Unlike the Kings, who got pending unrestricted free agent Anze Kopitar signed to a contract extension back in mid-January, it took the Tampa Bay Lightning until 48 hours before the NHL free-agent season opened to sign their franchise center, Steven Stamkos.
Not only did Stamkos's massive deal (eight years, $68 million) come in at $12 million less than what the Kings paid Kopitar. It removed the top commodity just before the free-agent class of 2016 hit the open market Friday.
With Stamkos unavailable, the league focus shifts to power forward Milan Lucic, who couldn't come to terms on an extension with the Kings and now seems almost certain to land with the Edmonton Oilers, where he would be reunited with his former Boston Bruins boss, General Manager Peter Chiarelli. The Oilers appeared to pave the way to sign Lucic when they traded Taylor Hall and his $6 million annual salary to the New Jersey Devils in a much-criticized deal for defenseman Adam Larsson.
Ultimately, the Kings are dealing with a cash crunch that may keep them out of the bidding for high-end free agents because the salary cap rose modestly this year.
"We'll look at a couple of mid-range things," Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi said Thursday. "It all depends on the prices.
"You might be seeing that correction in the market, so to speak. It's inevitable when you have the cap not going up. We have the issue, like Chicago, of the top guys making a lot."
The Kings are looking beyond this summer of free agency, he said.
"We have to be careful when you're looking at this, not only this year," Lombardi said. "If [Lucic] is not coming back, then you've got space. But you have a couple of top young players [Kings Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson] coming up next year. That's a moving target. Your ability to use that space is limited because you have to keep your eye on next year. The Canadian dollar isn't exactly encouraging. Which means you might get a small [salary cap] bump again."
The Kings positioned themselves to potentially clear cap space by putting veteran defenseman Matt Greene on buyout waivers, which could save them $1.67 million in each of the next two seasons. Injuries limited Greene to three games last season.
"It's an option," Lombardi said of a buyout, "but it doesn't mean we're going to go that route. You've got a limited period so you see what is potentially out there. It gives you a little more flexibility if you want to go that route."
The list of available free agents includes fseveral quality forwards. Players such as Kyle Okposo (New York Islanders), two-way winger Loui Eriksson (Bruins), David Backes (St. Louis Blues) or Mikkel Boedker (Colorado Avalanche) would seem to be priced out of the Kings' range.
A more pressing need for the Kings may be help on the blue line. The top potential unrestricted free agents, defensemen Alex Goligoski and Keith Yandle, signed new contracts within the last week with the Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers, respectively.
It may be that the Kings will need to wait until the first rush of signings are over to see who might remain on the market and could be available as a bargain alternative.
As for the Ducks, given their financial considerations, it seems unlikely they would wade too deeply into free-agent waters until they can sign their restricted free agents, Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm. Two other forwards who finished the season with the Ducks, David Perron and Jamie McGinn, are also unrestricted free agents. Perron appears, at this point, more likely to return.
Earlier, the Ducks traded goaltender Frederik Andersen to free salary-cap space, leaving them looking for a dependable backup.
The wild card for any team looking for a streaky scoring forward is Thomas Vanek. At 32, he is nine years removed from a 43-goal season and was recently bought out by the Minnesota Wild. He could be of interest to a team searching for scoring but able to deal with Vanek's defensive shortcomings.