A look into the when & why of the Kuemper/Dubois trade via GM Rob Blake

The NHL Combine is typically an event used to evaluate players available for selection during the upcoming NHL Draft.

For Rob Blake and the LA Kings, this season’s edition held dual purpose.

It was at the combine earlier this month in Buffalo that conversations began to take place regarding the framework of the trade we saw initialized earlier today, with the Kings acquiring goaltender Darcy Kuemper in exchange for forward Pierre-Luc Dubois.

Since the season ended, the Kings have been evaluating the composition of their roster. That included the status of Dubois. A buyout was not under consideration, which meant it was either a trade or finding a way to make the fit better.

The way forward turned out to be a trade, with Dubois heading to Washington earlier today.

“I think the attention, probably from the combine in Buffalo, where teams start to talk and you start to have dialogue, kind of took place from there,” Blake said.

Blake added that the combine provides almost a natural time for teams to hold trade discussions, even as the season winds down in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s not abnormal for teams to talk about moves like this during larger, leaguewide events where everyone is gathered together. This season, those conversations happened to be around the swap we ultimately saw today.

“That’s normal, I think for most teams, when contact starts taking place and you understand some summer plans as teams are still playing,” Blake added.

It naturally begs the next question, which is why.

Why, 12 months after acquiring Dubois and signing him to an eight-year contract, was the time right to cut ties. Why was Kuemper the right goaltender to bring in from Washington. Why was now the right time to pull the trigger.

In Blake’s words, with regards to Dubois, it just wasn’t the right fit here.

Blake took the bulk of the onus on himself, putting things on the team side when discussing today why Dubois did not fit with the Kings as he was projected to when acquired last summer. Dubois was acquired to be the difference maker that pushed the Kings past the first-round hurdle they hit in 2022 and 2023. The fit simply was not right. It didn’t work. Blake said that the Kings did not do a good enough job on their side of putting Dubois in positions to succeed. The end result of the process was what we saw unfold last season.

“I don’t think I did a good enough job of integrating him in the right roles on the team here this year,” Blake said. “I think it wasn’t a great fit in that aspect for us and we’ll take responsibility for that.”

It was the position Blake maintained throughout his availability with media today. He did not place the blame on Dubois, who heads to Washington following just a single season with the Kings. Even if the player’s performance was not at the level it needed to be – and Dubois said as much during his end-of-season interview back in May – Blake put the situation on himself. Dubois is a talented player, certainly, but the on-ice performance did not match what was needed, for whatever the ultimate reasons were.

Today’s trade represents a clean way forward for the organization, both in the short term and in the long term.

In the short term, the Kings save $3.25 million against the salary cap. They have several openings on the NHL roster and will need to fill those holes via additional trades, free agent signings and internal promotions. All three avenues will be looked at in the coming days, weeks and months. With a little bit more flexibility in the short term, combined with a lot of flexibility in the long term, the Kings know their what the picture is moving forward.

“That’s what we’ll look at here for the next couple of weeks,” Blake said. “Obviously a different scenario, flexibility wise, space wise and we’ll have to address those going forward here.”

That way forward no longer means the addition of a new goaltender.

The Kings were always going to acquire a goaltender this summer. They were almost undoubtedly going to acquire a goaltender who cost more than what they spent in net last season. This trade solidifies Kuemper as that guy going forward. He’s a player the Kings are familiar with, from his time with the organization back in the 2017-18 season. Director of Goaltender Bill Ranford was the team’s goalie coach then and has worked directly with Kuemper in that capacity.

“Once we started talking about specific destinations there, a lot goes into our goalie department, headed up by Bill Ranford and Mike Buckley here,” Blake detailed. “They go over, they review the goalies, they’re the experts, they understand the goalies.”

Kuemper’s numbers have been good, as detailed HERE this morning. Looking at the stretch from 2020-23, Kuemper was a Top-10 goalie in the NHL in terms of goals save above averare.

Blake added today that the Kings understand Kuemper’s character, how he fits with this organization and the way he plays the game, which the team believes is a good fit with how the Kings play the game. The Kings believe Kuemper has more to give in the tank and that they’re expecting him to come in and contribute going into next season.

From the way Blake spoke today, it seems as if the Kings are viewing Kuemper and David Rittich as a tandem in net. It makes sense, considering Kuemper’s age and Rittich’s NHL workload. Both have posted strong numbers but it makes sense that both will play and both will contribute. Kuemper’s splits after leaving the Kings have been quite solid, but he’s approaching 35 years old. Rittich was great last season, but he’s never played 50 games in an NHL season. Having two guys the Kings believe in is probably the right approach.

“I think the tandem with David, David played well for us last year,” Blake added. “We’ve had to go to different goalies here the last couple years throughout the season for different circumstances, but we have comfort in those two getting us to where we want to get to.”

Getting to where the Kings want to get to requires more than just today’s trade.

The Kings have just seven forwards under contract who will likely factor in at the NHL level. They have what I’d peg at five defensemen signed and now two goaltenders. That leaves holes to be filled and more than $22 million in cap space with which to do it.

As far as filling the spot vacated by Dubois, it could be as simple as shifting Quinton Byfield back into the middle, something Blake touched on but did not firmly commit to. Both Byfield and Blake have maintained that they see number 55 as a center in the long run.

“We’d like to get him back to center ice, so you’ve got Kopitar, you’ve got Danault and you’ve got Byfield,” Blake said. “I think he took strides this year that allowed us or enabled us to see him taking on those responsibilities of his own line in the middle.”

Around those three centers are three clear top-six wingers in Adrian Kempe, Trevor Moore and Kevin Fiala. There’s also Alex Laferriere, who will likely be penciled in somewhere in the Top 9. Internal options to round out the top nine include Akil Thomas, Alex Turcotte and Samuel Fagemo, with the latter two currently restricted free agents. The Kings also have cap space to add to the group, whether that be via retaining Viktor Arvidsson or adding externally.

On the blueline, the situation is unchanged, though the Kings have more flexibility to retain Matt Roy should both sides come to an agreement.

There are still choices and decisions to be made. They’re just not the same decisions that we had yesterday. The Kings still have their first-round pick at their disposal, as well as ample assets and cap space. Lots of ways to improve the group and that remains the focus with the draft, free agency and beyond now within sight.

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