We’ve reached the end of the road, Insiders.
Officially out of videos to embed and quotes to transcribe. Over the course of the last week, we’ve shared tens of thousands of words from 23 interviews, consisting of 21 players, Head Coach Todd McLellan and General Manager Rob Blake. They spoke about a number of different topics, some reflecting back on the season and some looking forward at what’s to come. This article is meant to focus on the latter, looking at five topics that came from individuals during exit interviews as things to look out for over the summer and heading into next season.
You won’t find much on say Drew Doughty in this article. Doughty is signed for four more seasons and his role is defined. This will look more at potential changes to the roster, free agency, trade possibilities, tactical changes needed, internal growth and those entering the organization at the professional level.
First, an overview of the team’s salary-cap situation, which will be important when looking at points one and two specifically, but really a good way to set the stage for the article in total.
CapFriendly is a terrific resource in these situations and they have thankfully cleaned up the Kings page to remove the black aces and give a clearer picture of the team’s salary cap situation. Accounting for 11 forwards, five defensemen and two goaltenders, the Kings have just over $7.5 million in salary-cap space, based on a salary cap of $83.5 million. Now, we don’t know exactly where that final figure will land, but let’s assume it’s $83.5 because that’s the lowest possible number it could be.
The players included in those figures are as follows –
Forwards (11) – Viktor Arvidsson, Quinton Byfield, Phillip Danault, Carl Grundstrom, Kevin Fiala, Alex Iafallo, Arthur Kaliyev, Adrian Kempe, Anze Kopitar, Blake Lizotte, Trevor Moore
Defensemen (5) – Mikey Anderson, Drew Doughty, Sean Durzi, Matt Roy, Sean Walker
Goaltenders (2) – Pheonix Copley, Cal Petersen
That leaves a minimum of two roster spots and a maximum of five to be filled and just over $7.5 million in cap space in which to do it. The Kings have three unrestricted free agents from last season’s roster and 16 restricted free agents. Much of the discussion below centers around those players, but also on those coming into the fold.
Unrestricted Free Agency
The list of unrestricted free agents is short – Alexander Edler, Joonas Korpisalo, Vladislav Gavrikov.
The answer as to whether or not each player would return to the Kings next season was short, albeit differently worded – a variation of “we’ll see”.
Rob Blake admitted it won’t be as easy for the Kings to add large salaries to their books this summer, as they did over the past two seasons, because of the salary cap. The Kings had, essentially, a blank slate in each of the last two summers and added forwards Arvidsson, Danault and Fiala. In signing two of their own during the season – Anderson and Moore – the Kings now have decisions to be made. It’s not open season, but rather choosing between different options. It’s what happens to competitive teams in a salary-cap model, not everyone can stay at the rates they deserve to be paid at.
“We’ve got to look at all of these different options,” Blake said. “We have three UFA’s – Edler, Korpisalo and Gavrikov – and today I can’t answer [whether we’ll sign them]. The salary cap will play a big part in what we do next season.”
At least in Gavrikov and Korpisalo’s cases, both players are likely due raises from their 2022-23 cap hits, which totaled $4.1 million between them. Edler was on a team-friendly, one-year deal that came out to $1.5 million factoring in achieved bonuses. Now, it’s about picking and choosing and that goes both for the players and for the team.
A player is entitled to unrestricted free agency. It could only come once for a player in his NHL career and it’s the only time the player has total control on where he chooses to play hockey, for how long and for what rate. Should any of those three players want that, they have full control over the process. That said, all three players spoke extremely highly of being a King, both playing and living in Los Angeles. Therefore, the door is open and we’ll see how many wind up walking through it.
Edler – I think the easy answer is I’d like to keep playing, but there are a lot of factors. Getting a new contract, seeing how the body feels, talking to my family, we’ll see.
Gavrikov – Yeah, we will talk about it, for sure. Right now, we will have more time to discuss, but we’ll see what will happen.
Korpisalo – I haven’t put much thought about it. I loved every minute here, being around the group and a lot of great people. I was happy that and I think time will tell.
There’s also the possibility of individuals leaving the organization, who are signed for this season or perhaps beyond. The Kings aren’t in a “dollar in, dollar out” situation, but it’s not simply about the free agents either. Other moves could potentially be made and that’s what happens in a salary-cap league.
Just shy of two months until July 1, when free agency opens, so we’ll see how things shake out leading into that date.
Restricted Free Agency
The Kings have 16………SIXTEEN restricted free agents this summer.
The biggest name in the group is forward Gabe Vilardi, who had himself a breakout season. Vilardi potted 23 goals and 41 points this season from 63 games played, establishing new career highs across the board. Coming off a season split between the NHL and AHL ranks, Vilardi signed a one-year, one-way contract with a cap hit of $825,000. The next deal he signs will be significantly more expensive. Vilardi is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights but is still four seasons from unrestricted free agency.
The rules are different for restricted free agents as it pertains to free agency. There is not a July 1 deadline, so negotiations can sometimes be slower. Blake acknowledged the differences in the process, while also praising Vilardi’s commitment and growth this season.
“The CBA has different types of options with Gabe, because of his age and that,” Blake said. “We need Gabe to be able to play full seasons. I think you’re starting to see a little bit of his potential, which was really good. He was committed this year, not just on the offensive side, but on both sides. I do think the power play really changed, with Kevin Fiala and Gabe and the two units competing early in the season, but Gabe was a big part of that.”
Vilardi said he has not given any thought, as of Monday, to his next contract at this time and that he allows his agent to handle that side of things. As we saw last year with Mikey Anderson and Sean Durzi, that process can draw into September, so we’ll see how things go.
Beyond Vilardi, there are 15 other players who are restricted free agents this summer. Broken down below by players who played NHL games this season and players who didn’t.
NHL (6) – Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Lias Andersson, Tobias Bjornfot, Samuel Fagemo, Rasmus Kupari, Zack MacEwen,
AHL / ECHL (9) – Tobie Bisson, Aidan Dudas, David Hrenak, Jacob Ingham, Tyler Madden, Nathan Schnarr, Akil Thomas, Matthew Villalta, Taylor Ward
Looking at that group, Anderson-Dolan, Kupari and MacEwen all played in playoff games for the Kings. There are also a lot of draft picks invested into this group. Bjornfot and Kupari were first-round picks, while Anderson-Dolan, Fagemo and Thomas were second-round selections. Andersson and Madden were acquired via trade in larger deals. We’ve seen glimpses from some names in this group, though none of the 15 are likely to merit an increase in contract similar to Vilardi. Still, several of these players will return for next season at either the NHL or AHL levels, while others will move on. The Kings just 32 contracts signed for next year at this time, so there’s plenty of space and room for this group, should the fit be there.
The Penalty Kill
“Somebody has to ask me about our penalty kill and it has to get better. Forget about this series, just the year as a whole. We went up and down and went on a good push but we have to improve penalty-kill wise, we have to look at the whole package there, who we use, how we do it, how it impacts the goaltenders, where the dangerous shots are coming from, how much is going through the scene. We have a summer project there, so that for me is the biggest concern.”
That was Todd McLellan’s take on the penalty kill, which was a very popular topic of conversation during exit interviews.
The Kings were an NHL-worst 43.8 percent on the PK during the series against Edmonton and despite facing the best power play in league history, that number obviously won’t cut it. As we’re seeing in Round 2, that’s not just an LA Kings problem, but still, 43.8 percent was not good enough.
Since leading the NHL in penalty-killing percentage during the 2017-18 season, the Kings have ranked somewhere in the 20’s in four of the five seasons since, with a very respecable seventh during the 2020-21 season the outlier. That’s several different regimes and a wide array of outcomes, but the playoff series aside, McLellan acknowledged that the team’s penalty kill has been an issue for sometime and it’s a point of focus over the summer. He believes that the answers are within the Kings walls.
“It’s in our room, it’s in there and we can solve it.”
Polling the players involved, the buzzwords centered around being “more aggressive” as Alex Iafallo said or “less passive” as Matt Roy put it. Really, they’re saying the same thing. Phillip Danault said he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what went wrong in the playoffs, but he’d be looking at video over the summer to help figure it out. Drew Doughty felt they tried to make adjustments, but also felt the Kings could have blocked more shots.
They don’t have to have the answers today, five months out from Opening Night, but McLellan’s words were clear, that they’ll be working towards having them by next season.
As discussed, the Kings can’t simply go out and land several big fishes this summer to fill holes on their roster. They’ll need internal growth to come from players on entry-level contracts and those on lower-money deals.
On top of adding the bigger names, the Kings have had that internal growth from Kempe, Moore and Vilardi over the last two seasons. Those players have now earned themselves larger deals moving forward and to compensate for having those larger deals, the Kings will need production from younger players at the backend of the salary cap.
They got probably the largest step this season from forward Quinton Byfield, who moved onto the first line for the final four months of the season.
“He took steps this year to become a prominant player on our team, where he wasn’t last year in the playoffs,” Blake said. “That’s a step forward. I liked him at wing there, ultimately we probably feel that he will be a centerman, but because he can do both, his effectiveness with his length, turning pucks over, when he joined that line with Kopitar and Kempe, they gave us some balance throughout the lineup. That’s the transition piece, whether it works or not, we were excited that he got into the lineup and became an effective player for us.”
When asked if he eventually needs to become a better goalscorer, Blake responded “yes, but he’s 20”. 20 years old……20 years old. The Kings will need that continued growth from Byfield and expect another step forward next season. He’s also the team’s youngest player and far from a finished product. Both can be true.
Todd McLellan also brought up Arthur Kaliyev and Rasmus Kuapri in that conversation. Both were regulars this season, but both were predominantly fourth-line players this year. Some of that comes down to forward depth, certainly, as the Kings got an emergence from Vilardi and had seven other bona fide top-nine forwards on the roster. What the Kings need is for the younger guys to take that step, while the veterans maintain their standing. That’s where growth as a team will come from.
“We can get Arthur, Kup and Q to graduate and really take a step forward, and that would be great, but – and I’m just using names – if Danault and Arvidsson and whoever else give back a lot of their game, it doesn’t matter. It’s important that everyone gets prepared,” McLellan added.
That’s not to mention players like Tobias Bjornfot, Samuel Fagemo and Alex Turcotte down in Ontario. Blake pointed to “health” as where Turcotte needs to be and there’s hope he can finally have a fully healthy season in 2023-24. All three players were high selections in 2019 and are now, hopefully, ready to push for NHL jobs on a full-time basis. Same can be said for a later-round pick in Jordan Spence and incoming professionals like Brandt Clarke.
A key summer for internal growth has just begun.
The Kings have five “new pros” coming into the organization, to steal the phrase that Blake likes to use.
Those players are goaltender Erik Portillo, defensemen Brandt Clarke and Cole Krygier and forwards Alex Laferriere and Francesco Pinelli. New pros is used to describe players who will be beginning their first, full professional seasons in the fall, though three of those five players played in NHL or AHL games during the 2022-23 season. For Clarke and Pinelli, both completed what figures to be their final seasons in the OHL, while Laferriere and Portillo forgoed their remaining collegiate eligibility to sign professional contracts. Krygier signed a professional contract after his collegiate eligibility had expired, following five seasons at Michigan State University.
Naturally, the most notable name on that list is Clarke, the team’s 2021 first-round draft pick. Clarke played in nine NHL games and five AHL games to begin the 2022-23 season, before he eventually joined Team Canada for the World Junior Championships and then returned to the OHL with Barrie, where he and the Colts advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Not exactly a secret, but Blake confirmed that Clarke will begin his professional career on a full-time basis in the fall, either with the Kings or the Reign.
“Clarke will be the player that will be a pro for the whole season, he would be the new defenseman coming in full-time,” Blake said. “There’s not the nine-game, ten-game issue next year, he steps in and becomes a pro full time……he’s eligible for both [the NHL and AHL]. I think the way he played those nine games, it was a difficult decision at that time. He went down and did everything possibly asked of him in the OHL and throughout the playoffs. I expect him to compete for a spot to help this team.”
Laferriere, Krygier and Portillo will all see their first full professional seasons in the fall. Krygier will begin his entry-level contract, while the other two had a year burned off this spring and will enter into their second seasons. Pinelli had just joined the team’s black aces prior to the season ending and will be a full-time professional player come the fall .The Kings will need contributors on entry-level contracts to balance out the salary cap and there is hope that those players can help at some point down the road in that area.