The 2018-19 Los Angeles Kings matched their lowest point total, and won their fewest amount of games, in the salary cap era. Their top forward and defensive lines weren’t good and they received below-average goaltending. The following are three transactions the Kings can make to improve their defense.
Acquire Islanders Defenseman Devon Toews
The Kings aren’t short on bottom-pairing defenders, but this one is better than what they have. Toews was a positive impact on all his partners, doing very well in a sheltered role for the Islanders. Possession should be on everyone’s mind in LA after taking another step back during 2018-19 with a 48.08% Corsi-for.
The Kings top players didn’t play well last season and the team suffered. It’s reasonable to expect them to be better. Adding a player like Toews isn’t going to make any headlines, but it’s a depth move that gives the Kings more comfort when their lower half of the defense takes the ice. The Islanders controlled significantly more of the play when Toews was on the ice. That’s a worthwhile investment even if you consider his usage. It’s worth exploring using him as a No. 4 defender, but with exercised caution. Turning 26 during the 2019-20 season, Toews is in the “what you see is likely what you get” stage of career progression.
This is a relatively low-cost move that shouldn’t be any more than a second/third-round pick plus an average non-roster player, or a low-end roster player plus a third/fourth-round pick. Toews also carries a $700k cap-hit and doesn’t stand to renew in excess of Derek Forbort’s current average annual value (AAV). The lower you can get the cost (but still being effective) for the players lower on the depth chart, the more money you have to spend on your top four defensemen.
With all that being said, Toews is a solid defenceman and depending on how much the Islanders believe in him the cost may go up. Whatever the case may be, I doubt the cost increases to the point where it favors the Islanders if they were to make a deal.
Trade Defenseman Derek Forbort
Forbort had the second-highest time-on-ice at 5-on-5 for the Kings during the 2018-19 season with 1,458:40. He spent 1,248:30 of that time being a negative impact on Drew Doughty. Together, they did not create a good first defensive pairing. Both players’ numbers dropped when they were together compared to when they are apart.
The real problem is that Forbort’s numbers when he was away from Doughty were still below average, relative to the team. He wasn’t significantly below average, so there’s reason to believe he can still be effective lower in someone else’s lineup. His individual offensive production, though he’s never been heralded for it, actually dropped while he enjoyed a career-high in ice-time.
Forbort’s cap hit isn’t large, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a team willing to take him. Consider his value on the low-side of a second defensive pairing. If the Kings want to control more play (like they used to), then they need to remove Forbort from the top defensive pair. Maybe they just do this to take away one of the coach’s favorite toys. He shouldn’t figure into the long-term plans for the franchise, so it makes more sense to move on when he’s not a game-changing player.
Sign Defenseman Jake Gardiner
Gardiner was often labeled the villain while he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That narrative couldn’t be further from what should have been said about him. TSN’s Travis Yost recently wrote at length about how good Gardiner is, using expected goal percentage and wins above replacement. I want to look at a few of the controversial statistics that got him in hot water with the fanbase. I’ll use Morgan Rielly as a comparison, simply because his reviews generate much more positive vibes in Toronto. Here’s a three-year comparison (2015-18).
|2015-18 Comparison (5-on-5)||Gardiner||Rielly|
|Blocked Shots per 60||3.13||3.62|
|Hits per 60||2.56||1.94|
|Giveaways per 60||2.99||2.7|
|Takeaways per 60||1.45||1.06|
Gardiner was only 0.49 blocked shots per 60 5-on-5 minutes worse than Rielly, or one full block less around every six and a half games. He’s not a hit machine, but he finds himself out-hitting his high-profile teammate. Throughout his time in Toronto, Gardiner was vilified for his turnovers. He turned the puck over 0.29 times more per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play than Rielly did. The net give-and-take is minus-1.44 for Gardiner and minus-1.64 for Rielly. Here’s the 2018-19 season.
|2018-19 Comparison (5-on-5)||Gardiner||Rielly|
|Blocked Shots per 60||3.22||3.75|
|Hits per 60||3.12||2.2|
|Giveaways per 60||2.59||3.47|
|Takeaways per 60||1.21||1.96|
I’m not comparing them to see who is better, this is to highlight that the negativity towards his was unwarranted and blown entirely out of proportion. Gardiner’s new contract is expected to come with a nice raise from his former $4.5 million dollar cap hit. The new number would hopefully be in the $6.8 to $7 million AAV range. Ideally, he signs for five years and not the max seven-year term.
With these three moves (or at least numbers one and three), the Kings become significantly better on defense. As a result, the playoffs become a reality again. These aren’t the only three moves the Kings can make to improve their defense, but they need to do something. Last year simply cannot repeat itself if the Kings want to become relevant in the standings again.
*all stats via naturalstattrick.com