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    Kings’ Pierre-Luc Dubois dilemma: buying in or buying out?
    • May 4, 2024

    EL SEGUNDO –– Of the myriad quandaries the Kings will confront this summer, the most significant might be their decision regarding underperforming pivot Pierre-Luc Dubois.

    That conundrum joins calls about the coaching staff, team management and on-ice system, but a determination on Dubois carries temporal urgency as well as weighty long-term impact.

    Dubois signed an eight-year, $68 million contract last June amid trade negotiations that sent him to the Kings from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for three players and a draft pick. Dubois had scored 60 or more points during his prior two seasons in Winnipeg, and the Kings touted him as a dynamo with offensive runway along with potential to round out his defensive game.

    Instead, Dubois turned in a vastly substandard 40 points and a minus-9 rating on a team with a +41 goal differential, all with low intensity, particularly so in high-stakes contests.

    While, technically, he played all 82 matches plus five in the playoffs, by his own admission he performed to his capability “some nights, some games and some spurts throughout the season.”

    Today, the Kings find themselves in, effectively, a now-or-never position to buy Dubois out and get a mulligan on a contract that paid him like an ascending talent, only to see him nosedive in the regular season and remain a complete non-factor in a postseason during which he was billed as a difference-maker until the bitter end.

    If the Kings buy Dubois out before his 26th birthday June 24, they’ll be responsible for one third of the remaining salary due to him, stretched across 14 seasons. Per Capfriendly, that sets them up with a modest cap hit for nine of the next 14 years (ranging from $1.13 million to $1.63 million), with the other five seasons’ penalties falling between $2.53 million and $3.82 million. On or after June 24, that cost will double, and there’s an element of suspense since the buyout period won’t open until the Stanley Cup is awarded, a date that could be as late as – you guessed it – June 24.

    “I can’t [think about being bought out or traded]. It’s out of my control,” Dubois said. “I’m a firm believer in ‘everything happens for a reason.’”

    The reasons Dubois landed such a lucrative contract or in Los Angeles to begin with were nebulous. A team that was deep down the middle with Anže Kopitar, Phillip Danault, 2020’s No. 2 overall selection Quinton Byfield, spark plug Blake Lizotte and lottery pick Alex Turcotte had spoken of needing defensive depth, goaltending, finishing and toughness before abruptly prioritizing yet another centerman over those needs. For next season, they have exactly zero goalies with NHL experience under contract, yet they’re married contractually to Dubois for seven more campaigns.

    Nonetheless, he’d been coveted by his prior teams: The Columbus Blue Jackets selected him third overall in the 2016 draft and, when he shamelessly forced a trade to Winnipeg, Columbus netted a prolific winger (Patrik Laine) and a former first-rounder (Jack Roslovic). Yet after Dubois wanted yet another change of scenery, a situation that created burdensome strain in the Jets’ dressing room, there were Rob Blake, Luc Robitaille and Marc Bergevin, mortgaging the franchise with old chum Pat Brisson’s client, Dubois, a player that was still hyped on potential entering the seventh season of his NHL career.

    Kopitar and Danault said they tried to comfort Dubois amid a campaign that saw him promoted, demoted, coddled, chastised and otherwise be the focus of gimmick after gimmick, none of which engendered any enduring improvement.

    “He didn’t want to talk too much about it, because he knew he had a tough year. In his case, it was harder, because it was a new contract – a big one – and it brought lots of expectations, so it was a very hard year, mentally,” Danault said.

    Although Dubois did not “come in and dominate” as Robitaille predicted before the season and even after 82 largely hapless contests, interim coach Jim Hiller – the front-office’s belly flop was a significant factor in the midseason dismissal of Hiller’s previously secure predecessor, Todd McLellan – doubled down on Dubois.

    “We’re expecting big things. We’re expecting him to be great,” Hiller said. “We talk about the passion, the size, the energy, the physicality and all those things that get increased in the playoffs, he has all those qualities and we’re expecting him to bring them.”

    Dubois responded to those plaudits with one impossibly fortuitous goal, zero shots on net in the three losses that wrapped up the fleeting five-game series and underlying playoff numbers that were nothing short of atrocious, despite matching up against mostly bottom-six forwards and the offensive-oriented Edmonton Oilers’ third defensive pairing. Dubois finished last among a lackluster group of Kings forwards in at least four major possession metrics: Corsi, Fenwick, shots-for and expected-goals-for percentages.

    “He would be the first one to tell you that it wasn’t the year that he wanted to have,” Kopitar offered in a euphemism of epic proportions. “It was also a new environment and everything. Yes, we brought him in to put us over the edge, obviously that didn’t happen, but he’s not the only reason why this didn’t work out.”

    For Dubois, the same breakup-day setting offered him a chance to alternate between two at-times-difficult-to-reconcile phrases, “It’s on me” and “it’s out of my control.”

    He could not control how he was deployed, where he was placed on the power play, that the Kings made a coaching change, that he moved from center to wing and back while playing on all four lines or that he required a juvenile “points system” to reward him for non-statistical achievements (something that apparently worked, as arguably his least unsettling output came during that period).

    His responses Friday constituted a respectable effort from a man who has always seemed charming on a personal level and clearly possessed physical talents, which he intermittently put to use in his hockey career.

    Yet less respectable were his displays against top teams this year, and not just the Oilers, against whom he mustered two points – a nifty power-play goal and an unreplicable fluke tally in garbage time – in nine games this season. Against the other six Western playoff teams, he put up two goals, four assists and a minus-8 rating in 19 games, that from a player lauded as a “game-breaker,” a “200-foot player” and someone who would catapult the Kings over the top. In reality, Blake’s Kings have been nowhere near the top, with or without Dubois, having not won so much as a playoff series in seven seasons.

    Given the Kings’ effusive praise of and concrete commitment to Dubois, one could easily envision Robitaille and whichever of his pals is the Kings’ GM in June –– odds are it will still be Blake or, potentially, a promoted Bergevin –– taking on the roles of Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert McNamara, insisting on soldering on through a war that’s already been lost.

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    But if the Kings are serious about winning meaningful battles, they’ll hope the Stanley Cup is hoisted in time for them to slam their fists on the reset button.

    Next season, Dubois will be their highest-paid forward by annual average value and their highest-paid player in actual dollars. He’ll also earn more in actual cash payout than scoring champion Nikita Kucherov and Kings tormentor Connor McDavid. A buyout would free up nearly $7 million in cap space to re-sign Byfield as well as address other free agents (Matt Roy, Viktor Arvidsson and Lizotte, to name a few) and upgrade the Kings’ precarious situation in goal.

    The circumstances make the available choices clear: Save face or save the franchise.

    ​ Orange County Register