The 2017-18 season left a lot to be desired. The Kings were in an interesting position after being swept by the fresh-out package expansion Vegas Golden Knights. Their cup window was rapidly closing. Their assets had either been used during the window or had soured. Rob Blake could demolish the team and start from scratch, or they could keep their championship pieces and work on a secondary core. A long rebuild? Or a short rebuild that would be predicated on the precision and execution of Rob Blake and Co. The secondary core of Justin Williams, Matt Green, Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards, and Willie Mitchell were never replaced. Building a secondary core had already started with the development of Adrian Kempe+Mikey Anderson and the savvy signing of Alex Iafallo.
Breaking Down 2018-19
“Kupari has the ability to be a top six centre at the NHL level. Some development is needed though. It is not unusual for a 17-year-old playing his first season in a men’s league to need to add mass to his frame though. Other aspects of his game are good, but like most young players, they need some refinement. He has creativity and skill that cannot be taught and is an exciting prospect for this reason. Kupari’s game is reminiscent of Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes, but this is a style comparison and not one based on talent level.”Ben Kerr, Last Word On Sports, 2018
Rob Blake gets mixed reviews on the 2018 draft. Kupari went on to play a significant number of games for the LA Kings and would end up being a piece in the most important trade in Blake’s tenure. But the rest of the draft is light on NHL exposure. Akil Thomas is one player the fans and organization yearn for and is well known for his game-winning goal in the World Juniors gold medal game. He’s missed a lot due to injury and shoulder surgery. The rest of the draft is light on promise and struggling to find an opportunity to get to the show. While the Kings were able to utilize Kupari to gain an impact player in time, the rest of the draft looks to be a smudge on the resume of Rob Blake.
Ilya Kovalchuk left the NHL to play in the KHL in 2013, which shocked the New Jersey Devils organization with 77$ million left on the table over 12 years. After winning the Olympic gold medal for the Russian Athletic Organization, he pursued returning to the NHL. In the offseason, he became a prominent name on the free agent board, and the Kings became suitors. Under The Plan, Blake would wait to give up draft capital and other assets to bring in impact players.
“In Kovalchuk, the Kings add a player known for his explosive scoring ability. The Russian winger has scored 417 NHL goals but hasn’t played in the league since 2012-13. Since then, he has been a dominant performer in the Kontinental Hockey League, recording 31 goals and 63 points in 53 games last season.Kevin Allen, USA Today, June 2018
No winger available in the free agent market, or the trade market, can match Kovalchuk’s game-breaking ability even in his mid-30s.”
Kovalchuk would be disastrous for the Kings. His deficiencies he had back in his Atlanta, and New Jersey days for cheating for offense, would become glaring in his older age. As an organization, you put up with some cheating for offense if you are a human highlight reel: Patrick Kane, who has the opportunity to become the highest-scoring American player of all time, has received discourse for the same issue. Kovalchuk had some scoring touch but was far from the same player he was during his first stint in the NHL.
Another Coaching Change
Jon Stevens, the assistant coach on the two Cup-winning teams, was relieved of his duties after an abysmal 4-8-1 start to the season. The Kings were in last place and needed a change at the helm. In the interim, Willie Desjardins was brought in the finish the season as the head coach. Desjardins succeeded at the Western Hockey League and American Hockey League levels as a player relationship coach who likes pushing the pace.
“It hasn’t gone the way we expect it to and we haven’t played the way we expected to, so fast forward here today,” Blake said. “What Willie will bring, what we want to bring back is we got to get the compete level up on our players. We got to get the passion back in the game, and we expect fully that he can right that and get us back in the right direction”Rob Blake, November 2018
Desjardins would finish 27-34-8 and not be brought back for the LA Kings.
Stocking the Pipeline while waving Goodbye to Championship Memories
Tanner Pearson, a pivot among the That’s 70s line during the 2014 championship run, was traded for Carl Hagelin, the ladder of which was sent to Washington for a 3rd round pick in the 2019 draft and a sixth-round pick in the 2020 draft. Pearson would go on to struggle with his health.
One of Rob Blake’s signature moves, Jake Muzzin, was sent to Toronto for Sean Durzi (signing rights), Carl Grundstrom, and a 1st round pick in the 2019 draft (Tobias Bjornfot).
Muzzin was passed by many teams at the onset of his NHL career due to a back injury. Coming to LA, being a black ace on the 2012 championship roster, then developing into a top pairing 2way defenseman. Rob Blake pulled the trigger when his price tag was at its highest. Unfortunately for Muzzin, his health has not been great since then, and he has missed significant portions of each season since the trade. On the flip side, the haul was massive. Grundstrom has become a heavy-hitting NHL regular as a role player, and Sean Durzi saved the Kings season with his play in Drew Doughty’s absence in the 2021-22 season. Bjornfot has played a significant number of games at the NHL level but is yet to live up to his draft potential. At the end of the day, three NHL regulars for a top-pairing defenseman (in decline: though it cannot have been seen) stands as the best trade haul of Rob Blake’s general manager tenureship.
Conclusion of the Season
There was certainly going to be more bad and ugly than good during a rebuild, regardless of the timeline. Blake had The Plan in mind.
The Kings under Rob Blake were starting to accumulate assets in rapid order. Blake and co. struck out at the draft but at least struck home on Rasmus Kupari, who became a crucial piece in the most extensive trade of Rob Blake’s GM tenure. Injuries to prospects were going to be a trend for the LA Kings. It’s just poor ‘PDO’ for injuries the last seven years, I suppose.
Ilya Kovalchuk was benched numerous times, playing only 64 games for the Kings. He would not return. The move was a confusing one, but understandable to not give up any assets. Pure dedication to the plan under Blake while looking to remain somewhat “competitive.”
The short-term rebuild would be one that saw three changes in two seasons at the helm seeing Darryl Sutter go, then Jon Stevens, and finally Willie Desjardins in two seasons. Short rebuild or not, it takes a toll on the competitive fire of these players, particularly those who have won championships.
It was time to utilize the pieces worth moving. Tanner Pearson and Jake Muzzin were the first championship pieces moved for assets (Pearson for Hagelin, but Hagelin was flipped for two picks). It marked a moment where the Kings, under Blake, would stock up as fast as they could to launch out of the basement where they finished. Bottom of the Pacific, dead last in the Western Conference.
Rob Blake had officially buckled and strapped into The Plan, waiting for his moment to strike while lying in wait, patiently for his moment.