Elliott: Securing Adrian Kempe is the next big-ticket item for Kings' Rob Blake

·5 min read
Los Angeles Kings center Adrian Kempe (9) passes during an NHL hockey game against the Seattle Kraken Saturday, March 26, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Kings center Adrian Kempe takes a shot against the Seattle Kraken on March 26 at Crypto.com Arena. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

One by one, Rob Blake is checking off milestones that represent the significant progress the Kings have made in their rebuilding process.

Find a second-line center to back up Anze Kopitar and take the pressure off young prospects? The Kings’ general manager checked that off last summer by signing Phillip Danault, who was better than advertised. Get the Kings to the playoffs so young players can taste the unique urgency of postseason hockey? Done and done in a seven-game loss to Edmonton that was, by many measures, a win for a team that lacked several injured stars.

Blake filled in a major gap among his top six forwards last week, when he acquired left wing Kevin Fiala from Minnesota for the rights to defense prospect Brock Faber and a first-round pick in this year’s NHL draft. That leaves the Kings without a first-round selection in the draft, which will take place Thursday and Friday in Montreal, but the timing and Fiala’s potential after career-best totals in goals (33) and points (85) made it a potentially high-reward move. Fiala can do more for them now than a No. 19 pick would have.

“I think when we knew we had an opportunity to get a player of Kevin’s caliber that took the forefront right away. And we were going to make sure we got that in place because that would be the biggest improvement to our team,” Blake said Tuesday in his first comments since completing the trade and signing Fiala to a seven-year contract with an average annual value/cap hit of $7.875 million.

That cap hit — third-highest on the Kings behind Drew Doughty’s $11-million hit and Anze Kopitar’s $10 million — might limit Blake’s flexibility in signing his seven restricted free agents. Defensemen Alex Edler and Olli Maatta are unrestricted free agents and Blake said he’d like to bring one of them back. Sean Walker, who missed most of last season after undergoing ACL surgery, is expected to participate in training camp, Blake said. That’s almost like adding a player at no cost, with the added benefit of Sean Durzi having emerged as a solid two-way defenseman during Walker’s absence. They might still need size back there, but they're operating from a position of strength.

The next item atop Blake’s checklist could be thorny to complete — and it will have ripple effects on the rest of the roster.

Right wing Adrian Kempe looms large among the Kings’ restricted free agents, a group that also includes Lias Andersson, Carl Grundstrom, Brendan Lemieux, Gabe Vilardi, Mikey Anderson and Durzi. Coming off career-best numbers in goals (a team-leading 35) and points (54, second to Kopitar) Kempe is in line for a big raise from the $2 million he averaged each of the last three seasons.

Securing Kempe’s signature on a long-term deal is crucial for the Kings to take the next step back to Stanley Cup contention and to allowing Blake to know how much cap space he will have at his disposal when free agency begins July 13.

“One of the priorities for our organization is to get Adrian Kempe signed right away here. Then we kind of know our situation, if we have to address a couple needs in free agency,” Blake said.

Kings center Lias Andersson skates to the puck against the Arizona Coyotes.
Kings center Lias Andersson skates to the puck against the Arizona Coyotes on May 3 in Glendale, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Signing Anderson also ranks high on Blake’s to-do list, though restricted free agency gives Blake time to see how close his salary projections will be to the numbers those players are seeking. “You’d like to have them cemented in so you know exactly where you stand,” he said. “We’re trying to get it pinpointed so if we have to go into the UFA market for defined needs, we know what we have.

“Can we fit them all in? Hopefully. Until you start getting them one by one the rest should take shape.”

Fiala, speaking to reporters for the first time since the trade, said he knew last season that cap-squeezed Minnesota likely wouldn’t be able to keep him. He was glad to join a team he said was “very tough to get through them and to score goals” when he played for the Wild.

“I see the team kind of coming up,” said the Switzerland native, who will be 26 on July 22. “Made the playoffs last year and got a great group of guys, I’ve heard, and on the ice they’re just getting better and better and they’ve got some great young players coming and the future’s bright I felt like, so I’m very happy with this.”

He said he pushed himself to be a better defensive player last season, to shoot more and go to the net. It worked. The Kings are counting on it working again.

“Of course, you want to be a difference-maker, a playoff type of player. You want to be as good as possible in the playoffs, for sure,” he said. “That’s the next goal for me, to not just be good in the regular season but to be better in the playoffs and to help the team out to win more games, for sure.”

The Kings have lacked a difference-maker, a game-breaker, for a long time. If they can check that off their list, they will be in position to make a big leap forward next season. Those check marks are forming an impressive line, but Blake's job isn't done yet.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.