That’s it? Tanner Pearson for Carl Hagelin?
It’s difficult to find two prouder NHL franchises this decade than the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins. Yet here they were in mid-November swapping a one-goal scorer for a zero-goal scorer. Both players were key wingers on crucial lines during Stanley Cup runs within the past five years. Now, both were afterthoughts in a desperate, shrug-inducing trade.
The Kings, dead last in the NHL, had already fired coach John Stevens. Their refusal to shed the big, slow identity that won them Cups in 2012 and 2014 had finally dragged them underwater. Acquiring Hagelin, one of the sport’s fastest skaters, wouldn’t change that. Meanwhile, the Pens, tumbling down the Eastern Conference stairs, tried plugging a lunchpail digger into their lineup by adding Pearson. Again, not a needle mover.
During their championship-chasing heydays a few years back, we would’ve seen the Kings and Penguins shake the NHL’s power balance with major moves. The Kings went out and got Jeff Carter and Mike Richards and Marian Gaborik. The Penguins made their Phil Kessel trade. But both teams have run out of tradable capital as a result of contending for so long. In a six-draft stretch from 2011 to 2016, the Kings never picked higher than 29th and only had two first-rounders. The Penguins have selected one first-rounder in the past six drafts: Kasperi Kapanen, whom they traded to acquire Kessel. Another team belongs in this category: the Chicago Blackhawks. They weren’t as cavalier with their picks but did go without a first-rounder in 2015 and 2016 as a result of late playoff-push trades.
Together, those three squads captured eight of nine Cups between 2009 and 2017. The Hawks bottomed out at seventh in the Central by 2017-18, the Kings appear destined for the same fate, and even the Pens were tied for second-last in their conference as of press time. Contending in the cap era eventually pillages a team of assets, whether it’s because the GM deals the picks and prospects away or because the draft picks a championship team keeps are late first-rounders, which aren’t slam-dunk stars.
The other reason these three empires have crumbled: top-heavy salary-cap structures. When interviewed for a 2017 article in The Hockey News, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman summarized the blessing-turned-curse perfectly. “We realized who makes our team go, and it’s been those same six, seven, eight guys, and they make a lot of money, and rightfully so,” he said. “So when they accomplish a lot…good things happen when your team plays well and you win Cups and your players play great. Then they’re going to make a lot of money. And they should.”
Bowman added that keeping a pricy core meant relying on a “revolving door” of cheap depth players to support the stars. That structure can temporarily work beautifully. The Blackhawks could win with their Marcus Krugers and Michal Rozsivals when Jonathan Toews was a Selke Trophy winner and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were the league’s top defensive pair, playing half of every playoff game. Now Keith and Seabrook are 35 and 33. When the top guys eating the majority of the salary-cap pie age out of their primes, the thrift-store depth can’t support them. It was thus no surprise to see the Penguins lose all three games when Sidney Crosby sat in mid-November with an upper-body injury.
The takeaway, however, isn’t that these teams’ GMs failed. It’s that they paid a fair – and heavy – price for mini-dynasties. Will Anze Kopitar’s $10-million AAV look good in Years 7 and 8? Probably not. Did the Kings pay him for past performance instead of future performance? Sure. But that’s what you do when you win titles. You reward your stars. And if you choose to walk away from them instead, your fan base would turn on you for disloyalty. Revisionists can slam Dustin Brown’s contract now, but he signed it in 2013, between L.A.’s two championships, and he was captain at the time.
There’s a decent chance the Blackhawks, Kings and Penguins slide further into obscurity in the years to come. After all, Patrick Kane, Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin haven’t yet finished playing elite hockey. When they do, things could get really ugly. If you’re fans of these franchises, however, don’t fret. Understand that your management teams knew what it cost to win championships and were willing to shove every last chip into the middle of the table.
And hey…maybe one of these teams gets Jack Hughes this June anyway.
This story appears in the January 28, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.