One by one, Rob Blake ticks off milestones that represent the significant strides the Kings have made in their rebuilding process.
Find a second line center to support Anze Kopitar and take the pressure off young prospects? The Kings general manager wrapped that up last summer by signing Phillip Danault, who did better than advertised. Get the Kings into the playoffs so young players can experience the unique urgency of postseason hockey? Done and done in a seven-game loss to Edmonton that was in many ways a win for a team missing several injured stars.
Blake filled a large void among his top six forwards last week when he acquired Minnesota left wing Kevin Fiala for rights to defensive nominee Brock Faber and a first-round pick in this year’s NHL draft. That leaves the Kings without a first-round pick in the draft, which will be held in Montreal on Thursday and Friday, but Fiala’s timing and potential after career-best goals (33) and points (85) made it a potential one High -move reward. Fiala can now do more for her than a number 19 could have done.
“I think once we knew we had an opportunity to get a player of Kevin’s caliber who immediately took the top. And we wanted to make sure we could pull that off, because that would be the biggest improvement for our team,” Blake said Tuesday in his first comments since closing the deal and signing a seven-year, average annual value contract with Fiala. Cap reached $7.875 million.
That cap hit — the third-highest by the Kings behind Drew Doughty’s $11 million hit and Anze Kopitar’s $10 million hit — could limit Blake’s flexibility in signing his seven restricted free agents. Defense attorneys Alex Edler and Olli Maatta are unrestricted free agents and Blake said he would like to bring one of them back. Sean Walker, who missed most of last season following ACL surgery, is expected to attend training camp, Blake said. That’s almost like adding a player for free, with the added bonus that Sean Durzi has proven to be a solid two-way defender during Walker’s absence. They may need size back there, but they are operating from a position of strength.
The next item on Blake’s checklist might be difficult to complete – and it will affect the rest of the list.
Right winger Adrian Kempe plays a big role among the Kings’ restricted free agents, a group that also includes Lias Andersson, Carl Grundstrom, Claude Lemieux, Gabe Vilardi, Mikey Anderson and Durzi. With his career-high goal tally (35 at the top of the team) and points (54, second behind Kopitar), Kempe faces a big raise from the $2 million he’s averaged over the past three seasons.
Securing Kempe’s signature on a long-term contract is vital for the Kings to take the next step back to competing for the Stanley Cup and letting Blake know how much Cap space will be available to him when the vacant Agency starts on July 13th.
“One of the priorities of our organization is to sign Adrian Kempe here immediately. Then we know our situation when we need to address a few needs in free agency,” Blake said.
Anderson’s signing is also high on Blake’s to-do list, although limited agency gives Blake time to see how close his salary projections are to the numbers these players are aiming for. “You want to have them cemented in so you know exactly where you stand,” he said. “We’re trying to get it spot on, so if we have to go into the UFA market for defined needs, we know what we have.
“Can we accommodate them all? Hopefully. By the time you start getting them one by one, the rest should take shape.”
Fiala, speaking to reporters for the first time since the trade, said he knew last season that Minnesota probably couldn’t keep him. He was happy to join a team he said was “very difficult to get through and score goals” while playing for the Wild.
“I see the team on the rise,” said the native of Switzerland, who turns 26 on July 22. “Last year he made the playoffs and a great group of guys from what I’ve heard and on the ice they’re just getting better and better and they have some great young players coming in and I felt like the future is bright so I am very happy with it.”
He said he pushed himself to be a better defensive player, shoot more and go to the net last season. It worked. The Kings are counting on it working again.
“Obviously you want to be a difference player, a playoff player. They definitely want to be as good as possible in the playoffs,” he said. “That’s the next goal for me, not just to be good in the regular season, but to be better in the playoffs and certainly help the team win more games.”
The Kings have long lacked a difference maker, a game breaker. If they can tick that off their list, they’ll take a huge leap forward next season. Those ticks make an impressive line, but Blake’s work isn’t done yet.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/hockey/story/2022-07-05/nhl-kings-securing-adrian-kempe-rob-blake-roster Securing Adrian Kempe is next big item for Kings’ Rob Blake