Rob Blake points to December 2018 as the start of it all.
That, the Kings general manager said, is when the club’s miscalculation of its own roster became clear, when the organization realized a team once considered a perennial playoff contender was suddenly in need of a full-scale rebuild.
Eight trades, two negated contracts and one coaching change later, the first phase of that process is complete. With Monday’s trade deadline came the final act of a two-season teardown, as veteran defenseman Derek Forbort was sent to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a conditional 2021 fourth-round draft pick.
The makeover that has occurred during the last 13 months has been stark. Long-tenured veterans Jake Muzzin, Kyle Clifford, Tyler Toffoli, Alec Martinez and others were traded away. Dion Phaneuf had his contract bought out, while Ilya Kovalchuk’s was terminated. Former coach John Stevens was fired, eventually replaced when Todd McLellan signed a five-year contract. All the while, the team collected assets for the future, one small move at a time.
“We were pretty vocal on what we were looking for in returns, whether it was picks or prospects,” Blake said. “That started just over a year ago and it continued into this deadline.”
It was like stripping a house down to the studs. First came the demolition, which further drained the Kings’ already declining roster and dropped them to the bottom of the standings. But now, they’ve stockpiled the supplies needed to begin reconstructing.
A few of the notable results:
-- The average age of the lineup has dropped by more than a year (from more than 28 at the start of last season to currently less than 27), and will likely get younger over the offseason as the team incorporates more prospects into its NHL roster.
-- The number of players with contracts worth at least $4 million in annual average value has dropped from 10 to five (not including the cap hit the team will continue to incur next year from Kovalchuk’s terminated deal).
-- The Kings’ pipeline ranking has risen from the bottom-third of the NHL (the Sporting News placed it 24th at the start of last season) to arguably the best in the league.
-- The team went from having 20 picks combined in the 2019, 2020 and 2021 NHL drafts to 30 picks in that span, including 11 in the top two rounds. (Also, given its second-to-last place in the NHL standings, the Kings will have a shot at the No. 1 overall pick this summer, when winger Alexis Lafrenière is expected to become one of the highest-rated picks in recent memory.)
During his media scrum on Monday, Blake began laying out concrete steps to return the club to competitiveness again.
He explained the team’s need to identify which crop of current youngsters in the NHL will be part of the long-term future.
“It’s important for those guys to show what they can do in the next 20 games,” Blake said, referencing a group that includes Austin Wagner, Michael Amadio, Nikolai Prokhorkin, Sean Walker, Carl Grundstrom and others. “Those guys have a lot to prove.”
He began planning out the process for integrating the Kings’ recently drafted prospects — from Gabriel Vilardi (who made his NHL debut Thursday) to last year’s first-round picks Alex Turcotte and Tobias Bjornfot, and whomever else the Kings draft this summer — into the NHL roster.
“Some of these guys have been in the American League for the year,” Blake said. “They’re getting their experience. You saw it with Gabe here recently. I would suspect you would see it with the defensemen that we’ll eventually shore up within the next little while.”
And he spoke of the need to fit those pieces around the dwindling group of veterans, notably captain Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty, who will remain.
“This was not an easy few months here,” Blake said. “You’re dealing with some very important people in the history of the L.A. Kings [who were traded away]. They’ve been able to do a tremendous amount.”
“But,” he continued, the first and most painful stage of his club’s rebuild finally behind him, “we’re moving forward.”