Rob Blake Saga Part V: Feigned Retreat and a Pandemic

NHL Bubble

The two worst seasons for Rob Blake and the LA Kings came in 2018-19 and 2019-2020. Respectively finishing dead last in the Western Conference and second to last the following year. With the emergence of COVID-19 near the end of the 2019-2020 season, their six-game winning streak catapulted them away from finishing dead last in the NHL. These were years to retool and restructure while taking advantage of draft capital. Their two worst seasons under Rob Blake provided two top-five picks: Alex Turcotte (largely thanks to a draft lottery disaster, going from number two overall to five) and Quinton Byfield. The Kings received likely their most talented prospect at the end of another poor season in 2020-21 in the number eight overall pick, Brandt Clarke. These seasons also provided another meaningful step in the change necessary for future success, as well as buyouts and a championship exodus that started in 2018-19.

Bench Boss Search Ended

The Darryl Sutter-John Stevens-Willie Desjardins handoff era ended in April 2019. Rob Blake went to a familiar face, or a familiar foe, in Todd McLellan. McLellan coached Rob Blake in San Jose during Blake’s tenure there, and McLellan bench bossed against Los Angeles in the peak playoff rivalry series of 2013 and 2014, cultivating the boot out of San Jose following the reverse sweep. McLellan would not go far, as he stayed within the Pacific Division in Edmonton to coach the young superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. He would make it out of the first round but find tremors along the way to a playoff exit.

Rob Blake went with familiarity and a reasonable legacy of success. McLellan has three Pacific Division titles and two Western Conference finals to boot. But he came to a team not in the current condition to contend but mainly coming over at the turn of the tide. His first two seasons combined a 50-63-13 record. Both seasons were shortened due to the pandemic, but the transition had taken into full effect.

Those Forced to Walk: For Nothing

Blake decided to buy out the remaining two years of Dion Phaneuf’s contract, sharing some of the burden, 25% to be exact, with the Ottawa Senators.

The 2020-21 cap hit would be $4,062,500 against the Kings and $1,354,167 for the Senators. He carried a $1,062,500 cap hit for the two seasons and $354,167 for the Senators. The prior Maple Leaf captain had considerably fallen off his game after he left Toronto. While he regained some life from the incredible run with Ottawa to the conference finals, he was undoubtedly at the end of his game.

2001 First Overall Pick:

Ilya Kovalchuk was purely disastrous during his time in LA. Understandably signed as a free agent to experiment with his offensive potential without shedding any assets, but it failed. In December 2019, Kovalchuk left the team, and Rob Blake waived his contract for the purpose of termination.

Those Forced to Walk: For Something

Rob Blake would wheel and deal players in 2020 as a firm seller. LA sent Tyler Toffoli to Vancouver, Kyle Clifford and Jack Campbell to Toronto, Alec Martinez to Las Vegas, and possibly the most painful one, Derek Forbort to Calgary. Forbort was protected in the expansion draft over the current Stanley Cup Champion Brayden McNabb. The mass exodus was a pure capital consumption move, with seven draft picks, two NHL players, and one prospect (Tyler Madden) returning with the haul. Add this to the draft capital Rob Blake accumulated in 2018-19, 2019-20, and 2020-21… You can start seeing the potential to farm and develop the plethora of prospects or the weaponizing of assets for ready talent.

The 2019 Draft is one of the best drafts of Rob Blake’s tenure. Alex Turcotte has almost soured, yes, but Arthur Kaliyev and Tobias Bjornfot have both seen significant time in the NHL. Samuel Fagemo is knocking at the door, and Jordan Spence looks to be a draft steal.

2020 has yet to bear fruit in terms of NHL playing time. Quinton Byfield has yet to take the next step, though he has shown signs of promise. Brock Faber and Helge Grans were moved to acquire NHL ready talent (we will get there). Simontaival and Laferriere show promise to be middle six players at the NHL level. Martin Chromiak looks VERY comfortable in the AHL in his first-year pro. Another possible draft steal.

Moving Forward

The Covid-19 years were full of ugly stat sheets and records for the LA Kings. They did, however, help propel the Kings into an essential position under Rob Blake and The Plan: assets. Covid-19, don’t forget, shut down most leagues. That sent Brandt Clarke to Slovakia to play against men, giving Arthur Kaliyev and Quinton Byfield time in the AHL that wouldn’t be allowed without the OHL being shut down from the pandemic. Each player rose to the occasion and was exposed to a much higher level of play they would not be allowed to receive if not for the pandemic. That’s incredibly significant for the three future cornerstone players of the LA Kings.

“As soon as his season’s done, he’s going to join whether it’s us or Ontario, he’s basically been instructed, you do your job with Barrie right now – we’ll see whatever they do here before the deadline, but they’ve got a pretty good team – but you can go and you can lead that team. Then, he’s going to be back up and getting more of the experience that he had.”

Rob Blake, January 2023

Meanwhile, a Swedish player named Adrian Kempe worked his way around the lineup over the tumultuous three-year stretch. The patience being exhibited at the same time by Rob Blake would pay dividends.

Required Reading:

Part I: The Precursor

Part II: The Transfer of Power

Part III: The Last Dance

Part IV: The Plan

Connor Doyle

US Navy Veteran and UCLA Class of 2024. Background in International Development Studies. Los Angeles born and raised. Following hockey for over a decade.

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