Kings May Have Lost More Than They Gained During This Week’s Free Agency Period
The excitement of July 1st evaporated quickly for many Los Angeles Kings fans when the flurry of activity seemed to leave more questions than answers for the team. After struggling with fatigue and missing the playoffs last season, then battling a number of unsettling off-ice issues including Slava Voynov’s domestic abuse trial and Jarret Stoll’s arrest in Las Vegas for possession of cocaine, Kings fans were hoping when the dust settled on the draft and free agency, the Kings would be in a better position to take on the 2015-2016 season. Arguably, that hasn’t happened yet.
Instead, the Kings are dealing with another off-ice distraction, terminating Mike Richards’ contract under a strange set of circumstances that have yet to be fully revealed. On the ice, they’ve watched their number two goalie, Martin Jones, go to their Pacific Division rivals, the San Jose Sharks, by way of the Boston Bruins, failed to secure last year’s deadline pick-up, D-Man, Andrej Sekera, which sent him packing to the newly recharged Edmonton Oilers, and probably most dishearteningly, lost Justin Williams – aka Mr. Game 7 – a gritty, talented fan-favorite who helped lead the team to two Stanley Cups and was the Conn Smythe recipient in 2014.
First came the bizarre revelation that the Kings had terminated Mike Richards’ contract. Richards’ performance had been steadily declining over the past two seasons and in a leap of faith, GM Dean Lombardi, declined to use a compliance buyout with Richards last summer, hoping the center would make a comeback. But after being sent down to the AHL for 16 games last season, it was a foregone conclusion that the Kings would try to offload Richards come trading time. Presumably, the Kings were ready to swallow the bitter pill and buyout Richards’ contract, which would have left them with an annual cap charge of $5.75 million, when the news hit that instead, they had terminated his contract for “material breach”. Many facts have yet to emerge in this case, but what we do know is that allegedly, Richards was stopped at the US-Canadian border on June 17th for possession of Oxycontin, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are involved (though no charges have been filed) and that, as usual in termination incidents, the NHLPA is reviewing Richards’ case and will likely appeal the termination. Regardless of the outcome, the incident is another off-ice distraction and the last thing the Kings needed heading into the new season.
The Kings did make a few positive moves in the past two weeks; one was the acquisition of Milan Lucic from the Boston Bruins. Lucic, a power forward whose style could fit in well with the Kings, was traded to Los Angeles for back-up goalie, Martin Jones, the 13th overall pick in the 2015 draft and prospect Colin Miller. As Kings fans tried to get used to the idea that a player they’ve likely developed a distaste for (given his feisty demeanor, hard hits and sometimes less-than-sportsmanlike behavior) would be joining their team, they simultaneously said goodbye to a popular goalie who most certainly helped the Kings win the Cup in 2014 by filling in admirably for Jonathan Quick when Quick was injured.
Then came the twist: Boston had retained Jones for just four days when they traded him to the San Jose Sharks for a 2016 first-round draft pick and prospect Sean Kuraly. Kings fans now face the possibility of an opening night where they’ll have to vehemently root against the popular former Kings goalie.
The Kings made a second, positive move when they filled the back-up goaltending vacancy Jones left with Swedish goalie, Jhonas Enroth, signing him to a one-year contract for $1.25 million. Enroth played for both the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres last season and notably, as a Sabre, shut-out the Kings in a 1-0 game in Buffalo on December 9, 2014. The Stockholm-born Enroth has played 131 games in his career, has a .909 save percentage and 2.88 goals against average. While it remains to be seen if Enroth can be the able number two that the Kings had found previously in Jones, the contract is short and the Kings have two excellent developing goaltenders in the AHL with J-F Berube and Patrik Bartosak.
Unfortunately, the relative gains of Lucic and Enroth have been offset by two additional losses – one of which, like Jones, goes to a Pacific Division team. Andrej Sekera, a left-shooting veteran defenseman who joined the Kings from the Carolina Hurricanes at the trade deadline last season, looked to be a great fit in the 16 games he played with the Kings. Though injured during a game against Chicago near the end of the season, Sekera showed that he could fit in nicely on the blue line, demonstrated a calm and commanding presence and recorded one goal, four assists and a +4 rating in his short stint with the Kings. Unfortunately, with the uncertainty of Voynov’s status, the controversial Richards situation and the need to retain the services of franchise player, Anze Kopitar, next season, the Kings couldn’t offer Sekera the six years at $5.5 million average and no-move clause he received to join Edmonton. In a Pacific division where previously struggling teams like Calgary and Vancouver made vast improvements and entered back into the playoff picture for the first time in years, a bolstered Edmonton team could be dangerous for the Kings this season.
Finally, the biggest loss to the Kings this week – and the hardest to swallow for Kings fans – was undoubtedly Justin Williams. After 500 regular season and playoff games, two Cups and a Conn Smythe trophy, Williams is leaving Los Angeles to join Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. This is a tough goodbye for the Kings, but in this salary cap era, little could be done to retain Williams’ services. The Kings had warned of this at the end of last season, fans knew it was likely to be and yet, the loss was still stunning and hit the LA Kings community hard. “Mr Game 7” will be tough to replace and as of yet, the Kings have done little to find that replacement.
Though there is still a long summer ahead and many days until October, the Kings seem to have some soul-searching to do. Solving their off-ice issues is critical, but also shoring up their defense has to become a number one priority. With the Voynov situation still unresolved, Robyn Regehr’s retirement and the loss of Sekera, the Kings – traditionally, a defense-first team – must find a way to strengthen the blue line and get some much-needed help for defensive leader, Drew Doughty.
Now please excuse me while, like many Kings fans, I watch videos of Justin Williams on repeat and have a good cry…if you’d like to join me, just watch the following video.