They see me rollin'. They hatin'.
- Jul 28, 2004
Just a few days into the NHL’s summer free agency period, Kings GM Rob Blake appears to be all done with his shopping. Now comes the more difficult task — fitting all the pieces together, becoming cap compliant, while still having a few assets in reserve just in case something goes wrong.
Over the past few days, LA has signed two goaltenders and a half-dozen players to new contracts. Let’s try to make sense of it all and explain who goes where, and why.
Roster and Cap Strategy
As we reported a few weeks ago, indications were Blake and the Kings were plotting a rather unique roster strategy heading into next season. With the acquisition of Pierre-Luc Dubois, the team’s already challenging salary cap situation has taken on new levels of stress. How was this all going to work? Well, the plan involves carrying fewer players on the roster than usual.
Typically, teams carry between 22-23 players on their roster, with 23 being the maximum allowed. A roster of 20 players, while not technically true, is considered the standard minimum; comprised of 12 starting forwards, six starting defensemen, and two goalies. That would leave up to three healthy scratches to bring a team’s total up to 23. Clubs aren’t required to have any healthy scratches, yet they typically like to have two players around (one forward and one defenseman) should anything go sideways between the gameday morning skate and pregame warmups. When teams go out on the road, they usually like to take a full complement of 23 bodies to give coach’s maximum roster flexibility and to be fully prepared for any injury situations that may crop up.
With many teams tight up against the cap ceiling in recent years, what many teams have been doing is sending waiver-exempt players ‘down’ to the AHL on off days to save money toward the cap. The Kings became masters of this during the pandemic plagued seasons, leading to an increase of near daily ‘paper transactions’ — the practice of sending a player down to the American League without any real intention of playing him there, instead it was purely for cap savings.
Looking ahead to 2023-24, the Kings are planning to head into Opening Night carrying only carry one extra player, most likely a forward. Why a forward over a defenseman isn’t magical or mandated, it’s simply a function of the Kings roster composition. Essentially, Brandt Clarke and Jordan Spence are likely to platoon on the right side of the third pairing. Both players are exempt from waivers next season, so whichever guy isn’t scheduled to play can be sent down via one of the aforementioned paper transactions.
They don’t really have the same luxury among their forward group. Every player on their fourth line (Carl Grundstrom, Blake Lizotte, and Sammy Fagemo), as well as the two candidates to serve as the 13th/extra forward (Trevor Lewis and Jaret Anderson-Dolan) are out of waivers. Thus, they can’t shuttle back and forth between the NHL and AHL on paper transactions. If there isn’t room for one of them on the NHL roster, they need to go on waivers before being assigned to the Ontario Reign.
With all of this in mind, here is an updated look at the LA Kings 2023-24 projected roster…
There are many elements of the above strategy and roster outlook to delve into, yet let’s first discuss the goaltending.
What happens in net is the clear cut x-factor heading into next season. Which player is the No. 1? Will the two netminders be splitting starts? These are likely questions that don’t need to be answered today. As Mike Tyson once said, ‘Everybody has a plan until getting punched in the face.’ For the Kings, any plans surrounding the goalies will likely be written in pencil and adjusted based upon the play of each guy.
If the plan is to just try and get a team save percentage of .900 until sometime around the All Star Break and then reevaluate heading into the Trade Deadline, here’s something to think about:
Putting aside last season for Cam Talbot — a year in which he played behind a less than stellar defensive team in Ottawa and had to battle through some injuries — a look back over the three prior seasons reveals some rather decent numbers.
.919 save percentage in 2019-20 season
.915 save percentage in 2020-21 season
.911 save percentage in 2021-22 season
His workload increased each year, going from 26 games in 2019-20 (Calgary) to then 33 and 49 games with Minnesota. If the Kings can limit Talbot’s games to about half the starts — something that should be a more than reasonable request via a tandem with Pheonix Copley — the plan could very well work.
Remember, the Kings had 104 points last year despite spending the first half of the season with one of the worst goaltending numbers in the entire league. Adding Vladislav Gavirkov, along with the Clarke-Spence option, should see a remarkedly better defensive effort from a team that was already rather solid on the blueline. This should only help the goaltending situation.
The Final Roster spot
Blake and McLellan still aren’t out of the woods just yet when it comes to the roster. There’s plenty of work to be done come training camp. Although the top three lines are fairly set, there are some key decisions to made for the final four roster spots at forward.
Assuming the players in the top-9 are set, that would mean that one of the other five forwards will have to be placed on waivers. If Grundstrom and Lizotte are considered locks on the roster, that means that only two of Fagemo, Lewis, and Anderson-Dolan will make the final cut. It’s something that could be argued 64 different ways. We’ll only touch on a few.
Lewis likely wasn’t signed as a maybe. His defensive prowess, veteran leadership, and positional versatility make him all but a lock for a roster spot. Fagemo has been biding his time in the AHL and given the amount of time dedicated to his development, putting him on waivers would seem a little odd. In an interesting side note, Fagemo was referred to previously as a Lewis-like player with a slightly better scoring touch. What better person for him to learn alongside from this season than Lewis.
Which brings us to JAD. What was his motivation to take a league-minimum contract in LA if he wasn’t going to be in the NHL? He easily could have signed on with another team and perhaps even had a greater chance of making another team’s NHL roster. There was something pushing him to believe he has a legitimate shot at making the Kings rather than being exposed to waivers coming out of camp.
It’s a conundrum, to say the least, because without a trade (or a player going on LTIR) the Kings can’t keep all five of those forwards.
Now, there are actually two other choices, even if they aren’t very popular ones. Both Quinton Byfield and Arthur Kaliyev have one more year remaining where they are waiver exempt. Both are considered to be NHL players at this point. Even so, could a roster squeeze cause one of them to be sent to Ontario until a spot opened up? It’s possible, even if not very probable. In that scenario, it would most likely be Kaliyev, as Byfield is penciled in to play with Kopitar — something we’ve been reporting for quite some time. Sending Kaliyev down doesn’t come without risk too. Not only would the team have to navigate around what that may do to the 22-year-old’s confidence, it also would create a hold on the third-line without any legitimate offensive replacement. Kaliyev had 13 goals in 56 games last season and battle through a foot injury. He had the third-most power play goals (8) on the team — trailing only Adrian Kempe (11) and Viktor Arvidsson (10), while playing 20 fewer games than each player.
Road Trip Rosters
Roster manipulating while the Kings are home is one thing — in fact, on many levels it’s downright brilliant — it’s a whole other ballgame when the team is out on a road trip.
After playing their first two games at home, the Kings venture out for a quick two-game roadie to Minnesota and Winnipeg. However, the real test will come at the end of October when they head out on a four-game trek through Toronto, Ottawa, Philadelphia, and Vegas.
In situations like that, teams usually like to carry a full slate of three extra skaters. LA’s cap situation won’t allow for that, though. They’ll have one extra forward on the road trip. That’s it.
Should somebody on defense become injured, they’d need to put that player on injured reserve and fly in a replacement. From a scheduling standpoint, that would work fairly easily because they don’t play back-to-back road games until mid-December in New York. Up until that point, there is always at least one off day in-between games, giving them time to bring in a replacement.
Where things could get a little complicated is what happens if the injured defenseman doesn’t really need to go on IR and miss at least a week? What if he’s just a little banged up and needs an extra day or rest? In a scenario like that, without a replacement available, McLellan have to play a game with 13 forwards and 5 defensemen instead of the usual 12+6 setup.
The Other Players Not Mentioned
There are two other groups of players worth mentioning.
First off, in recent days the Kings have also signed guys like David Rittich (G), Joe Hicketts (D), Mikhail Maltsev (F), and Steven Santini (D) to new contracts. All of those players are basically targeted for Ontario. Given their experience levels, they’ll need to pass through waivers first, yet that’s their destination.
There’s also defenseman Andreas Englund. He’s perhaps the most interesting of the bunch. Not only does he have size and play a physical game, he’s also a left shot. What makes the signing more intriguing is the way the contract was put together. It’s a two-year deal with a $1M AAV. Assuming Bjornfot starts the year in LA (which is the plan), Englund would need to go on waivers to be sent to Ontario. However, given the length of the contract and the money, teams will be very hesitant about picking him up. It’s almost like a poison pill designed to steer teams away from him. In a flat cap era, this is yet another rather ingenious way to navigate around the cap limitations.
Read more about why he’s an important depth addition here:
Finally, there are a pair of LA prospects who received qualifying offers and are expected to eventually sign new contracts — Akil Thomas and Tyler Madden. Neither player is expected to be with the Kings on Opening Night. However, again, before heading to AHL Ontario, they’ll need to pass through waivers. Thomas is the least likely to be claimed, as he’s coming off being sidelined pretty much all of last season following surgery. Madden, a former second round selection who was acquired from Vancouver in the Tyler Toffoli trade, can play left or right wing and is coming off a 20-goal campaign with the Reign last season.
Creating Cap Room Sooner Rather Than Later
Between now and the Trade Deadline next March, Blake has limited options to create some breathing room for his salary cap situation without a major roster shakeup. If he doesn’t plan on re-signing Arvidsson, moving him mid-season is always an option, but why? Does that really help them come playoff time? Probably not.
The more obvious choices would be to move somebody like Carl Grundstrom or Blake Lizotte. This isn’t to say that either will be moved any time
soon — in fact, we’re hearing the Kings are largely done making moves and will let things shake out during training camp — simply that they are among the few obvious choices. Opportunity cost must always be factored into such a decision; whereby a ready replacement has to be an easy plug-and-play option.
Not Next Season, But Next Summer
We’ll plant a seed here and water it over the next 12 months. In short, don’t fall for the trap of ‘Everything will get better next year when Anze Kopitar’s contract comes off the books and the salary cap goes up.’ While the latter part of that statement is true, the math won’t support that Blake’s job will become any easier next summer.
Yes, Kopitar’s $10M contract ends in June 2024. We’re expecting him to sign a contract extension this summer (most likely in August, more on that in a subsequent article), so not all of the ‘savings’ will be available to spend elsewhere.
Arvidsson will also need a new contract, as will Matt Roy. If either weren’t brought back, that money would be needed for replacements — either from the outside or for younger internal players who will need new deals with probable pay raises (including Quinton Byfield and Arthur Kaliyev).
Sure, the cap is expected to rise by about $4-5M, giving the Kings some new money to spend.
Not so fast, though.
The Kings will need at least one goalie too.
Blake and team may have passed Algebra I this summer. Next time around, it’s Algebra II.