Why Cam Talbot might be the L.A. Kings’ answer in net after all

LOS ANGELES — The L.A. Kings need a goalie. That’s been said before. It’s being said now. It’s been said so much so that it feels like a chorus to a song.

One trade deadline ago, they made a move for a goalie, Joonas Korpisalo, and shipped out another — the legendary figure that is Jonathan Quick. But while the greatest netminder in franchise history is having a stupendous season with his hometown New York Rangers, Quick was struggling so much last season that the Kings relied on journeyman Pheonix Copley to keep their season afloat. And then general manager Rob Blake brought in Korpisalo, who took the reins and got the job done until he struggled in the final three games of the playoff series against Edmonton.

Korpisalo turned his otherwise impressive stretch run into a five-year, $20 million contract with Ottawa. The Kings, who were set on investing their money in center Pierre-Luc Dubois, went the bargain route by signing Cam Talbot and David Rittich while retaining Copley, hoping for a value-based solution to emerge in 2023-24. Talbot grabbed the net at the beginning of the season and has it now, but that hasn’t quieted the wonderment of whether Blake will be addressing his net before Friday’s trade deadline.

Talbot’s wobbles in January — and those were very concerning wobbles, as he didn’t win any of his 10 starts — re-ignited the worries around having questionable goaltending in a season when progress would by defined by winning a playoff series and becoming a true Stanley Cup threat. And this comes at a time when several netminders have been part of trade chatter — the big names being Jacob Markstrom, Juuse Saros and, to a lesser extent, John Gibson.

The Kings won’t have any breathing room with the salary cap until next season, and that makes landing Markstrom, Saros or Gibson a longest-of-shots proposition — even though those goalies with term remaining on their deals would address 2024-25 as well as this year’s playoffs, for which the Kings seem to be solidifying their status. All three carry a cap hit of $5 million or more, as does Boston’s Linus Ullmark, who is also signed through next season.

And while cheaper goalies such as Montreal’s Jake Allen, Detroit’s James Reimer and San Jose’s Kaapo Kähkönen might be had for lower prices — Allen is signed for another year, Reimer and Kähkönen are on expiring contracts — are any of them really an upgrade over what they have in Talbot, and perhaps even Rittich?

Running with Talbot — and Rittich behind him as a safety valve — wouldn’t be the worst thing given the options. The net appears to be Talbot’s again; the 36-year-old turned in another quality effort Tuesday night despite the Kings falling to Vancouver 2-1 in a tightly played overtime affair, just five days after Los Angeles gave the Canucks a 5-1 drubbing at Rogers Arena.

Not surprisingly, the Canucks showed better. The Pacific Division leaders ultimately got the edge by taking advantage of Kevin Fiala’s delayed penalty for holding, adding an extra attacker before J.T. Miller ripped a blistering one-time slap shot through Talbot 1:36 into extra time. Talbot took the loss, but the defeat wasn’t on him. His 29-save effort was strong enough for interim head coach Jim Hiller to say, “Talbs has been on a pretty good run lately, but this was probably his best game for me.”

How good has Talbot been? He has stopped 176 of 185 shots over his last six starts, posting a .951 save percentage while going 4-1-1. He’s allowed one goal in each of those four wins and just five over the two defeats. It’s a sharp contrast to that ragged month-long stretch before the All-Star break when his line was 0-7-3 with a 3.86 goals-against average and an equally subpar .881 save percentage. It’s also a reminder of the high-value netminding he gave the Kings over the first three months while working on a $2 million salary, $1 million of it being a bonus he easily reached by playing 10 games.

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Talbot made 29 saves in the Kings’ 2-1 overtime loss to the Canucks on Tuesday. (Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

The Kings who spoke after Tuesday’s game lauded Talbot’s latest outing. They’re glad to see a veteran find his game after it went sideways to the point that Rittich was called upon to stop the team’s bleeding through a 2-8-6 spill.

“Rough month for all of us,” Trevor Moore said. “We didn’t make it easy on him. It’s awesome to see him come through and be playing so well. Great guy. Great teammate. Even when he’s not playing well, (he’s) a positive spot or bright light in the locker room for us.”

Rittich’s good play and the All-Star break gave Talbot a reset. Talbot had earned his second All-Star Game selection with an impressive 14-6-2/2.06/.921 line that put him among the goaltending leaders before things went south. Playing in the All-Star Game might have offered a respite after being pulled for the second time in four starts following a miserable first period in Colorado. Rittich’s 40-save performance in a win over Nashville couldn’t save Todd McLellan’s job, but that win and a 26-save shutout of Edmonton allowed Talbot more time to clear his head.

“You go through a tough stretch like that, sometimes it’s just not only a physical reset but a mental reset as well,” Talbot said. “For myself, that’s kind of what I tried to do. You don’t forget how to play the position. Sometimes it’s a confidence thing. I knew that it was going to come back at some point. It’s nice to be back in there.”

The high point of Talbot’s night on Tuesday was in the second period, when Vancouver put 16 of its 31 shots on him. Some of his saves were high quality, like a kick stop to foil a redirect try by Nils Höglander and a denial of Elias Pettersson less than 90 seconds later.

Pettersson finally beat him on the Canucks’ 21st shot of the game, but Talbot’s effort was sharp enough that it would have been victorious had L.A. converted on golden chances in the third. Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko matched Talbot save for save, including a glove robbery of Alex Turcotte as the rookie went in on a two-on-one with Anze Kopitar. Demko was also fortunate that Trevor Lewis shanked a shot wide on an open net and Drew Doughty hit the crossbar with a drive.

Demko is the kind of No. 1 goalie who could take the Canucks on a lengthy postseason run. Meanwhile, can the Kings lean on Talbot for their playoff push and in a best-of-seven series? At this point, they ought to find out rather than trying to move heaven and earth to secure Markstrom, Saros or Ullmark. Or even Arizona’s Karel Vejmelka, whose $2.725 million cap number for next season is more appetizing. Those attempts can be made this summer — unless Talbot can make re-signing him worth it by being the backbone of a run to, say, the Western Conference final.

Once the offseason arrives, the Kings will have more flexibility, as the cap will rise by $4 million — and another $3 million will come from Kopitar’s lower-priced extension kicking in. Letting currently injured winger Viktor Arvidsson walk erases another $4.5 million. They’ll have Quinton Byfield’s extension to negotiate and they could try to lock down pending UFA defenseman Matt Roy, but there will be room to get creative and solidify their goaltending while not having to rush prospect Erik Portillo before he’s ready.

But the Kings are not a Cup favorite now, even with their play starting to resemble the form of the season’s early months. And while having one of those big names in net — plus a lineup including Arvidsson, along with the currently sidelined Adrian Kempe and Mikey Anderson — strengthens their odds, would they be the odds-on choice then? No. That’s probably Dallas, which is deep and scary if Jake Oettinger gets back to being the Oettinger we’ve come to know.

This season can be the build-up to that. Right now, the Kings are a solid team that has the potential to be dangerous if it gets the right playoff matchup. (You’d imagine the Kings would feel comfortable if Vancouver becomes a first-round draw.) Ironically, the point gained Wednesday moved them out of wild-card territory and above slumping Vegas into third place in the Pacific. There is potential for standings fluctuation, but L.A., Vegas and Nashville still have a six-point edge over St. Louis and Seattle for the final playoff spots.

And Talbot is back to showing he’s a good enough option for now. If he falters, Big Save Dave can step in and seize the moment. The two might not be who you think of when it comes to championship-level netminding, but the Kings are in a better spot now than when they approached the 2023 trade deadline. Shipping out a bunch of salary and carving up their lineup to get someone better than who they have isn’t the answer. Dangling their 2024 first-round pick — especially when there isn’t another pick until the fourth round — and/or Portillo would feel rushed.

“We feel good about both of them,” Hiller said of his goalies. “That’s always a good spot to be in. When either of your goaltenders’ (numbers) gets called, you have confidence in them. It’s not just me talking. I know our whole team feels that way.”

(Photo of Cam Talbot: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

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