LA Kings palace coup mostly makes sense

General manager Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter were fired after the Los Angeles Kings failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs on Monday afternoon. The moves from parent company AEG startled the teams’ fans who hadn’t had the chance to finish grieving over the retirement of broadcaster Bob Miller one day earlier.

By the way, that’s not meant as an insult on Kings fans. Miller’s words-eye view introduced millions on the west coast to the NHL for 44 years. And he was a good man, to boot. He should be missed.

Having said that, replacing Miller now becomes an afterthought instead of a priority for the team.

I mostly agree with the decision from AEG on Lombardi and Sutter, despite the two Stanley Cup titles won on their watch. Particularly with Sutter, it was time to go. Very few coaches and managers have lengthy runs with their respective teams for a reason, even with winning championships. No, Sutter didn’t forget how to coach. I would even argue he didn’t do anything particularly wrong, other than not give playing time to Kings prospects.

Over time, players tune out the message. Don’t be too hard on the players. That’s human nature. Fans claim to love coaches who are taskmasters, screaming and throwing tantrums. Players can live with it, but after a while the messsge becomes stale. Hell, in the 1980s, the Lakers won four titles with Pat Riley as the coach. At the very end, even Riley could tell Magic and the rest were tuning him out.

They didn’t hate him. They didn’t even disagree with him. They’ve just heard it all before.

When the Kings play a primal, physical game for six seasons under Sutter, how long before the players subconsciously think “OK, hit the other guy harder. I got it” before stifling a yawn?

Lombardi was a tougher call to me. I think he should have had the chance to find that new coach. Having said that, it’s possible he stood by Sutter. If that happened, you have no choice but to fire them both.

There is a case to be made against Lombardi. The Kings are in a financial mess — not in terms of profitability, but the salary cap. Marian Gaborik is still owed $15.9 million. Dustin Brown is still owed $25.5 million. Jonathan Quick is still owed $27 million. Anne Kopitar has 7 more years on his contract at an average of $10 million per year.

Even worse, Lombardi erred by keeping the floundering Mike Richards on the payroll when he could have cut him and saved money before a salary cap deadline. He didn’t, and Richards — who is no longer with the Kings, anyway — will get paid until 2032.

Former defenseman Rob Blake takes over as GM. I have no idea what his plan for the future is. I’m not going to fool myself and claim he can solve these problems.

But for the Kings to have reached the pinnacle of hockey twice, they simultaneously dug themselves a massive crater.

It only makes sense that the people responsible for the benefits be held accountable for the aftermath.

With depth depleted, Kings in transition

How does the NHL work? You can win the Stanley Cup without having an elite roster. A few exceptional players and a lot of grit can get you to the top of the mountain. Look no further than the Pittsburgh Penguins last year for that.

So to begin with optimism, we can say the LA Kings begin the 2016-17 season Wednesday against San Jose with three, possibly four, exceptional players as that foundation. 

But then comes reality. That core will have to perform above expectations for this team to make the playoffs, let alone win the cup this year. It’s not that the so-called window of opportunity has closed as much as it is cracked, waiting to see if prospects will flourish in the next year or two to lift the team back to contending status.

The team has kept its core of defenseman Drew Doughty, goaltender Jonathan Quick and center Anze Kopitar. Also, Tyler Toffoli has the makings of a consistent all-star. Virtually the rest of the roster — particularly at forward — is in transition thanks to two painful realities.

One is payroll restraints: The Kings have just $57,000 in salary cap room. The front office is doing all it can to shoehorn one more player into the roster legally as I type — a left winger that could join their top line, Devin Setoguchi. Adding to that burden is the NHL salary cap provides little relief when players get injured long term. Setoguchi is seen as a replacement for injured sniper Martin Gaborik.

The cap limit was also part of the reason the Kings could not retain forward Milan Lucic, a bruiser that fit perfectly with their heavy style of play.

The second is cuts made due to some players’ off-ice behavior. The Kings let go of forwards Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards due to drug-related arrests. Slava Voynov was supposed to stabilize the defense for a decade with Doughty, but he’s back in Russia thanks to an ugly domestic violence arrest.

Currently, the third and fourth line of forwards are centered by Nic Dowd and Andy Andreoff, who haven’t impressed much. So LA’s offensive depth has been depleted, and this was a team that struggled to score in the first place.

The defense last year allowed the third-fewest goals in the NHL. It will have to at least equal that. There’s no reason to expect a slump from Doughty or Quick, but if there’s an injury, LA could be toast. And Quick has had injuries to the back, wrist and groin.

I can’t say with confidence the Kings can consistently match up with San Jose or Anaheim. The top three finishers in the Pacific Division are assured of playoff spots. They’re probably better than Vancouver, but Edmonton and Phoenix have added to their rosters and Calgary looms for a bounceback season.

The Kings’ quest: Maintain the defense

We interrupt our euphoria over the return of the NFL to Los Angeles and misery over Vin Scully’s retirement to discuss a team that brought recent championships to SoCal.

For decades, and the Los Angeles Kings are celebrating five of ’em this year, the franchise was one of many that had no discernible plan to win. In my opinion, sports franchises are like businesses. In competitive climates, you need a business plan or you’re in bankruptcy court. Your franchise has no plan, you rarely win titles. The Pittsburgh Steelers are an excellent example of this: Players change, sometimes coaches do, but the “blitzburgh” defensive philosophy doesn’t and they’re usually in the discussion for the Super Bowl.

Similarly, the Patriots had no such overarching plan until hiring Bill Belichik.

The Kings had no direction until hiring general manager Dean Lombardi. When he was hired in 2006, Kings front office employees were still using typewriters instead of computers. The office, indeed the entire franchise, was a blank canvas. So after a trip to Best Buy to outfit everybody with PCs, he set out to build the team with three relatively simple ideas:

1) Competition at goaltender,

2) The biggest, most capable defense possible,

3) On offense, centers before wingers.

Goaltender has been and will continue to be a done deal. Jonathan Quick won that competition years ago. Offense, while important, isn’t as important as what will lead the two-time Stanley Cup champs back into the picture for the third.

The Kings allowed the third-fewest goals in the NHL last year, mostly thanks to the Herculean contribution of Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty. Don’t be fooled: Doughty played more shifts than any other player in the league last year and the Kings can’t rely on Doughty being bulletproof in a violent sport every year. The belief was that Slava Voynov would be the guy who could alleviate the press on Doughty, but um… this happened. 

Much like the Kings have struggled to move on from that ugly split, I get the distinct feeling they would love to give at least one younger, cheaper player a shot.

In training camp, it appears four of the six defensive roster spots are locked up — Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and Brayden McNabb. None of them are going anywhere for awhile. Muzzin and McNabb play with a bit of a mean streak. Muzzin takes more penalties than perhaps he should. McNabb has more room to grow at age 24. Muzzin is the oldest of the four at 27.

There are three players in their 30s with shots at making the team, but two are coming off of injuries and the third played for three different teams last year. Of the three, probably Matt Greene has the confidence of the fans, but that doesn’t carry into the front office.

Of three top younger prospects, what I’ve read is this is a training camp where the Kings have to make a decision on former first-round draft pick Derek Forbert. At 24, he’s had years to make an impression. Good luck standing out.

That leaves Zach Trotman and Kevin Gravel, and if you’re a casual fan you’re likely shrugging. Fair enough. The bottom line: Trotman is one of those underdog stories people love because he was literally the last player taken in the 2010 draft and eventually made the NHL. He’s considered a stay-at-home defenseman. NHL scouts say Gravel has “exceptional” defensive poise and a decent shot. They’re both about the same size.

I’m no hockey scout. You’re guess is as good as mine, but my belief is the Kings usually match one defenseman who takes offensive chances with a guy who camps out in front of the net. Doughty with Rob Scuderi or Robyn Regehr, for instance. I’m guessing they keep steady Matt Greene and match him with Kevin Gravel.

In a future post, I’ll take a peek at the offense.