Rob Blake tried to keep the phone call short and to the point. He knew it would be emotional. He knew it might be the first of many.
The Kings’ general manager didn’t want to say goodbye to forward Kyle Clifford on Wednesday night, when he informed the 10th-year veteran that his tenure in Los Angeles was coming to an end via a trade.
But Blake’s unavailing roster left him no other choice. The Kings, who are in last place in the Western Conference, are undisputed sellers this season. And to prepare for the future, they’ll have to endure some pain in the present.
“Not an easy call at all,” Blake said. “There’s a lot that goes into it. I tend to keep them short because they are difficult types of conversations.”
During a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, one day after the Kings traded Clifford and goalie Jack Campbell to the Toronto Maple Leafs and 18 days before the NHL’s Feb. 24 trade deadline, the third-year GM didn’t mince his words.
“We understand the need to acquire assets,” Blake said. “That’s the focus on this team. We’re a couple years in this position, being near the bottom [of the standings]. We have to reshape that roster, there’s no doubt about that.”
The Kings have been more competitive this season under first-year coach Todd McLellan, but are possibly headed toward a second consecutive last-place finish in the West. Their 19-30-5 record entering Thursday is better only than that of the Detroit Red Wings. And with a collection of veterans in the final one or two years of their contacts (notably forward Tyler Toffoli and defenseman Alec Martinez), few teams have more players potentially available to trade for future assets.
“Teams that are solidified in the playoffs or competing to get in the playoffs, they’re calling to see what is available,” Blake said. “They’re checking different values. You start those preliminary conversations, and then they escalate as we get closer to the deadline.”
Blake said he expects the Kings’ moves this season to be similar to last year, when they made four trades in the month leading up to the deadline, including the blockbuster transaction that sent defenseman Jake Muzzin to Toronto for a first-round pick and a pair of prospects.
“It’s not much different than it was last year,” he said. “The calls have all been made. You kind of know the interest from certain teams, the certain levels. Now you’re just trying to narrow down which ones are sincere in their want or just making calls. It does take some time to get through that in the next couple weeks.”
Acquiring picks and prospects, Blake said, remains the team’s primary focus this month. Given their future contract commitments, this deadline might be their last best chance to stock up.
Unlike the five pending unrestricted free agents on the Kings’ roster this year, only Martinez (who has been mentioned in several trade rumors in recent weeks) and young forward Alex Iafallo (who plays on the team’s top line and figures to be in their future plans) are scheduled to be on expiring contracts next season.
“We have to redo this roster, I understand that,” Blake said. “This is an opportunity for us to acquire as many assets at this deadline, similar to last deadline. I’m not sure you’ll see it next year as much, just based off of contract status with our players. So we understand the need and focus to move forward.”
The Clifford and Campbell deal, in which the Kings got 24-year-old forward Trevor Moore and two third-round picks — including a conditional 2021 selection that could become a second-rounder — from the Maple Leafs, was the first of what is expected to be many dominoes to fall over the next three weeks.
Any other moves this month, Blake said, will be made with an eye toward next season, when the club’s highly-touted pipeline might finally begin putting prospects in the NHL permanently.
Clifford, a two-time Stanley Cup champion in L.A., likely won’t be the only familiar face dealt for the good of the franchise’s future.
“There are some teams, whether they are in or out [of the playoff picture], they tend to wait and make sure they are in if they’re going to give up assets,” Blake said. “From our aspect, we understand the job we have to do. We understand some of the [player-value] ranges that we have. If that becomes available, then we move.”