The return of Jeff Carter is moving closer to reality, but will it be enough for the Kings to push through to the playoffs?
Kings general manager Rob Blake is in the unique situation of needing to improve the offense with the Feb. 26 trade deadline approaching, while also having a fallback position with Carter.
The Kings' leading goal-scorer last season is expected to start practicing with the team when they return home next week, Blake said Thursday. Carter has been out since he lacerated an ankle tendon on Oct.18.
"As far as progressing, everything is on track," Blake said. "He's doing as much as he possibly can on his own."
Carter would allow the Kings to have a much deeper top-six forward unit, one in which they can move around players such as Adrian Kempe, who has filled in at second-line center.
As far as the trade deadline, the Kings will look for upgrades but are not in a position to give away prospects or draft picks. Blake has taken a long-term view of the organization since he became general manager last year, and he is aware of building up their depth without selling off the future.
"If it's a hockey trade that makes sense, yes," Blake said. "If it's a rental, no. We're not in that market. We're not [in a position to trade] first-round picks, second-round picks. We don't have a list of top prospects playing in the minors. The guys that are right up right now — Kempe, [Michael] Amadio and [Jonny] Brodzinski — they're good players. They're not going anywhere. They're going to stay and help us."
The Kings do have high-level prospects at each position with forward Gabriel Vilardi, defenseman Kale Clague and goalie Cal Petersen, but they need to hang on to them and do not have high-end depth beyond them.
Kings coach John Stevens has had to play seven rookies this season — four were expected to start Thursday — and he understands the position the team is in.
"We can't sacrifice the future by making a ton of trades to try and get better right now," Stevens said. "We're going to get better. They'll make the moves very responsibly. And we know we need to get better from within. The guys that are here need to be better players, and they will."
Blake said a major need was addressed with the addition of Dion Phaneuf, a player the Kings have sought since last year's draft. Phaneuf was waiting for his visa and was not cleared to play Thursday morning. But his eventual debut will give the Kings a solid top-four defensemen group.
"If you look at our d-corps, in whole, with [Drew] Doughty, [Jake] Muzzin and [Alec] Martinez, [Derek] Forbort and Phaneuf in that mix and whoever you want to use with the last pairing, I think it makes us a deeper team than what we were a couple of days ago," Blake said.
Nate Thompson was expected to make his Kings debut following his arrival with Phaneuf. Thompson is familiar with the Kings from his tenure with the Ducks.
"It's a simple hockey game, the way they play, but it's a hard-to-play against game, north-south," Thompson said. "It's the way I like to play, so I don't think it will be a hard transition at all."
Trevor Lewis remains week-to-week with an upper-body injury. Blake said it is not a concussion.