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Column: Top East Division teams — and Kings — emerge as NHL trade deadline winners

Buffalo Sabres left wing Taylor Hall passes the puck while pressured by Philadelphia Flyers center Joel Farabee.
The Boston Bruins bolstered their roster Monday by acquiring forward Taylor Hall (4) in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres.
(Adrian Kraus / Associated Press)

The top teams in the NHL’s East Division played a high-stakes game of one-upmanship in the hours before the trade deadline Monday, while the West leaders made depth moves designed to extend their Stanley Cup playoff runs. The Ducks did what they’ve done all season — not much. Maybe 24-year-old defenseman Haydn Fleury, acquired from Carolina for defenseman Jani Hakanpaa and a 2022 sixth-round draft pick, will blossom if given regular ice time but he won’t save them from missing the playoffs again.

The rich got richer and rebuilding teams got assets, producing a few preliminary winners. Among them were Boston for adding Taylor Hall from Buffalo; Washington for acquiring useful winger Michael Raffl from Philadelphia and big-bodied Anthony Mantha from Detroit (though at the high cost of a first-round draft pick); Toronto for getting goaltender David Rittich from Calgary to back up Jack Campbell; Vegas for adding forward Mattias Janmark in a three-way deal with Chicago and San Jose, and Colorado for bringing back two-way forward Carl Soderberg.

Rental players were popular, reflecting clubs’ reluctance to take on lengthy deals while the harsh economics triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic mandate a flat salary cap. “It was a really strange deadline,” said Ducks general manager Bob Murray, who also dealt defenseman Ben Hutton to North Division-leading Toronto for a fifth-round draft pick in 2022.

Jeff Carter, who played a key role in helping the Kings win the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014, is being sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a trade.

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Given the overhanging economic clouds, it’s fair to say the Kings were winners too. The moves they made Sunday and Monday didn’t elevate them to the ranks of Cup contenders — their playoff chances are slim — but their sad parting with 2012 and 2014 Cup champion Jeff Carter and agreement on an extension for winger Alex Iafallo left them positioned for bigger victories ahead.

On Monday, barely 12 hours after they cut a tie to their past by trading Carter to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a conditional third-round draft pick in 2022 and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2023, the Kings solidified their future by signing Iafallo to a four-year extension with an average annual value of $4 million. Carter, 36, had contributed mightily to the franchise’s most glorious era with his scoring and playoff presence but he was slowing, and so was his scoring pace. The Kings retained 50% of his salary to make the deal work.

“Nobody wanted to lose him, but the organization has to manage its assets with expansion coming up. The opportunity to get pieces back for somebody we had a real good chance of losing in the summer, I think that decision had to be made,” coach Todd McLellan said of the draft that will stock the Seattle Kraken.

Kings forward Alex Iafallo looks on during a game against the San Jose Sharks.
Kings forward Alex Iafallo signed a four-year contract extension with the team on Monday.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

“It doesn’t make it easier for the players. I think the younger ones appreciated him, his leadership, his ability to carry himself professionally around the rink. He cared a lot about those younger players. But for them it’s an opportunity and opens up ice more. It’s the older players that probably it stings a little more. There were some tears in some eyes today but he’s going to get a real good opportunity. Everybody’s happy for him. We’d like to see him make good on it and enjoy another championship out east.”

Iafallo, 27, earned a place on the top line alongside Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. “He came in pretty much as a question mark,” Kopitar said of Iafallo, who signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2017. “We signed him and he jumped on the line with me and Brownie and kind of never let go.”

McLellan called Iafallo “a committed player,” one of many virtues. “He wants to get better. He’s low maintenance. He takes responsibility for his game and he works on it,” McLellan said. “The second thing that comes into mind is that players want to play with this guy. Not everybody is requested as a linemate all the time, just for different reasons. This guy is. I think that tells us as an organization an awful lot about him. The third is you can trust him and put him in any situation. His brain, his legs and his sense take him into the right position to get the job done.”

Andreas Athanasiou, Alex Iafallo, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown score for the Kings in a 4-2 win over the San Jose Sharks.

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Iafallo could have become an unrestricted free agent after this season but didn’t consider leaving. “I put my heart and soul into things and that’s what I want to do here and that’s why I want to stay,” said Iafallo, who had 11 goals and 25 points in his first 39 games this season and hit career-best marks last season with 17 goals and 43 points in 70 games.

Based on current contracts, Kings general manager Rob Blake will have around $20 million in cap space next season, according to capfriendly.com. Blake has some restricted free agents to sign and said Monday he had talks regarding retaining forward Andreas Athanasiou. “We want to try and improve and continually get better,” Blake said. “The players have put themselves in a very good position this year. They’ve played extremely hard and we expect that to continue here and push for that playoff spot. What we do in the summer is improve this team.”

He can do that via free agency or by targeting successful teams that reward players with big contracts and then must shed talent because they’ve gone over the cap. “Teams will have to be creative to stay and maintain that level,” Blake said.

The big winner on trade deadline day isn’t always immediately apparent. The Kings lost a connection to the past but gained a chance to recreate that success with a new, young core. That’s as much of a victory as any they’ve earned this season.


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