Before we get into any sort of critical analysis of Dean Lombardi, his trade history over the past two seasons, or Darryl Sutter and his roster management, let's just say this: No one bats 1.000. There are numerous reasons trades are made, numerous reasons one player plays ahead of another, etc. etc.
We, as the general public, may only see one slice of the equation. We may only see one small portion of why a trade is made or why a certain player remains on a roster. Nevertheless, these are transactions that have an impact. Just like the performance of a goaltender, forward, or defender can be critiqued and analyzed, as can the performance of a coach or a general manager.
With that in mind, the topic and quality of Dean Lombardi's trade acquisitions and roster management over the past two seasons have to be put under the microscope. Indirectly, the roster management of the Kings in terms of Darryl Sutter ALSO has to be discussed as well.
The Kings are within a window to win. This has been discussed quite clearly by media, fans, and the management itself. The team feels, and rightly, that their window to win is right now. Win-now moves are always something polarizing in sports, because there are some who feel that you should never have to sacrifice the future in order to go for the "right now". However, in the new cap era of the NHL, it seems to be common tactic to get a core locked up, and THEN start making moves to supplement that core with rotatable, useful, and valuable pieces.
The Kings key core is that of Doughty, Muzzin, Kopitar, Carter, and Quick. A No. 1 and No. 2 center, and a No 1. and No. 2 defenseman. Tyler Toffoli is a burgeoning young piece that could certainly be considered as a core piece, as could Marian Gaborik, Dustin Brown, and players like Alec Martinez, Kyle Clifford and so forth.
It is pretty clear who the Kings value as core pieces. Dean Lombardi has, for the most part, done an outstanding job at gathering and developing these pieces. Building the current team took a lot of time, a lot of astute moves, and good drafting and cap management. For we may be prepared to critique Dean Lombardi in his more recent history, moves like Carter, Gaborik, and even the Mike Richards trade (Which now looks bad mainly due to unforseen circumstances), have made up a large portion of the Kings Stanley Cup history and kept the window to win propped up and successful.
The last two years, however, have featured moves of a different variety.
Instead of building to win, the team has been trying to supplement and sustain an open window of opportunity with proven players. It has been challenging and unfortunately fairly unsuccessful. The deals that included Andrej Sekera, Kris Versteeg, Rob Scuderi, Vincent Lecavalier, and Luke Schenn all had, in one form or another, negative impacts on the team. They are all a bit different and negative in their own way, some more so than others. As we said in the beginning, no one bats 1.000, and after several years of making great moves perhaps the auspicious Lombardi caught the wrong side of a few trades. It happens.
2015 Trade Deadline + Offseason
The Kings have made various moves since the 2015 trade deadline, some of the homerun variety, some of a more depth based variety.
At the 2015 trade deadline, the Kings went for a homerun in dealing top flight prospect Roland McKeown and a 1st round pick to Carolina for impending free agent Andrej Sekera.
Sekera was the perfect player for the Kings.
He was an experienced, mobile, smart, puck moving presence in the Top 4. The Kings have desperately been trying to replace both the vacancy created by Slava Voynov and Willie Mitchell, and with the newly acquired Brayden McNabb and Andrej Sekera it seemed they had a combination that could mimic that in quality of their cup winning defense groups.
However, the Kings went big on Sekera, went into a skid down the stretch as a team, saw their trade acquisition get injured, and then failed to re-sign him in the offseason. It left the Kings with the same vacant hole as before but with fewer assets in their pockets.
After the disappointment of missing the playoffs, the Kings again went big with a deal in the offseason in acquiring Milan Lucic from the Boston Bruins for another 1st round pick, a strong developing offensive defenseman in Colin Miller, and backup goaltender Martin Jones. While the cost seemed high, Lucic completed the 2015-16 season with the Kings as one of the most consistent and productive wingers on the team. His scoring depth was essential for a Kings team that started to see an aging Dustin Brown lose production, as well as being an upgrade to other wingers like Tanner Pearson or Dwight King.
These were two major trades that were, in essence, the right players but for the wrong price. It is hard to say the price was wrong for Lucic given what he produced. But what could Colin Miller have been? What could that first round pick have been?
They were still expensive moves that will always be questions for their return.
In 2015-16, the deals went in a very different direction.
The Kings got off to a phenomenal start. By Christmas they were one of the best teams in the league and by February, despite a dip in January, looked like a surefire playoff team and potential cup contender.
However, be it to discomfort with the roster, concern with depth, or all of the above, Dean Lombardi tinkered.
He acquired Vincent Lecavalier, Luke Schenn, Rob Scuderi, and Kris Versteeg for the combined cost of Jordan Weal, Christian Ehrhoff, a 3rd round pick, and prospect Valentin Zykov. When looked at in a vacuum that is incredible value for what was given up.
The problem, and perhaps it is a bit more harsh than overpaying for the right players, was these were not the right players.
Dean Lombardi, unlike the pre-season deals, paid the right price for the wrong players.
Why Did the Kings Need to Make These Deals?
This is a key question. You can answer this in multiple ways. However, the reason overall was to replace like for like the depth that was lost.
The Kings moved out Stoll, Richards, Williams, Regehr, and to a lesser extent Matt Greene due to injury. The answer, or at least, the "answer" that was presented was Lecavalier, Versteeg, Lucic, Schenn, and Scuderi.
For whatever reason, despite the early season success with NONE of these players involved, Dean Lombardi and Darryl Sutter did not feel comfortable with the roster. They did not feel comfortable with Brayden McNabb in the top 4. They did not feel comfortable with Ehrhoff in the lineup. They did not feel comfortable with Nick Shore as the 3C. Again, this is all despite there being success within the first half of the season. The old adage is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The Kings by no means looked broke in the first half of the season. They were quite good. Only after the acquisitions of Schenn and Lecavalier did they start to slide ever so slightly. Now, these deals are a small part to things, and other factors can be considered. Jeff Carter did not have a strong second half. Neither did Tyler Toffoli. Numerous other factors were at play, but tweaking a roster did have an impact.
In a traditional sense, in looking at a results based world, the four players acquired in the 2015-16 season did not help the team. That fact is further compounded from the analytical sense where Lecavalier, Schenn, and Scuderi were three of the worst players on the ice for the Kings in Corsi For, Shots For, and Scoring Chance For percentage relative to their teammates.
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Furthermore, it got worse in the fact that Kris Versteeg was at the top of most of these lists (bottom if you are looking at the above tables), and played a whopping 10:54 average TOI in the regular season AND 9:47 in the playoffs.
Both of those time on ice marks were by far the LOWEST
in Versteeg's career. The most effective player acquired by the Los Angeles Kings during the season was played the least. While Lecavalier, Schenn, and Scuderi all played Top 4, Top 6, and at times Top pair minutes.
It truly is a puzzling thing to think about A) the acquisitions in the first place, and B) the usage received given the data we have. If you are asking simply "Why did the Kings make these deals?" the most reasonable answer may be, "I don't know."
What Else Could the Kings Have Done?
This kind of retrospective arm chair coaching/GMing is usually a frivolous exercise. Nevertheless, in this instance it can be used as an example for a "Less is more" idea of GMing, as well as trusting what you have in the system. The Kings, no doubt, tinkered with their roster. Did they need to?
This season Los Angeles did take advantage of having their minor league affiliate just down the 10 freeway in the city of Ontario. They called up Michael Mersch multiple times over the course of the season. We also saw Nic Dowd, Derek Forbort, and Kevin Gravel at different points of the season. Their development being more closely watched, and their potential for call-ups was far more real.
The center, two defensemen, and winger all played well enough to probably warrant major time with the big club this season. Especially when, apparently, the depth of the team was at question.
Instead of promoting from within, the Kings went in the direction of trades for veteran players. Veteran players that did not pan out. When originally acquired, the Kings were looking at a bottom six C (Lecavalier), two depth defensemen (Scuderi and Schenn) and a depth winger (Versteeg). A center, two defensemen, and a winger. Sound familiar? If these were needs from the get go, why did the Kings opt to trade assets to acquire players outside the system than players who were playing well from within? The minutes the Kings were looking at (primarily depth roles) were very low risk, and giving them to younger players to grow into these roles earlier in the season may have very well solved the problem at a lesser cost than dealing assets like Jordan Weal. Again, the cost for the 2015-16 deals was spot on. The Kings gave up so little, but they still had to give up assets. However, the results were not good. They also took chances on players COMING IN to the Kings system. Players, outside of Scuderi, that may not be familiar or comfortable with how the Kings play. It was, strangely enough, MORE risky to go and acquire these older vets and try and teach them new tricks in a short time span, than to allow younger players to grow in at the NHL level in time for a playoff run.
Instead of Dowd, Mersch, Gravel, and Forbort, players who all looked potentially capable when played, we got a group composed of veterans who ended up being frustrating and detrimental. The usually cool and measured moves of Dean Lombardi, suddenly looked a little frantic and desperate. They needed a fix, they needed it right now, and they needed it to be from a PROVEN player in the NHL. Whether it was Darryl Sutter, Dean Lombardi, or both, someone did not look ready to take the risk on young players. Why would you not? When you consider other contending teams, there is always a similar formula of rolling in younger players to fill in depth positions. The Kings this year, went the path of the the 2013 Pittsburgh Penguins. The team that acquired Morrow, Iginla, and countless other players in order to make a push before falling in the Conference Finals. It is a risk many teams take and fail upon. This is not the first time it has happened, this will not be the last time it happens.
The Kings prospects may have been subject to something a current millennial generation of graduates are having to endure off the ice...
A Departure from Normalcy
With the criticism presented, the following has to be noted: This is different from how Dean Lombardi normally operates.
"Rentals" and "Veteran Presence" has never been such a prominent part of the equation as it seemingly was this year. Again, we cannot say for certain if this is Darryl Sutter feeling the young player jitters, or Dean Lombardi. Either way, this is a departure from normalcy for the Kings.
Since the start of their best years, they have ALWAYS promoted from within, or acquired with the idea of keeping. Gaborik, Richards, Carter, and Lucic (hopefully) are all player the Kings have acquired with the simple concept of keeping them to be a larger part of the core. They were more than rentals. They have also brought up players from within several times in order to, again, supplement the core. Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Kyle Clifford, Slava Voynov, Jordan Nolan, Alec Martinez, and Jake Muzzin are all examples of players that the Kings called up during a season to get them in as a part of a depth supplement to the existing core, but also with the idea of playing them into more prominence.
Look at the number of games all of these players played in their first extended call up in the NHL under the Kings
Pearson - 26 (25 regular, 1 playoff)
Toffoli - 22 (10 regular, 12 playoffs)
King - 47 (27 regular, 20 playoffs)
Nolan - 46 (26 regular, 20 playoffs)
Martinez - 66 (60 regular, 6 playoff)
Muzzin - 11
Voynov - 74 (54 regular, 20 playoffs)
Shore - 34
Now look at the call ups the rookies got this season, when apparently depth was something the Kings needed.
Nic Dowd - 5
Kevin Gravel - 5
Michael Mersch - 17
Derek Forbort - 14
Andy Andreoff - 18
Jordan Weal - 10
The window for the Kings winning is still wide open, but the window for making the team as a young player is clearly closed to mere inches. The Kings rose to success based on that promotion and internal development, and for whatever reason they bucked the trend in 2014-15, and 2015-16. You could easily say they do not have the pieces they once did based on repeated success, but they DO have the pieces. Pieces that played well when called upon this year at the NHL, and have had a year of noted success at the AHL level with the conference winning Ontario Reign.
Why the departure? Why change what has been working? Why all of a sudden go to trades and rentals to play major roles in the roster instead of giving those low risk minutes to players who can really develop into that role from within? Is "Experience" really that valuable that it warrants a departure from standard operating procedure?
The only REAL rental players the Kings went after prior to this season were Simon Gagne and and Marco Sturm, whom of which the Kings gave up a 4th round pick and future considerations for.
What we assume is that these players would have been difference makers. They may very well have stumbled, not played well, and THAT could have hurt the Kings. However, with that in mind, the experience of a first call up and a first chunk of NHL games could have an important impact on a 2016-17 season and beyond.
GMs are Human
This is a criticism. Perhaps harsh at times. There are a lot of "Why" questions surrounding the season, the roster moves, and the usage. While it is always fair to ask why, it is always important to remember that general managers and coaches are human. They too suffer from the same nemesi as players. Distrust in yourself, overcorrection to a "Problem", fixating on a weakness, getting nervous, or just plain making a mistake. The world of the coach and general manager is not an easy world to make mistakes in, but they do happen. Were mistakes made from the upper levels of the Kings this season? You could certainly make a case that there were.
The great thing about sports, however, is that no matter the mistake or misjudgement, you get a chance again next year. No one plays a perfect season, and the odds of winning are 1 in 30 at the start of each year. It is hard to be good year after year, it is hard to make the right move time and time again. While we can sit here and pick at moves made by Sutter and Lombardi in the shoulda/coulda/wouldas of a season, they have gathered enough rope over the years of success to get a pass. Yes, even if this was a year where there was a lot of deviance from the normal path to success. Funny how thin the line of sports are though. If the Kings do not run into a very good Sharks team in the first round and maybe go out in the second or third round, is this even a question? The inherent universe of sports. Fine lines everywhere.
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