Following up on our tiered approach to add scoring, the LA Kings could use some toughness along their blueline. In the Edmonton series, it became abundantly clear with how often the Kings were pushed off the puck by the more physical Oilers squad. Using Drew Doughty‘s year-end presser quote again, the former Norris Trophy winner put defensive size on his offseason wishlist.
“I don’t want to say we’re missing things, but I think we can add some toughness, I think that would be good,” he said. “Maybe a bigger guy on D, besides Eddy, we’re all kind of little guys, but I think we can always add a scorer, that’s still our downfall, I think, is not scoring. Power play was not even close to good enough, so I think we could still add another top-six guy that puts the puck in the net, I think that would be great, but I don’t know what we have to do, that’s just my opinion, it’s up to them to decide.”
Anderson – Doughty
Bjornfot – Roy
X – Durzi
Of course, Jakob Chychrun is the big-name defenseman linked to the Kings within the last calendar year. The 24-year-old tallied seven goals and 14 assists for 21 points on a Coyotes team two points from finishing last place in the National Hockey League. During the shortened 2021 campaign, Chychrun scored 18 goals and 23 assists for 41 points, including five goals on the power-play.
In January, the reported asking price was a high-end prospect and a first-round pick. The Kings have both in their pipeline and draft capital, although Chychrun’s asking price appeared to increase around the trade deadline. Either way, Los Angeles has what the Coyotes are looking for; it’s just whether general manager Rob Blake is comfortable with the return that would go to Arizona.
If the Kings opt to add defense in free agency, they have several options. Let’s look at a tiered approach.
Just like the last iteration, projected contracts via Evolving Hockey.
Tier 1 – Nikita Zadorov, Alex Edler, Oliver Kylington
Projected Contract: 5 years, $4.255 million AAV
After a down year in Chicago, Nikita Zadorov enjoyed a bounce-back campaign with the Calgary Flames. The 27-year-old potted four goals and 18 assists for 22 points and a +11 in 74 games.
Not much of a shooter (3.8%), Zadorov contributes in other ways, namely in the hits departments. He logged 181 hits this past season and flirted with 300 hits during 2018-19 when he was with Avalanche. At 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, he has the size and strength to knock guys around.
Oddly enough, the unrestricted free agent was a terrific puck possession player this tear, logging a 57.7 CF%, which is well above his career 45.8 CF% mark.
Zadorov was primarily limited to a third-pairing role with the Flames, playing alongside Erik Gudbranson, who put up a career-best six goals and 17 points. Together the duo accounted for a 54.41 GF%, nearly matching their expected output, 56.11 xGF%.
With the Kings, Zadorov paired with Durzi on the third pairing could make a lot of sense to allow the latter to have free reign (no pun intended) as a puck-moving defenseman. Five years could be a bit lengthy, but a three-deal seems about right.
Projected Contract: 3 years, $3.940 million AAV
The LA Kings are already familiar with Alex Edler, and it could make some sense to bring the 36-year-old back to Los Angeles. Edler missed about half the season with a fractured ankle suffered in mid-December. In 44 regular-season games, he collected three goals and 16 assists for 19 points.
Edler averaged the lowest minutes since his rookie season with 18:28 TOI, as he found a home on the Kings’ second and third pairings.
He was well-liked by LA’s coaches and front office members, and Edler could have some incentive to run it back.
“He was huge for us – added that experience, that size, and veteran savvy on the back end,” Kings’ assistant coach Trent Yawney said via The Athletic. “When he got hurt, I didn’t think he was going to be back. He’s a lot like Olli – totals pros, and he worked his ass off to get himself back. It was great to have him back. If he played the whole year, he might have scored 40 points.
Three years seems quite steep at Edler’s age, but another one-year deal could be beneficial for both sides.
Projected Contract: 4 years, $3.270 million AAV
It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out in Calgary with all of the free agents needing new contracts. The list notably includes Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane, Johnny Gaudreau, Calle Jarnkrok, Zadorov, and defenseman Oliver Kylington.
The Flames have approximately $26.9 million in cap space this summer, but Tkachuk, Gaudreau, and Mangiapane are projected to have a combined $27.9 million cap hit if their projected contracts come to fruition.
Added, Calgary is without a first, third, fourth, and sixth-round pick in the 2022 NHL draft. Something has to give. Could the Kings sway the Flames to trade Kylington, who is an RFA, within the division?
The 25-year-old Swedish blueliner recorded nine goals and 22 assists, and a +34 rating last season. He saw the most ice time of his young career, averaging 18:09 TOI, and he developed into one of the better shot blockers on Calgary’s roster.
Added, he’s a great skater with an active stick, as seen in the clip below, to avoid becoming another Connor McDavid highlight.
For the right price, he can be had, but I’m not so sure the Flames would trade him within the division.
Tier 2 – Brett Kulak, Ian Cole, Calvin de Haan
Projected Contract: 3 years, $2.948 million AAV
Kulak split the 2021-22 regular season between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers, scoring five goals and 16 assists for a career-best 21 points.
The 28-year-old logged over 100 hits for just the second time in his career. He’s continued that physical play in the playoffs, racking up 30 hits in 15 games while also adding five helpers.
While Evander Kane gets a lot of the attention for best midseason addition on offense, Kulak helped solidify the back end, especially in defending rush chances.
As you can see, Kulak leaves a lot to be desired offensively, but he’s terrific in zone entry defense and forechecking.
Projected Contract: 2 years, $2.613 million AAV
Another player, perhaps a bit older than the Kings might be looking for, Ian Cole, enjoyed a solid season with the Carolina Hurricanes. The 33-year-old UFA had two goals and 17 assists for 19 points and a +15.
He doesn’t shoot the puck very much (2.6%) and isn’t a factor on the power-play. Why do I like him? Cole is a physical, shot-blocking machine. He’s never put up more than five goals in a season, but he’s regularly surpassed 100 blocked shots and hits.
While he saw a handful of games on Carolina’s top pairing, Cole found a home on the Hurricanes’ third pairing with Brendan Smith. The duo accounted for a 55.0 GF%, with only nine goals allowed in over 325 minutes TOI.
Again, he’s not going to be an offensive threat, but he could be a big body to put in front of the puck while also knocking some guys around.
Projected Contract: 3 years, $2.985 million AAV
Calvin de Haan is another interesting player. The 31-year-old offers very little offensively, scoring just four goals and eight points last year, but he’s one of the better shot blockers in the National Hockey League.
This past season, de Haan blocked 172 shots and delivered 146 hits. For defensemen who logged at least 500 minutes TOI, he was the best in shots blocked/60 rate.
|1||Calvin de Haan||CHI||D||69||1150.68||7.40|
“He’s stepped it up,” interim head coach Derek King said via The Athletic. “He was getting more minutes when Seth (Jones) was out (with COVID-19), he absorbed it, and he went with it. He kept his game pretty simple. He just moved the puck. He’s not afraid to block shots, I’ll tell you that.”
He can also play on both sides, which offers some versatility, should the Kings find themselves in injury trouble again.
Tier 3 – Erik Gustafsson, Jacob Middleton
Projected Contract: 1 year, $1.169 million
Another Chicago Blackhawks defenseman, Erik Gustafsson, offers a bit more than de Haan offensively. The 30-year-old tallied three goals and 15 assists in 59 games last season. He’s also just three seasons removed from a 17-goal, 60-point campaign, finishing with the seventh-most points among defensemen in 2018-19.
Erik Gustafsson launches it from 60 feet 🤯
We’re tied! pic.twitter.com/1Fs0dFaIsZ
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) December 8, 2021
His defense has been suspect over the last couple of years, but Gustafsson has also been reduced to a part-time role, averaging just 16:13 TOI in 2021-22.
He improved defensively in his second stint with the Blackhawks.
‘[He needed] just to simplify his game,’’ interim coach Derek King said in December via Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘He tends to overthink it and [want] everything [to be] a home-run play or a highlight play, and it was getting him in trouble. But he’s really settled it down. You can see by the minutes he’s played from Day 1 to now; he’s gotten so many more minutes. He’s trustworthy, and he’s figured out the game.’’
Not my preferred target on this list, but Gustafsson could be a decent option for the Kings.
Projected Contract: 1 year, $935,500
Originally drafted by the LA Kings with the 210th overall pick in 2014, Jacob Middleton enjoyed somewhat of a breakout season split between San Jose and Minnesota. He scored three goals and six assists with the Sharks before he was traded to the Wild at the trade deadline.
In 21 games under Dean Evason, Middleton potted a goal and four assists and was a +7. Between the two clubs, the Wainwright, Alberta native logged over 100 blocked shots and hits in the season.
Middleton is an RFA, and the Wild seem to like him, so it could be difficult to pry him away.
“He’s a beauty, he’s a guy that we really like, and he was a really popular guy in a short amount of time,” Wild General Manager Bill Guerin said last month at his postseason media availability. “We want him back.”
Never say never, but Middleton seems likely to stay in Minneapolis.
Not a terribly deep free-agent class to find a left-shot defenseman, but there are a few options for the LA Kings to consider. The best choice still is Jakob Chychrun, and I suspect that Los Angeles will circle back this summer on his availability.
Beyond that, Zadorov, Edler, or Kylington would be terrific additions.