Los Angeles Kings Gamble with Future to Keep Championship Window Open

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Los Angeles Kings Gamble with Future to Keep Championship Window Open
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Due to their recent offseason decisions, the Los Angeles Kings may well find themselves in salary-cap trouble in a couple of years.

One gets the sense they aren’t looking that far ahead yet, though.

In the final summer for compliance buyouts, a slower and less productive Mike Richards was retained and is locked in until the end of the 2019-20 season.

Thirty-one-year-old blueliner Matt Greene was re-signed to a four-year, $10 million deal on Tuesday. On Wednesday, ESPN.com reported that the team is bringing 32-year-old sniper Marian Gaborik back for seven years and $34.9 million.

These moves were made precisely because the team is in win-now mode in 2014. It has generated the most successful three-season stretch in the leagueas well as franchise historyand is teetering on the brink of a dynasty.

Are there potential drawbacks to these choices? Of course. The possible advantages, however, trump them by a sizable margin.

Let’s appraise the situation for each of these three players.

 

Mike Richards

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Risk

At the age of 29, Richards almost looked out of gas at the tail end of 2013-14.

His shifts were alarmingly short, his basic stats (41 points, minus-six in 82 games) took a nosedive, and he lined up on the fourth unit in the playoffs.

He stated in an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Lisa Dillman that he fell ill during the season and never quite recovered. A couple of concussions throughout his Kings tenure may constitute an ongoing bugaboo too, as Richards has been nowhere near as physical lately as he was upon his arrival in L.A. in 2011.

Most concerning of all, his defensive numbers have gotten progressively uglier. He’s been on the ice for the second-most and most five-on-five goals against among forwards in the past two campaigns.

This is hardly vintage Richards:

Granted, a portion of the problem can be attributed to questionable three-zone chemistry with Jeff Carter, but Richards wasn’t his usual self on defense for much of the season.

If his slide continues, the center could prove to be a true albatross on a Kings club that can legitimately contend for the Stanley Cup in the next few seasons.

Though his cap hit of $5.75 million won’t appear that bad if the cap ceiling maintains its upward trajectory, it still represents a healthy chunk of change that could perhaps be better spent elsewhere.

Amnesty buyouts will no longer be a viable option going forward, so the Kings will pay the priceone way or anothershould Richards fail to recover from his dip in play.

 

Reward

Despite arguably the worst physique on the squad, Richards has the heartand fangsof a lion. On the ice, there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for his teammates.

He may not be a force in the regular season, but he has consistently delivered the goods when it has mattered. Even in a lesser role in the postseason, he managed to create magic at crucial moments and was the best King in the Stanley Cup Final.

Keeping him on board was probably never in doubt.

With that said, some assurance that Richards will bounce back would be nice. According to Dillman, general manager Dean Lombardi received just that from the player himself following the team’s Cup triumph:

The biggest thing in the meeting with Michael - the important thing - is that he realized he’s going to have to make some adjustments in his offseason training. ...

He was very candid. The most important thing is he realized he wasn’t anywhere near where he is capable of being. If he’s telling you, “Well, I was good.” Then you’ve got a big problem. If he’s not able to critique himself, then we’re wasting our time. ...

As long as he looked me in the eye and made that promise that he would make the commitment in the offseason …Essentially, I have to trust him.

When speaking with ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun, Lombardi’s respect for Richards is palpable:

Everyone knows what this guy brings. ...

We don’t win the first Cup without him. In terms of what he brought to the table in terms of winning, what he did in that Vancouver series in 2012 set the tone for 'this is how you win a playoff series.' Which means we’re not where we are this year without having won the first Cup. 

You’re loath to ever give up on that kind of player, it’s very difficult to find that special ingredient. Even through his negatives this year, who rises to the occasion in the end? Time and again he shows up at critical moments.

There’s no question that the loyalty to him and what he’s done is significant. If you’re going to build something that has some emotional attachment, then you have to have loyalty mean something. Sure, you have to do it within reason. Going through this process, sure I know how much he gets paid, but he deserves our loyalty if he’s willing to give us that commitment.

You cannot give up on a winner with killer instinct that quickly. His guts and whatever-it-takes attitude are unrivaled on the team, and he should be granted the benefit of the doubt.

He doesn’t need to be Philadelphia’s Mike Richards anymorethat wrecking ball was always going to soften with timebut he needs to be quicker, fitter and sharper defensively.

If Richards makes good on his promise to improve his conditioning, he’ll provide the Kings with the sort of two-way balance that most couldn’t even whip up on NHL 14.

There isn’t a single team in this league that can compete with Anze Kopitar, Carter, a healthy Richards and Jarret Stoll down the middle.

 

Matt Greene

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Risk

Greene looked like a shell of his former self at times this past season, struggling to clear the front of the net and keep up with speedier forwards.

Straight-line pace was manageable, but the blueliner couldn’t handle quick starts and stops by the likes of Patrick Kane and Matt Duchene. He was frequently caught in no man’s land when the puck moved around the defensive zone with any kind of velocity.

Moreover, his stick work suffered as well. Does the Greene of old really mess up the play below?

Various injuries have limited the rugged defenseman to 43 out of a possible 130 games over the past two years, and he clearly wasn’t in top form when he returned. While he’s a third-pairing rearguard, his deficiencies certainly played a part in L.A.’s subpar overall defense in the postseason.

Given the number of contests he’s missed of late, committing to a four-year deal with Greene is perilous. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and may well be on the verge of a downward spiral.

 

Reward

With James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail suggesting that the cap could rise from $64.3 million to $69.6 million in 2014-15, Lombardi somehow managed to sign Greene to a lower cap hit ($2.5 million) than that of his previous contract ($2.95 million).

That’s solid work.

Greene has the offseason to work himself into game shape and shake the injury-prone label he’s developed in the past two seasons.

When he’s on, he’s a fierce competitor who crushes opponents all over the iceespecially near goaltender Jonathan Quick’s crease. His grit and nasty demeanor bolster the identity of the team.

Furthermore, an underrated aspect of his contributions is in puck possession. No, he doesn’t drive play toward the opposition’s zone the way Drew Doughty does, but he keeps it there. Greene is one of the best Kings blueliners at holding the offensive blue line.

Not only can he punish the other team’s forwards as they attempt to break out, but his well-timed pinches extend shifts on attack for his teammates, allowing them to create bonus scoring opportunities.

His return to the lineup in the 2013 postseason was arguably the deciding factor against the San Jose Sharks for this very reason.

Greene’s five-on-five Corsi percentages of 58.4 and 56.3 and relative Corsi percentages of plus-1.3 and plus-2.8 in the most recent regular season and playoffs, respectively, demonstrate his enduring knack in this regard.

There’s no telling whether he can rediscover the stay-at-home standard he set in previous campaigns, but he’s earned the chance to prove doubters wrong.

If he can round back into form, he’ll instantly shore up the Kings’ defensive corps and make up one of the finest third pairings in the world alongside Alec Martinez.

 

Marian Gaborik

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Risk

Gaborik is likely the first name that comes to mind when compiling a list of oft-injured players. Since the 2004-05 lockout, he’s missed nearly 27 percent (189 of 704) of his team’s regular-season games.

Even when he was at his peakfive consecutive years at better than a point-per-game pace between 2005-06 and 2009-10he was sidelined for 127 of the 410 contests in that span. Viewed as a whole, his injury history is eye-popping.

Beyond his durability issues, he wasn’t producing at an impressive rate prior to his arrival in L.A.

In parts of two seasons before Lombardi acquired his services, Gaborik had only managed 18 goals in 69 games. For a fairly one-dimensional scorer, those are poor numbers.

He was a whipping boy in the back half of his stay with the New York Rangers and wasn’t especially engaged in Columbus, seeming more like a secondary figure than the game-changer the Blue Jackets thought they had traded for.

Obviously, his game was significantly more effective with the Kings, but will it remain that way going forward?

One always has to be leery of contract-year performance. 2013-14 was probably the 32-year-old’s last shot at a massive deal, and he capitalized on the opportunity by potting 14 goals in the playoffs and helping L.A. to a second Stanley Cup in three years.

Can he maintain that level in the seasons ahead?

 

Reward

The seven-year term on his new deal isn’t great, but CapGeek tweeted that the team would incur no penalties if the winger were to retire before his contract expired:

In other words, this isn’t actually a seven-year commitment. Both parties are probably well aware that Gaborik won’t be worth his $4.875 million cap hit when he’s 39 because he probably won’t be playing in the NHL at that point.

As such, this is a terrific move by Lombardi and company.

A player who could have commanded over $6 million per year is coming back to the fold for well below that markand he’ll likely only be around for as long as the Kings are contenders.

From his comments to reporters following the announcement of his deal, it sounds as though he's primed to keep the train rolling:

The number one thing – winning a Cup, and just having a chance year after year and going to games to have a chance to win every game there made a lot of sense for me. I know could’ve got maybe more money if I would’ve gone to [free agency], but it wasn’t about money. I wanted to stay here, and be a part of a great team.

Gaborik even spoke about a "winning tradition" after the team took home just its second Cup in club history. That's how established and distinguished this group has already become.

Where his on-ice impact is concerned, he is the sniper Kopitar has always longed for. He registered 16 points in 19 regular-season games with the club before rising to the occasion in the postseason with a 22-point showing over 26 grueling playoff contests.

In addition to his blazing speed, his touch around the net is underrated. He can deflect shots and find soft spots in coverage just as proficiently as he can rocket wristers by goaltenders on the rush.

With No. 12 in the mix, Kopitar will become a realistic Hart Trophy candidate. Both the pivot and his chemistry with Gaborik are that good.

The sharpshooter may not pile up goals quite as frequently looking ahead, but if he comes anywhere close to that bar, he’ll offer the Kings phenomenal forward depth.

His mere presence on the first line pushes Justin Williams down to the third unit. The Conn Smythe Trophy winner can pair up with Richards there to elevate a bottom six to unprecedented heights.

 

Outlook

Dave Sandford/Getty Images

The Kings opened their championship window the day they obtained Richards from the Flyers, and they’re milking it for all it’s worth.

Having already won two Stanley Cups in the past three years, L.A. is positioned to seriously contend for another three or four seasons. The core is largely in its prime, there’s incredible leadership on hand, the wings have been bolstered by a small-scale youth movement (Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson), and this squad appears just about unbeatable in the playoffs.

Bringing back critical pieces in terms of both chemistry and on-ice impact was thus a no-brainer.

Richards is a gamer and tone-setter, Greene is emblematic of the club’s heart and sandpaper, and Gaborik is the world-class finisher who puts the Kings over the top. Without each of these players, Darryl Sutter’s men would lose some of their swagger and fortitude.

If holding on to these ostensible wild cards jeopardizes the future somewhat, so be it. Reaching the sport’s summit is simply too arduous for a management team to ignore the glorious short-term chances dangling within grasp.

When you have a shot at something this special, you take it. Period.

 

Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater. Contract information courtesy of CapGeek.

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