13 February 2007

Sellers at the deadline: Los Angeles

to be published February 14th at SportsBlurb.com and Sportingnews.com

Last week we looked at the faded glory that is the Boston Bruins, and aside from pointing out the rather obvious flaws that led them to their current condition, we offered up a number of solutions to get them back on the winning track. Most notably, they need to emphasize youth both by playing their youngsters and dealing some of their older high-priced veterans. This past week saw them begin to dish off some of their impending free agents, sending Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau to Calgary for Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Ference. The Bruins appear to be taking the rebuilding process to heart - one that should also include the dealing of Glen Murray and his $4.15 million salary, which would both free up cap space and allow the team to continue to rebuild with youth.

The Bruins are far from the only team to look at the impending trading deadline as an opportunity to sell to the highest bidder in hopes of retooling and strengthening the future. The Phoenix Coyotes also made a major move this week, sending winger Ladislav Nagy to Dallas for Mathias Tjarnquist and a first round pick in the upcoming NHL entry draft. Nagy isn’t a huge goal scorer but could be a premier setup man with the right linemates; on a lousy Coyotes team this year he already had 33 assists.

Clubs in (or near) the top eight of their conference are often desperate to add a veteran name or two to their playoff rosters and can be pushed into a situation where they’ll sacrifice a bit of their own future - in terms of prospects or draft picks - for a shot at the Holy Grail this season. Conversely, teams on the outside of the playoff picture need to take advantage of those contenders and look at this time of year as a huge one-time opportunity to reshape their organizations. One such team is the Los Angeles Kings.

I have a tendency to fall for the younger teams in the league, perhaps too hard. Before the season started I thought the Kings stood a decent chance at one of the final playoff spots in the West. Alas, as we approach the February 27th trading deadline, the Kings occupy the Western cellar due, I've claimed, primarily to poor goaltending but also from a lack of scoring and defensive depth. And…that pretty much covers it all, doesn't it?

Yet all is not grim for the Kings, and the upcoming deadline should be viewed by them as a prime opportunity to continue what they’ve been building over the past few years. Los Angeles already has a core of future stars playing in the NHL, starting with the fantastic 19-year old rookie Anze Kopitar (50 points) and supported by 24-year old forwards Alexander Frolov (29 goals) and Mike Cammalleri (55 points). Physical 22-year old Dustin Brown hasn't quite hit his stride yet, but shows occasional flashes of the high-scoring power forward the Kings hope he'll be, as he was with the Ontario Hockey League's Guelph Storm where he averaged well over a point-per-game for three years.

The off-season deal that sent Pavol Demitra to Minnesota in exchange for Patrick O'Sullivan should benefit Los Angeles both in terms of youth and years of service before the dreaded Unrestricted Free Agency hits. The 22-year old center should help the Kings form a potentially formidable top three down the middle (along with Kopitar and Cammalleri) for the next four to five years (not even mentioning 6’7” 250lb. powerhouse Brian Boyle, a senior at Boston College). Last but hardly least, soon to arrive will be highly-regarded defensive prospect Jack Johnson of the University of Michigan, stolen from the Hurricanes in an off-season deal.

So while the Kings have as fine a stable of young talent as any team in the league, an enormous problem on the parent club is depth, of which they have very little. They need to use this upcoming deadline to both address that lack of depth and lose some of the older (and more expensive) veterans that will not be around for what the organization hopes will be the eventual rise up the standings.

The Kings' defence is heavily-weighted towards veterans, with Rob Blake, Aaron Miller, and Mattias Norstrom all at least 35 years of age, and Lubomir Visnovsky the youngest of their top five defenceman at age 30. Visnovsky should be kept but Los Angeles should try to deal any of the other three. Teams will pay premium prices for veteran defencemen heading into the playoffs (e.g. Buffalo, who if lacking anything, would be a strong physical presence - also recall their myriad defensive injuries during the conference finals last year, proving that a team cannot have too much depth), and if the Kings parley any of those players into more 20-24 year old talents they can construct nearly an entire roster that will be of similar (young) age – a benefit both in terms of peak talent age and owning the young players’ rights before they have a serious chance at breaking the bank with free agency.

As odious as it may seem to their front office, the Kings need to seriously consider cutting bait on the Dan Cloutier experiment. Out for the season, he's been better for Los Angeles in the press box than he was in the crease this season and took the team out of the playoff race early with some worst-in-the-league netminding early. With the Kings losing some of the bigger contracts off the books for next year (Miller and Sopel are Unrestricted Free Agents after this season, freeing up nearly $5 million, and trading Craig Conroy earlier to Calgary freed up $2.4 million), they could use some of that room under the cap to sign a real number one goaltender (Martin Biron, J.S. Giguere) for the next three or four years until 2006 first round pick Jonathan Bernier (Lewiston, QMJHL) is ready to grab the job.

One of the benefits of the new NHL, with a salary cap and Unrestricted Free Agency at such a young age is that being a last-place club doesn’t necessarily condemn you to a decade of failure. If management has the smarts to recognize the organizational weaknesses and the foresight to address them quickly, an entire franchise can be turned around within a few seasons (the Buffalo Sabres being a good example).

Next week we’ll take a look at a few teams that are still technically in playoff contention but should take the difficult approach of being a seller before the deadline.

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