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Alexander: Kings apparently will keep GM Rob Blake, but at what cost?

Alexander: Kings apparently will keep GM Rob Blake, but at what cost?

Here’s one problematic aspect of promoting a great player to a key management position with the team for which he starred: When he screws up, his retired number suddenly looks awfully dingy.

Right now, Rob Blake’s No. 4 in the Crypto.com Arena rafters is a reminder less of his days as the Kings’ rock-solid defenseman than of a flurry of executive mistakes – including one big whopper – that has set his franchise back significantly and for a while appeared to put his own job as general manager in jeopardy.

For a few days this week, it seemed a matter of time before Blake and interim head coach Jim Hiller would be let go, following a third consecutive playoff flameout against the Edmonton Oilers. But more recently, as beat writer Andrew Knoll indicated, rumblings surfaced that Blake, who has one more year on his contract, would hold onto his job. The Kings’ announcement that Blake would hold a postseason media session Monday afternoon seemed to put the speculation to rest.

That figures to be as unpopular with a large segment of Kings fans as the Lakers’ uncoupling of head coach Darvin Ham on Friday was popular with that team’s partisans. Blake’s future job security might hinge on his ability to negotiate a buyout with Pierre-Luc Dubois and reverse the acquisition of last summer that turned into an albatross.

To recap: Blake sent Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafallo, Rasmus Kupari and a 2024 second-round pick to Winnipeg for Dubois – a player who had been unhappy in both of his previous stops, Columbus and Winnipeg – and then signed him to an eight-year, $65 million contract ($8.85 million average annual value).

RELATED: Kings’ Pierre-Luc Dubois dilemma: buying in or buying out?

The return on investment: 16 regular-season goals and 24 assists (after Dubois had amassed 302 points the previous six seasons), a minus-9 in 5-on-5 situations during the regular year, and one lonely, solitary, meaningless goal in Game 1 against Edmonton. The team’s highest-paid player was the fourth-line center by Game 4, and that was on merit. Most of the season, Dubois seemed to be coasting whenever he was on the ice.

By the way, a footnote: Vilardi scored 22 goals in 47 games this season for Winnipeg and was a plus-11, while Iafallo had 11 goals and 27 points and was a plus-14 while playing all 82 games.

But this was just the latest in a series of brow-furrowing Blake moves. Forget trying to manipulate the cap through Long Term Injured Reserve as the Vegas Golden Knights have done the past two years to provide reinforcements for the playoffs, when teams don’t have to observe the cap. The Kings couldn’t even adequately shop for reinforcements at the trade deadline because they had little room. (Right now, according to Spotrac, they have $23.6 million in cap space – but they have only 11 players under NHL contracts, including Dubois. None are goaltenders.)

Blake replaced Dean Lombardi as the team’s top hockey operations executive in April 2017, and by the 2018-19 season had launched a rebuild. Three years in, he started pushing his chips to the middle of the table with the hope of maximizing the remaining seasons of Anže Kopitar and Drew Doughty, the last men standing from the team’s Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014.

Blake acquired Kevin Fiala from Minnesota in 2022 for defenseman Brock Faber, a second-round pick in 2020 who was a regular for the Wild this year as a rookie and is a Calder Trophy finalist. (Fiala had 29 goals in the regular season this year … but one in the Edmonton series, in Game 2).

And Blake mismanaged the Kings’ goaltending situation. He gave a three-year $15 million extension to Cal Petersen, who then spent most of the 2022-23 season in the minors and was traded to Philadelphia last June along with Sean Walker. And he traded Jonathan Quick, the backstop for L.A.’s two Cup winners, to Columbus in March 2023. Quick, no longer in his prime, was flipped to Vegas and won a third ring as a backup with the Golden Knights, and he has performed well with the Rangers as a backup this year and has a chance to win a fourth ring.

Successful playoff teams need a goalie who can steal a game when necessary, as Quick did so often during the Kings’ run as an elite team. Neither Cam Talbot or David Rittich could do so this spring, though Rittich’s effort in Game 4 against Edmonton foundered only because his team couldn’t score.

As for the next generation, a number of Kings prospects – including Samuel Fagemo (43 goals in the AHL), Akil Thomas and Brandt Clarke – are currently in the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs with the Ontario Reign. But as for a massive infusion of youth, or another full-on rebuild? No thanks, Kopitar and Doughty said in their sessions with reporters Friday in El Segundo.

“I don’t think I have time for retooling now,” said Kopitar, who indicated he intends to play through the final two years of his contract. “If we go into a full rebuild, it’s not something that I want. There’s some pieces that are obviously very useful here. And we got to build on that and build around it and … (get) that culture back and mentality and, and yes, push forward.”

Doughty, who has three years left on an eight-year, $88 million deal signed in 2019, concurred: “I have no interest in that. I don’t think that’s even necessary to think about, to be honest with you. Do not want to go down that road.”

So here we are. Blake helped get the Kings into this mess. Can he be trusted to get them out of it? Given that the alternative is apparently unpalatable to team president and former teammate Luc Robitaille and/or his boss, AEG chief executive officer Dan Beckerman, there doesn’t seem much choice.

If you’re a Kings fan, that should be unsettling news. That No. 4 in the rafters gets dingier by the day.

jalexander@scng.com 

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