For the last two years, the Kings and Ducks have reluctantly followed similar slides.
Poor 2018-19 seasons sent them into rebuilds sooner than expected. Once perennial playoff appearances were replaced by lottery drawings and high draft picks. Their rosters turned over. Their coaching staffs changed. And after years of battling near the top of the Western Conference, they sunk almost side-by-side to the bottom of the standings.
On Friday, however, divergent paths between the Southland franchises finally began to take shape.
While the Kings as expected remained quiet on the opening day of free agency, content to let their roster remake continue at its slow and steady pace, the Ducks made a splash they hope will have immediate ripple effects.
They agreed to terms with defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk on a three-year contract reportedly worth $11.7 million. They brought back forward Derek Grant, who was traded at the deadline last year, on a three-year, $4.5-million deal. And they acted like a team trying to make general manager Bob Murray’s stated expectation of taking a “big step forward” this season come true.
“We’re a better team,” Murray said. “We have a lot of good teams out West so we’ve got to get going out here. But it’s time and I think you’re going to see improvement with some of the young guys.
“I think we can be right there fighting for a playoff spot.”
Shattenkirk’s contract, worth $3.9 million in annual average value, was one of the most lucrative struck in the NHL on Friday, when a free agency period delayed from its initial July 1 start date by the COVID-19 pandemic was finally able to get underway.
The defenseman was wooed by the Ducks as a free agent last summer, but instead went to the Tampa Bay Lightning on a one-year deal and helped them win the Stanley Cup. At 31, he’ll boost a Ducks team that allowed the seventh-most goals in the NHL last season.
“As much as I didn’t like it last year, he made the right decision, and I told him so,” Murray said following Shattenkirk’s 34-point and career-best plus-22 season. “But that’s to our benefit now. Because now … he knows how to win.”
While Shattenkirk’s name was splashed across headlines, the Kings were almost nowhere to be found during a day of heavy activity around the league.
General manager Rob Blake said earlier in the week that’d likely be the case, especially after the team addressed its most glaring need for a left-handed defenseman by acquiring Olli Maatta in a trade last Sunday.
“We have some depth needs we want to address here in the next couple days with free agency and possibly explore something a little bit bigger,” Blake said.
But, he also noted a desire to get some of the franchise’s young players opportunities at the NHL level, as well as the dead money eating up some of the team’s salary cap space — including more than $4 million resulting from Dion Phaneuf’s buyout and $6.25 million following Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract termination, according to CapFriendly.
“That [cap] space will definitely increase a year from now,” Blake said. “That may be when you look at different options.”
The team also let its remaining unrestricted free agents hit the open market, including defensemen Ben Hutton, Paul LaDue and Joakim Ryan, plus fan-favorite forward Trevor Lewis — leaving the franchise with just five holdovers (Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Jonathan Quick) from its Stanley Cup-winning teams.
Goalies on the move
The league’s goaltending landscape got a makeover Friday, with free-agent netminders replacing one another in a game of musical chairs.
Jacob Markstrom made the biggest move, leaving Vancouver to sign a six-year deal with the Calgary Flames, who saw their former starter Cam Talbot go to Minnesota on a three-year deal. The Canucks filled their void by getting Braden Holtby, who led the Washington Capitals to a Stanley Cup in 2018, on a two-year contract. And former New York Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist settled in Washington on a one-year agreement.
Among position players, former Kings forward Wayne Simmonds and defenseman Jack Johnson joined the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers on one-year deals, respectively, while former Ducks forward Bobby Ryan got a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings. Defenseman Torey Krug agreed to a seven-year contract worth $45.5 million with the St. Louis Blues, the team announced.