There are still several landmark, franchise-defining moments on the horizon of the Kings’ organizational rebuild — days that will likely be marked by momentous trades and pivotal personnel decisions.
To get there, the Kings need days like Wednesday first.
Ahead of a home game against the New York Islanders, the club shook up its roster. Forward Matt Luff and defenseman Paul LaDue were recalled from the American Hockey League. Forward Carl Grundstrom was optioned to the minors. Defenseman Alec Martinez, who suffered a wrist laceration this week, was placed on injured reserve, defenseman Derek Forbort was sent to the AHL on a conditioning assignment, and forward Trevor Lewis was activated from injured reserved.
In the big picture, these transactions are simply footnotes in the frenzy of a long regular season.
Nothing the Kings did Wednesday will likely alter their overall organizational course. But, it might allow them to better appraise their current assets and inform key decisions for the future.
Grundstrom is an example. The 21-year-old winger was a key prospect acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Jake Muzzin trade last year. In spurts, he has shown himself to be an NHL-caliber player already. He scored five goals in 15 games with the Kings to end last season and five more in four games with the Kings’ AHL affiliate Ontario Reign earlier this campaign.
But he still isn’t a finished product. In his nine games with the Kings this year, Grundstrom has zero goals and four assists. In Monday night’s game, he was benched for long stretches in the third period, watching from the bench as the Kings overcame a three-goal deficit.
As coach Todd McLellan indicated Wednesday, Grundstrom’s playing time potentially could have been slashed again had he stayed on the Kings’ roster for Wednesday’s game. Instead, by going back to Ontario, Grundstrom will get more opportunities, during both five-on-five play and on special teams. In turn, the Kings will get a larger body of work from which to assess his game.
“I don’t think Grunny is playing in the American League today because he’s been a poor player for the L.A. Kings,” McLellan said. “I think Grunny is playing in the American League today so he can experience some other scenarios he’s not getting here.
“It makes no sense when you can walk 12 steps across the parking lot” — the Reign and Kings practice in the same El Seguendo facility — “and play in a game to have a 21-year-old that’s only played 30 NHL games watching.”
In Grundstrom’s place, the Kings recalled forward Matt Luff, an undrafted 22-year-old who burst onto the scene early last season before fading back to the minors, where he began this season. Now in his third full pro campaign, and set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, Luff’s future with the club is uncertain. The more NHL games he plays, the clearer his situation will become.
“It’s about bringing energy and bringing my game, my character,” said Luff, who is back with the Kings after a four-game stint this month. “I’m a pretty outgoing guy, so not shying away from how I played in Ontario. Bringing it up here. It keeps getting me recalls, so just keep playing to my game and hopefully there will be no more recalls, no more send-downs and I’m just here.”
The same goes for LaDue, a 27-year-old right-handed defenseman also in the last season of his contract. He was recalled Wednesday to bolster the blue line in the wake of Martinez’s injury. Really, the thinking can be applied to most players filling out the middle portion of the Kings’ depth chart. After last season’s dismal result, the club finds itself, in many ways, in evaluation mode.
“A lot of that needs to be done between now and a certain part of the season,” McLellan said.
Which is why, before the Kings can make giant leaps forward — either by bringing up their highly regarded prospects or moving on from the veterans who guided them in the past — they hope these roster moves represent small steps in the right direction first.