The Kings’ past and future collided at Staples Center on Thursday with almost as much of a bang as the hits Kyle Clifford so often dished out for them before they traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs a month ago.
It was odd to see Clifford, the muscle behind the Kings’ two Stanley Cup championships, and goaltender Jack Campbell wearing blue and white. It would have been stranger if defenseman Jake Muzzin, a fixture on defense on the second Cup team, had been able to join them. Muzzin, who was dealt to Toronto a year ago in a deal that kickstarted the Kings’ delayed rebuilding process, broke his hand last week and didn’t play on Thursday. “Just miss everything about having him here, really,” Drew Doughty said wistfully when asked about his friend and former golf pal.
The Kings have experienced a few nostalgic reunions lately, including facing defenseman Alec Martinez soon after they traded him to the Vegas Golden Knights. There will be more emotional encounters as general manager Rob Blake continues this summer to shape the next generation, one that will have a task no previous group of Kings had: living up to Cup championship standards.
Muzzin, Clifford and Campbell got a warm ovation when they were honored in a video shown during the first period, and it should ease those fans’ pain to realize the next generation will be built in part with the pieces Blake got for that trio. The pain isn’t over, but the Kings’ 1-0 shootout win, their fourth straight, fueled by 36 saves by Jonathan Quick in his first shutout of the season and Adrian Kempe’s decisive shootout goal on Frederik Andersen, provided a respectful nod to the past and a tantalizing peek at the potential ahead.
They appear to have turned the corner in this tedious rebuild, first by replenishing a farm system that was depleted by former general manager Dean Lombardi’s having traded their first-round picks in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016. They’ve positioned themselves to find the next Doughty, next Anze Kopitar, the next Dustin Brown. They already appear to have the next Jonathan Quick in Cal Petersen, a free-agent signee who signed with them as an unrestricted free agent in 2017, and decent depth behind him.
Doughty, though, isn’t sure they’ve completely turned that corner. “Yeah, because we got a lot of picks, I guess. Happy to see that. Got some prospects,” he said. “I mean, I guess, a little bit. But we’ve had flashes of seeing it getting better and then we go into a hole and get worse for a little bit, so we need to stay consistent with it and keep running with it.”
In exchange for Muzzin the Kings got a 2019 first-round draft pick — which they used on puck-moving Swedish defenseman Tobias Bjornfot — as well as promising forward Carl Grundstrom and the rights to defenseman Sean Durzi. For Campbell and Clifford they got bottom-six forward Trevor Moore, who has a season left at a cap hit of $775,000 and can be a bridge to that next generation, in addition to a third round pick this year and a third-round pick in 2021 that could turn into a second-round selection.
The Kings will have a draft lottery pick in June and also hold three second-round picks, two third-rounders, and two fourth-rounders. In 2021 they have a first, two second-rounders and two third-rounders. They’re still accumulating prospects and picks but they’re nearing the point of consolidating their riches. “I don’t know what’s going to happen but if we have a chance to get another first, we would jump at it,” club president Luc Robitaille said this week. “But now we’re at the phase of now we need to develop these kids ... so they not only become NHL players but become Kings who can help us win.”
The question is how long it will take for them to make the playoffs again. Next season? “I would think so,” Robitaille said. “I don’t know if we’re going to make the playoffs next year but what I’d like to be, when we get to the deadline, to be right there. I’d like to be kind of where the Rangers are.”
By that he didn’t mean winning the Cup once in 80 years. He meant having a young but established first-line center like Mika Zibanejad and filling the other lines with youngsters. “They’re in the hunt. They’re there. They’re really talented,” Robitaille said. “They’re fast. They’re a fun team to watch.”
The Kings haven’t been fun to watch the past few seasons. Kelly Cheeseman, the club’s chief operating officer, said the renewal rate from 2018-19 to this season was 75 percent, probably the biggest drop since the 2008 recession. Renewal information for next season was sent out two weeks ago and Cheeseman projected the renewal rate will be 80 percent. The only price increases, he said, are for two sections if they don’t renew before the deadline and for about 150 seats included in a Chairman’s Room package. The Chairman’s Room and Staples Center concourses will soon undergo renovation. “New team, new building, new experience. Something for the fans to look forward to,” Cheeseman said.
Prettying up the concourses won’t matter if the team can’t win. Robitaille believes the pieces are there or are on the way. He likes that coach Todd McLellan has let rookie Blake Lizotte learn on the job against some elite centers, that 2019 second-round pick Samuel Fagemo might have the skill to become the winger Kopitar deserves, that 2018 first-round pick Rasmus Kupari has great character, that Arthur Kaliyev of the junior-level Hamilton Bulldogs, another second-rounder in 2019, “is a different kid but he’s a pure goalscorer.” Robitaille added, “We’ve got to make sure these kids develop.” There’s that. And a few more rough miles to cover before they turn that corner for good.