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Column: Rob Blake and the Kings need to take major steps forward next season

Kings general manager Rob Blake attends the NHL draft.
Kings general manager Rob Blake attends the NHL draft in Vancouver, Canada.
(Dave Sandford / Getty Images)

Rob Blake is on the clock.

Not to announce his selection in the NHL draft, though the Kings’ general manager will get another lottery pick in July as the result of his team’s third straight failure to make the playoffs and fifth in the last seven seasons.

After a season characterized by modest growth mixed with inconsistency and by tentative steps forward that were offset by a dispiriting late-season fade, time is ticking for Blake to complete the Kings’ transformation into a playoff team. More than that: He’s under pressure to build a Stanley Cup contender, to take the young talent he has accumulated and the $20 million in salary cap space he has carved out and ignite a rebuilding process that didn’t advance as much as it should have in the just-concluded season.

“I think there’s no secret that this summer’s going to be very important for us, from all standpoint of views, really,” center Anze Kopitar said last week. “Whether that’s developing younger guys, maybe bringing some guys in. It should be very exciting for everybody.”

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Kopitar isn’t alone in hoping Blake will add impact players. “We’ve got to,” said defenseman Drew Doughty, noting that he, Kopitar, and fellow two-time Cup winners Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick are running out of time to lead the Kings to another title. “With all this cap room we’ve got to bring guys in. That’s it, for sure. There’s no point in just waiting for these prospects to develop when you’ve got guys in their prime. Guys are hungry to win and guys that are sick of losing. Yeah, we’ve got to bring guys in.”

This summer will be a big test for Blake, whose tenure gets mixed grades. He has several possible avenues to take the leaps the Kings need, mainly by leveraging assets in trades, diving into free agency, or swooping in to acquire skilled players who deserve big raises but are squeezed off their current team’s payroll because of the flat salary cap. Whatever route he chooses, he has little room for error.

He can salvage a few pieces from the wreckage of this season. The brief promotion of Quinton Byfield, the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2020, gave the 18-year-old center a taste of the NHL and a chance to watch Kopitar up close. There’s no better role model.

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Gabriel Vilardi, held back by injuries after he was chosen 11th in 2017, stayed healthy and scored 10 goals and 23 points in 54 games. Jarret Anderson-Dolan had some good moments. Forwards Alex Iafallo (13 goals, 30 points), Adrian Kempe (14 goals, 29 points) and Trevor Moore (10 goals, 23 points), and defensemen Matt Roy and Sean Walker appear to be forming a mid-level group between the kids and the veterans.

Young forwards Arthur Kaliyev and Akil Thomas got useful experience in the American Hockey League.

“We’re further ahead this year in understanding where some of the certain holes may be and we’re a year farther on the progression of some of the players, so we understand that better,” Blake said.

Also of note, goaltender Cal Petersen (2.89 goals-against average, .911 save percentage) established himself as the heir to Quick. Incidentally, Quick — who was idled by a rib injury late in the season — is scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery Wednesday to repair the effects of wear and tear.

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The Kings' Dustin Brown, Mikey Anderson and goalie Cal Petersen celebrate a win.
The Kings’ Dustin Brown, Mikey Anderson and goalie Cal Petersen celebrate a win over the Vegas Golden Knights on March 21.
(Associated Press)

Blake said Petersen is “taking those steps to becoming the next leadership group of this team.” Blake added, “He had a good first half this season. We would like to see a little more near the end. The team also didn’t play well in front so there were some games that he might have played well without the win result. But I think every game he started was a step more into finding his position on our team.”

Blake kept Todd McLellan as coach and the coaching staff will return, though more accountability should be required. The power play was strong early in the season but faded badly and went seven for 78 over the last 31 games of the 56-game schedule. That must be better. But McLellan and his staff did well to assemble a penalty-killing unit that ranked among the NHL’s top 10 and to nurture Mikey Anderson and Tobias Bjornfot into top-four defensemen.

The Avalanche clinched the West Division and the top overall seed in the NHL playoffs with a 5-1 win over the Kings on Thursday.

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“Everybody from the coaches through the players are going to have to improve their games individually. If we’re staying neutral we’re falling behind, and I include our staff in that,” McLellan said. “If you’re wearing a Kings jersey next year, you’ve got to move forward. You have to get better. And if not, then we’ve got to replace the players that aren’t getting better. Then I think that we’ve got to look at the structure part and make sure that we’re playing the right way for the pieces that we have, and that’s on us.”

Blake doesn’t intend to rush the kids to the NHL next season. “But we’re in a position now where we can surplus that and we can add to that group. And that’s where I said we want to get better,” Blake said. “Drew’s comments are 100%. It’s the same feeling up here. It’s not like we don’t want to get any better. We’re all on the same page where now we can take the necessary steps and we can filter in young players.”

Those steps must include a giant leap forward next season. Making the playoffs is a must. “Yes. 100%,” Blake said. He’s on the clock, starting now.


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