect pool (which is defined as 21-year old players and younger) was ranked at No. 13, how far do you have the Kings moving up now that they have obtained the No. 2 draft pick for 2020?
A: I see them moving up a lot, especially in another year or two. Because the Kings the majority of the prospects have yet to jump to the NHL, it held them back. Gabriel Vilardi has had a nice success story so far in overcoming his back problems to show talent at the NHL level and real potential for next year. He’s currently ranked as the 73rd best prospect in the NHL. If we redid those rankings now, he’d climb because of his proven talent and health. Another player that has a good shot at making the roster next year is defenseman and former first-rounder Tobias Bjornfot who started this past season alongside Drew Doughty. Lastly, Alex Turcotte is easily a guy to get really excited about as well. He’s not the biggest guy but based on talent he has a chance to push for a roster spot at the start of next season.

When it comes to the No. 2 overall pick, whether it be Quentin Byfield or Tim Stutzle, you’re getting a difference maker. Most people I’ve talked to believe Byfield is alone at No. 2. To me, when the rankings come out in the winter, they’ll be in the top five of the best NHL prospect pools.

Q: While it may be hard to predict, with the Kings holding 11 draft picks in this year’s draft, where do you see them needing the most help positionally?
A: I wouldn’t say center. I’ll start with what I think they’re strongest at. You have added Tyler Madden, Jaret Anderson-Dolan is coming up, Alex Turcotte as well. You also still have Kopitar who is still elite in all three zones. The No. 2 pick is tricky, maybe you go best available and take the center Byfield, but I don’t think it’s a must.

What the Kings need most is a sniping winger who can score. The Kings haven’t had a true goal-scoring threat since maybe Marian Gaborik during the 2014 Stanley Cup run. He wasn’t at his peak, but he was still really dangerous. On top of that, you can never have too many promising young defensemen. Doughty is going to be around for a while with his new contract, but he’s getting closer to the end of what would normally be his prime years. He could use some support around him. Could the Kings take the “Drew Doughty-esque” Jamie Drysdale at No. 2? I don’t know, but it’s not necessarily a reach. A lot of people love him.

Q: Among the prospects that the Kings have, who do you hope or expect to see in a Kings uniform in the 2020-2021 season?
A: Of course, you have to look at Tobias Bjornfot because he was able to start the year with Drew Doughty and the Kings last year as a teenager. If he was good enough to make his debut last season coming right out the draft, I think he’ll have a great chance at making the team next year.

The guy I’m most looking forward to is Alex Turcotte. Now that he has signed his entry-level contract the Kings, he comes to LA with a very unique skill set. He reminds me a little bit of Brayden Point on the Tampa Bay Lighting. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s very feisty and is a responsible two-way player. Turcotte has the ability and skill to do a little bit of everything. I think Turcotte is a potential difference maker when he gets to the NHL because of his responsible defensive play, along with his playmaking and how much energy he can provide. He’s a guy that can play on different lines based on what you want from him. I don’t know if that means he’ll be there in the 2020-2021 season, but if I had to bet, I believe we will see him next season.

Q: You note the large amount of cap space in your article for the Kings. How do you think they should spend the money? Do you think they should go after anyone in the predicted free agent market?
A: The Kings are in an interesting spot with their cap space situation. As I mentioned before, I do think Rob Blake has the potential again to follow the path of his old Colorado teammate, Joe Sakic. What we’ve seen with Sakic, is at first, he was very conservative with cap space even though for several summers in a row the Avs had a lot money to spend. I think Sakic understood that Colorado had to build up to that critical mass of prospects before getting aggressive in the free agent and trade market. This past offseason, we finally saw Colorado go after some names, bringing in Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi. Following that path, I don’t think it’s time for the Kings to go after anyone yet. They should wait another year or two. Even though the Kings have a lot of cap space, they still need to accumulate young prospects and assets for a couple more years. I think this summer, yes, theoretically they could chase a goal-scoring winger like Mike Hoffman. I think we’re more likely to see the Kings use their cap space to acquire more picks and help other teams out that are financially strapped due to the flat cap next year at $81.5 million dollars. There is an opportunity for teams like the Kings that have a lot of cap space to help out teams that are tight with money in return for draft pick sweeteners. If the Kings are going to flex their cap space, that is where they should do it.

Q: Based on the potential impact of who the Kings draft at No. 2, combined with their other draft picks and prospect pool getting closer to being in Kings jerseys, when do you see the Kings returning to the playoffs?
A: No matter who the Kings take at No. 2, it’s going to be a player that at the very least will have chance to make it to the NHL next year and definitely with superstar potential. It’s a very talent-rich draft class even if you don’t get Alexis Lafreniere. Whoever they decide to go with will heavily impact the Kings prospect pool.

In terms of the Kings getting back into the playoffs, I think it’s going to be a few years. They’re looking very promising up the middle with Gabriel Vilardi showing a lot of potential in his brief cup-of-coffee in the NHL, and of course Alex Turcotte on the way. I think this draft is going to be crucial for the Kings growth with so many picks. I think you have to keep amassing more picks, but at the same time you do need to rebuild fairly quickly and take advantage of these prospects while they’re on their entry-level deals. With that said, I see the Kings missing the playoffs two more years and they’ll rejoin the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2022-23.

Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images

NOTE – Jack Jablonski works for the Kings and is one of many contributors to LA Kings Insider during this time. Our organization understands the importance of LAKI to you and remain committed to evolving the platform and providing even more content once we resume usual operations.

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