Summer Stage Setter – Where the Kings are at heading into the summer of 2024

The offseason sucks, Insiders.

Really does.

But, it’s the situation we’re in after a season that didn’t live up to the expectations that were set.

With expectations that weren’t met comes a summer of unknowns, at least to an extent. The Kings aren’t a finished picture and there’s still space to continue painting. And they certainly need to. As we watch Round 2, there’s a lot of high-level hockey being played and as you look at the teams that are still playing, the Kings know they need to add in certain areas to be able to compete at that level. They’re not there yet. How far off are they, though? The Pacific Division is perhaps the most wide open at the top of any division in the NHL. The Kings have holes that need to be filled, with internal and external solutions available, and there will likely be at least some changes to the way the team plays heading into next season. The decisions made will need to be done carefully, though, because while there is space to make personnel moves, it’s not enough space to do so recklessly or entirely.

To start, here’s an overview of where the Kings are at heading into the summer –

Forwards (7) – Phillip Danault, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kevin Fiala, Adrian Kempe, Anze Kopitar, Alex Laferriere, Trevor Moore

Defensemen (5) – Mikey Anderson, Brandt Clarke, Drew Doughty, Andreas Englund, Vladislav Gavrikov

Goaltenders (0) –

UFA’s with NHL Games in 23/24 – Viktor Arvidsson, Pheonix Copley, David Rittich, Matt Roy, Cam Talbot

RFA’s with NHL Games in 23/24 – Quinton Byfield, Samuel Fagemo, Carl Grundstrom, Arthur Kaliyev, Blake Lizotte, Jordan Spence, Alex Turcotte

UFA’s w/o NHL Games in 23/24 – Kevin Connauton, Aaron Dell, Joe Hicketts, Hayden Hodgson, Mikhail Maltsev, Steven Santini, TJ Tynan

RFA’s w/o NHL Games in 23/24 – Jacob Ingham, Andre Lee, Tyler Madden, Erik Portillo, Taylor Ward

By my count, that’s a total of 24 free agents throughout the organization between UFA’s and RFA’s.

Thanks to the lovely interactive tools over at CapFriendly, there’s an easy, interactive way to see how much space exactly the Kings have for the 2024-25 season under the salary cap. The difficult part is, there’s more than just salaries of current Kings to take into account when calculating the cap moving forward and frankly, the actual nuances of the NHL cap are much more difficult to lay out than is ever done.

The roster above counts for 12 players signed and under contract for next season. 11 of those players were on the playoff roster while the 12th is Brandt Clarke. All signs point to Clarke being given every chance to make the team out of training camp this fall. So, for these purposes, he’s on the group listed above.

Those 12 players total a salary-cap hit of $62,313,333. The Kings also have a total of 2,725,000 in dead cap hit – $2,025,000 retained on Ivan Provorov’s contract in the series of transactions made last June in order to re-sign Vladislav Gavrikov, as well as $700,000 for Mike Richards. CapFriendly also lists the Kings with $1,850,000 in carryover bonus overages from last season. When you total it all up, it leaves the Kings with a projected hit of $66,888,333 and $20,611,667 in remaining salary-cap space.

That’s $20,611,667 to fill what likely amounts to 10 roster spots – two goaltenders, two defensemen and six forwards. There’s a good chance that several of those positions will be filled internally and we’ll get to that. On paper, that’s not a ton of money to be allotted towards each position, but that’s not going to be spread out evenly. A couple of big decisions to set the tone for how that money will ultimately be used. As noted above, there’s flexibility, but not a ton of it.

From what’s been gathered through exit interviews and, well, common sense, there are four main buckets at play here to fill out the roster.

1. Quinton Byfield’s Contract
2. Goaltenders
3. Matt Roy & Viktor Arvidsson
4. Young Players Assuming Roster Spots

1. Quinton Byfield
Starting at the top, because it’s likely the priciest decision – Quinton Byfield will more likely than not be the first piece that needs to be factored in. Not necessarily the first player signed, but the first player factored in from the perspective of planning.

Byfield is a restricted free agent and he will be a restricted free agent, under team control, for a while yet. With that being said, he had his first real breakout season from a production standpoint with 20 goals and 55 points. As such, both player and team have a wide array of options, ranging from a short-term, bridge contract to a long-term extension. There are pros and cons to both routes, for both sides.

A short-term contract would likely come with a lower cap hit in the here and now, which frees up money to spend elsewhere this summer. Byfield is a player with a sky-high ceiling though and a shorter-term deal could mean a much higher cap hit down the road. A longer-term deal mitigates that risk, but it also means more money up front, as you get into buying UFA years and paying for potential. I think you can see the pros and cons in either direction for the Kings. There’s also the player’s side of things to consider and that is equally important. What does Quinton and his camp want? During his exit interview, he didn’t tip his hand and he seems like a guy who will let his representation handle the bulk of those negotiations. From his perspective, it’s the question of getting more guaranteed up front or betting on himself, with his own potential and a rising cap.

Byfield’s contract won’t necessarily be the first deal completed on the timeline, but it’s the first piece to be considered when evaluating what is available overall.

2. Goaltending
In net, it’s not just an incomplete painting. It’s actually a blank canvas.

At the NHL level, the team’s three goaltenders to play games this season with the Kings are all unrestricted free agents – Cam Talbot, David Rittich and Pheonix Copley. None would likely be expensive to re-sign and the Kings got solid goaltending over 82 games this season. As Rob Blake noted in his exit interview, though, the long-term solution might not be in place as is.

“The long-term, goalie one solution probably isn’t in place on this team right now, but we have to look at all the different options there,” Blake said.

What he’s saying is with regards to the current contending window. There’s a lot of promise with young goaltender Erik Portillo, a pending restricted free agent, but he’s currently in his first professional season. Even with the best goaltending prospects in the world, it’s a multi-year process in the AHL or high-level European leagues (or both) before eventually cracking the NHL roster, even in a backup role. Portillo is certainly expected to return as an RFA.

Talbot himself expressed a lot of interest in coming back. He prioritized stability and term, along with playing for a winner, over perhaps chasing the largest bag or even the greatest role. He is on the backend of his career and he and his family have moved regularly over the 10 years. He’d like to remain for those reasons. Talbot was a terrific fit in the locker room and brought professionalism to the club each day, while also being a big reason the Kings made the playoffs. He’ll be 37 when training camp begins, though, which is a factor, despite a solid season. In Rittich, he did not speak during exit interviews but his on-ice performance exceeded the contract he signed last offseason, contributing with the NHL club and posting solid splits along the way. Were he to return, it would likely be in a backup role, as opposed to the #3 role he signed for last summer. For Copley, he’s in the process of rehabbing from ACL reconstruction surgery in January. It’s a long process back but he’s expected to make a full recovery, though it’s unclear what that means with regards to training camp in 2024. If it’s here or elsewhere, personally hoping Copley comes back at full strength. A guy who has earned everything he’s gotten and he deserves that opportunity.

All three of those players are unrestricted free agents who could return, but they will all have options. It’s very unlikely all three would return. The Kings have been linked to veteran goaltenders via the trade market over the last 18 months and that chatter likely won’t die down. There’s room to add a goaltender with a higher cap hit but it would come at the expense of spending on other areas. Over 82 games, just one team in the NHL finished with a smaller percentage of the cap invested in net than the Kings at 2.2%. The return on investment was the NHL’s fourth-best save percentage and third fewest goals against in total. Not too bad. Lots to be decided on that front.

3. ViktoRoy
With Viktor Arvidsson and Matt Roy, there are decisions that need to be made, both by the Kings and by the players.

In an ideal world, I think the Kings would love both players back with the club next season. Roy, while he played on the second pairing, he was the team’s number-two defenseman from a usage standpoint. In a perfect world, he’s back with the Kings, playing for a team he likes to play for and a team he’s said multiple times he’d like to return to. Roy is also in line for a life-changing contract and as you can see above, the Kings do not have unlimited room to keep him with. The deal has to make sense on both fronts for Roy to be with the team next season.

It’s a similarly important contract for Arvidsson, but for different reasons. While it’s the opportunity to be Roy’s first big ticket, it could possibly be Arvidsson’s final one, depending on the term he’s able to secure. Arvidsson has been a crafty, dynamic and impactful playmaker for the Kings and they’d love to retain him but again, they have to look at the entire picture. The deal has to make sense for both sides. Arvidsson has to do the same and he has more than earned the right to do so.

I’d include Trevor Lewis in that mix as well, as Blake did, but the decision for Lewis won’t impact the team’s building process. Lewis signed a one-year contract at the league minimum this season. Bringing him back is certainly a possibility but that decision wouldn’t really impact the other decisions that need to be made.

Exit conversations between players and management occurred this week, so both Roy and Arvidsson had the opportunity to engage in those conversations before beginning their summers. Blake indicated last week that contract negotiations will “continue” once the Kings have finalized the direction for where the organization is going to go. I don’t see these being tomorrow decisions, but there’s a long road before July 1. We’ll see.

4. Internal Options
In the above mix of players under contract with the NHL club, I included Brandt Clarke for a reason.

Typically, you wouldn’t put a player who is currently in the AHL in that mix, but end-of-season comments both from players and from Blake seem to signal that Clarke will likely be in a position to make next year’s club. Now, ultimately he will determine that with his play but he’s one of the more exciting prospects in the organization, one of the most exciting prospects around the NHL, really. The Kings feel that Clarke can help them next season and he’ll likely be given every opportunity to do so.

Blake said that the focus for Clarke is working on his “overall defensive play” to complement what is already an NHL-ready offensive game, adding that the “poise” Clarke plays with is an asset for the Kings. Blake said that Clarke is “going to be a really good player for the organization” and I think most believe that he will be. Clarke is on the second year of his entry-level contract and would come in with a cap hit of less than $1 million this season. The Kings need contributors in that range and Clarke fits that bill.

Regarding two of the team’s restricted free agents – Akil Thomas and Alex Turcotte – both impressed in spurts during their time with the NHL club this season. Both players have earned new contracts with the Kings and both players would require waivers this fall to be assigned to the AHL. Their body of work, generally, has been on the fourth line but there are tools that could translate higher in the lineup with experience.

There’s no lock there, but two guys who will earn themselves the opportunity to play their way onto the 2024-25 roster during training camp, assuming all goes according to plan with their restricted free agency. Again, the Kings need contributors at lower cap hits and these are two players who will likely come at a smaller cap hit and both have shown a capability of playing lower in the lineup with success.

Beyond that crop, there is forward Samuel Fagemo, who was an AHL Second-Team All-Star this season with Ontario. His 43 goals ranked second in the AHL this season, though he played in 17 fewer games than the player who led the league with 44. Fagemo has had a few cracks with the Kings but hasn’t stuck yet, though a strong season with the Reign can’t be ignored either. A player who, assuming he is back, should garner an opportunity in training camp to merit a longer look in the NHL.

Lots of others who made big strides this season with the Reign and that’s ultimately what training camp is for. Didn’t have Alex Laferriere on the roster in this projection last year and he made the team. Might not have had Brandt Clarke sticking out of camp in 2022. Every year, players emerge in camp and, ultimately, that’s what it’s there for.

When you factor in all of the above scenarios, there’s a number of different paths the Kings could take this summer.

Not even included in the above are restricted free agents like Blake Lizotte, Carl Grundstrom and Jordan Spence, who all played in the postseason for the Kings. It’s not to say they won’t factor into the plan but with regards to the overall salary landscape, they’re players who can fit in around the larger decisions, or on the inverse, players who might be impacted by decisions made elsewhere. Lots of guys the Kings would like to keep around and then add to, but it’s all a part of the puzzle. A puzzle that will be built in the coming weeks.

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