The 5 questions that will shape the Kings’ offseason

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EDMONTON – A playoff stay of five games was not what the Los Angeles Kings had in mind. There are family vacations that last longer.

The Kings were supposed to be in position to win their first series since 2014. That was their goal, their motivation. Now they’ve had three straight seasons end in the first round at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers. The postseason stays have grown one game shorter each year.

It only added to the morose feeling inside the visiting locker room on Wednesday night at Rogers Place.

“Obviously, it makes you want to beat them more,” Drew Doughty said. “But I think the whole point is that we’ve lost three years in a row in the first round. Yeah, it was against Edmonton but no matter who we lost to, it would have been the same amount of disappointment. The same amount of wanting to win the series. I don’t think that really made a difference.”

Two years ago, the Kings were gritty underdogs who fought through a multitude of injuries to take Edmonton to Game 7. Better days appeared ahead. Last season, the Kings felt like a better team but still lost. Now, they don’t appear to be getting better, and might be on the verge of backsliding.

“I’m not going to tell you what I think is missing,” Doughty said. “It’s just, it comes down to we all need to chip in in playoff series. And we had guys on some nights. Some guys off other nights. We all need to be on. Nothing great. We all need to be really solid and consistent to win a playoff series. I think that’s where we lost.”

Where do the Kings go from here? It is a time of uncertainty for them and some concrete answers toward setting their future must be found. Here are five big questions they face.

Who will run the Kings?

The Kings are owned by Philip Anschutz, but Luc Robitaille has considerable sway. The Kings legend started his management career with the franchise in 2007 as the head of business operations. His move into the hockey side, as the team’s president, came in 2017. Still a popular figure, Robitaille has aggressively marketed the Kings and he champions the building of their brand.

Robitaille largely has been tied together with Rob Blake, who was named general manager on the same day as Robitaille’s promotion to president. The two are close friends with an association going back decades, to their days as teammates in L.A. Their decision to take the Kings through a necessary rebuild was lauded. Their work to bring them out of it has become increasingly suspect.

Now they’ve got a competitive club, but one that spent 2023-24 salary-capped out and that sits a clear rung or two below the top Cup-contending teams. A prospect pipeline that was once considered among the best in the sport has only produced one potential higher-end NHL talent, Quinton Byfield, who was the No. 2 pick in his draft year. Granted, the Kings have had only three top-10 selections since 2009. But they’ve also dealt away possible long-term fixtures in Gabriel Vilardi and Brock Faber. Other than Clarke, there appears to be no top-of-the-lineup type prospect on the horizon.

This doesn’t even get into the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade, which was questioned from the start. There should be some serious evaluation of personnel and philosophy throughout an organization that could get stuck in the mushy middle. That’s a terrible place to be in a hard-cap league. Blake, who got an extension in 2022, has a contract that runs through next season.

Who will coach the Kings?

There should be plenty of candidates. As the Kings settle on who will make the front-office decisions, they’ll also have to decide who will be the best coaching fit for a club that could be in transition in terms of personnel and style.

Do they look at someone who can push them to the next level, like what Craig Berube did when he took over St. Louis? Do they check to see if Jon Cooper wants a new challenge after an incredible run in Tampa Bay? Do they consider going in-house and giving Marco Sturm, their successful coach for the AHL’s Ontario Reign, his first shot? Gerard Gallant tends to burn bright before burning out. Dean Evason is available. (I’m not going to suggest Darryl Sutter 2.0. scout’s honor!)

It is likely that Jim Hiller needed a lengthy playoff run to have the interim tag removed. That didn’t happen, and he could be among the casualties, even though he said “that goes without saying” when it came to wanting to stay on as coach.

“It’s a great group of players with a lot of characters,” said Hiller, who went 21-12-1 after taking over for Todd McLellan on Feb. 2. “They made it easy for me in what was maybe difficult circumstances for them because of the way we had performed for about six weeks. I owe a lot to them. They got themselves back together, had a good break and got playing again. And they’re good players and really good guys. Really good people. So, I enjoyed it.”

How do they handle the Dubois dilemma?

Dubois’ first season with Los Angeles made the disappointment of Ilya Kovalchuk’s year and a half seem like a minor annoyance. The Kings invested lots of money in Dubois and parted with three homegrown forwards, believing that Dubois could give the Kings a group of centers to rival reigning Stanley Cup champion Vegas or Edmonton. Instead, Dubois never gained traction and gave the Kings his worst season of production across seven NHL years.

They’re now on the hook for seven more years and another $59 million. Dubois carries an $8.5 million salary cap hit. He’s due to receive $11.25 million in actual salary next season and $11.35 million in 2025-26. Good on him and agent Pat Brisson to get that contract, but that’s an obscene amount for an underachieving center who spent most of the season on the third line and was even demoted to the fourth for a spell during the regular season and playoff series.

A buyout normally might be considered unimaginable, but the Kings could benefit from Dubois’ age. The NHL’s first buyout period opens either on June 15 or 48 hours after the end of the Stanley Cup Final. The latest date this year’s playoffs could end is June 24. Why does that matter? Dubois turns 26 on June 24. If a player is bought out before his 26th birthday, the team must pay out only one-third of the remaining base salary (and the full amount of remaining signing bonus money) instead of the customary two-thirds, for what would be 14 years.

The Kings could push hard for a trade before Dubois’ full no-move clause kicks in on July 1, though it’s guaranteed that they would have to retain half of his cap hit and salary just to spark any interest. Kings management also could go with the belief that a new coach and a new system might bring out more in Dubois. But outside of a time when John Tortorella pushed and prodded him in Columbus during their tumultuous time together, when has that worked with Dubois for an entire season?

What are the futures for their unrestricted free agents?

Their two most prominent UFAs on expiring contracts are Matt Roy and Viktor Arvidsson. Both have proven very useful for the Kings during this run of playoff appearances. Both would also free up some desperately needed cap space if they were set free to hit the market.

Despite his customary determination on the ice and his offensive ability, Arvidsson would be the easier call to let go, as he’s now 31 and he struggled in the five games against the Oilers. He’s also had two back surgeries and carries too much injury risk at this stage of his career. On the other hand, Roy was their second-best defenseman this season and is a fixture on their second pairing. The former Michigan Tech standout has become an important piece.

It’s also possible that Roy has priced himself out of what the Kings can comfortably afford, with other issues like goaltending and a new contract for Byfield to resolve. At 29, the Michigan native will be appealing as a right-shot defender who can play a sound game in his end without taking a ton of penalties. He’ll get a raise from the $4.2 million he made this season and could maximize his value with this next contract.

Cam Talbot and David Rittich are also UFAs after signing one-year deals. The two veteran netminders played well during the regular season. Perhaps the Kings could look to keep one or the other. Both could be possible if it’s just for 2024-25, but that would not solve their need for a long-term solution.

What direction do they go as a franchise?

This may be the toughest one to wrangle with. The Kings aren’t a young club on the come-up with the promise of brighter days coming. Kopitar will turn 37 in August. Doughty will head into his age-35 season. Danault is 31. Kevin Fiala will be 28 in July. Vladislav Gavrikov will turn 29 in November. Adrian Kempe, Mikey Anderson and Trevor Moore might be in their prime years, but they’re not kids.

Perhaps there will be enough space freed up by letting the UFAs walk, and a Dubois buyout, to fortify the roster with shorter-term free agents who will make them better in reality instead of in theory. Maybe they can find someone who has made the kind of impact Ryan O’Reilly has made for Nashville at half the Dubois price and commitment. Maybe they must look at trading Kempe or Moore at their highest value in order to restock their system with NHL-bound prospects and gain quality draft capital after sacrificing it in recent years.

Or maybe they can plug in Clarke, Alex Turcotte and Akil Thomas and see what they really have in them. And that may mean having a talk with Kopitar and Doughty to see if they’re willing to endure the bumps that come with their development. When asked if the Kings have a roster good enough to win in the playoffs, Doughty said, “We haven’t proven that yet. I’m not going to say no. Yeah, it’s a tough question. We haven’t proved it. That’s the bottom line.”

One thing is for sure. The Kings can’t run it back as it is.

(Photo of Pierre-Luc Dubois: Ric Tapia / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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