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NHL trade grades: Kings make a big bet with Dubois trade, extension

The Los Angeles Kings have pushed the Edmonton Oilers to the limit the past two first rounds. Would a possession-driving, 6-2 center help their cause when the postseason comes around next spring and beyond?

They paid a big price to find out. L.A. traded forwards Alex Iafallo, Rasmus Kupari and Gabriel Vilardi, along with a second-round pick in the 2024 NHL draft, to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for Pierre-Luc Dubois, who they subsequently signed to an eight-year contract with an average annual value of $8.5 million.

How did both GMs do in the swap? Here are our grades:

The year is 2020. Pierre-Luc Dubois is 22 years old. He has 10 points in 10 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, using his 6-foot-2 frame to become an immovable object while driving play and carrying his team. His teammate, Cam Atkinson, praises him: “With Luc, if he wants to be a difference maker, a game changer, one of the best players in the league, he has all the capabilities, all the tools.”

The operative phrase: “if he wants…”

If he wants to be more active in the defensive zone. If he wants to use his offensive gifts to score more goals — his high is 28 so far in the NHL — and create more off the rush. If he wants to stay in a market for more than three years, which has become a big “if” for a guy that has now maneuvered his way out of Columbus and then Winnipeg.

If he wants to become a No. 1 center the likes the Kings can build around in a post-Anze Kopitar world.

The year is now 2023. Dubois is 25 years old. He has been acquired by the Kings to give them one of the deepest collections of centers in the NHL — something absolutely essential when the Edmonton Oilers and Vegas Golden Knights are obstacles in your own division — but also their No. 1 center after Kopitar, 35, eventually steps down from the throne.

They’ve committed $8.5 million against the salary cap to Dubois through 2030-31. They have Kopitar’s $10 million AAV coming off the cap after next season. I’ve heard Dubois’ trade protection is similar to that of Kevin Fiala‘s, who had none in Year 1 and then three years of no-movement before morphing into a partial no-move by the fifth year of his deal.

They need Dubois to be one of the best players in the league in ways he hasn’t quite been yet in his career. If they can get him there, this trade could be retroactively viewed as a catalyst to a championship. If he plateaus, or worse yet loses his smile again about his current market, GM Rob Blake will have lost this bet.

But he won’t lose a lot here. That’s why even if Dubois remains a solid No. 2 center instead of a stellar No. 1 center, the Kings should still earn a passing grade for acquiring him at a reasonable cost to the franchise.

On its face, it seems like a lot: Three players from the lineup plus a draft pick for a player that wanted out of Winnipeg. But none of them are Quinton Byfield or Arthur Kaliyev or any of the team’s young defensemen.

Iafallo was an expendable left wing given the Kings’ depth. Kupari is a 23-year-old center with unmet potential that, again, the Kings could surrender from a depth perspective. Vilardi is the tricky part. Was 23 goals in 63 games the start of something remarkable for the talented 23-year-old? Or was it a season that would have driven his restricted free agent price tag too high for the Kings to meet? Blake was obviously comfortable enough to move Vilardi for an upgrade now.

It’s the “now” I love about this trade. With Kopitar, Dubois, Phillip Danault and Blake Lizotte, the Kings are absolutely loaded at an essential position. It’s the “later” I’m a little concerned about as someone who isn’t quite sold on Dubois as a No. 1 franchise center type. I hope I’m wrong. Because if I am, then the Kings will rightly be enjoying the spoils.

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff did the best he could here. There wasn’t another offer for Dubois that came close to that of the Kings’ — and certainly not from the Montreal Canadiens, who were reportedly Dubois’ preferred destination. Cheveldayoff traded Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to Columbus for three years of Dubois. If you said that the Jets had acquired this package for Laine and Roslovic, you’d probably say they did quite well.

The key is Vilardi. His talent was never in question. His health certainly has been questioned, as last season’s 63 games were his highest total in a four-year NHL career. But he showed a lot of offensive pop in just 15:36 of ice time per game in Los Angeles last season that an expanded role — with some talented linemates — could further blow up those stats. He loves to shoot the puck, but isn’t a one-dimensional player. A bridge contract for the restricted free agent would seem like the smartest move for Winnipeg, just to be sure on him.

The hope is that an expanded role for Kupari will also allow the 20th overall pick in the 2018 draft to find his game behind being a defensive depth forward. Iafallo is a solid player under contract at $4 million annually for the next two seasons. He should allow 21-year-old Cole Perfetti to continue to grow at the right pace.

If there’s a bummer here for Cheveldayoff is that the Jets didn’t land a young player with a higher ceiling (Byfield, defenseman Brandt Clarke) or a surer thing than Vilardi as a trade centerpiece. Also missing: a first-round draft pick in 2024 rather than a second.

Of course, the biggest bummer is that the Jets paid a hefty price to acquire what they felt could be their No. 1 center of the future, only to see him want out at a time when the Jets’ future — pending moves for players like Connor Hellebuyck, Blake Wheeler and potentially Mark Scheifele — is anything but clear.

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