There’s a very good chance that, in the end, the Los Angeles Kings will have traded Tanner Pearson, a first-round pick who scored 144 points for them and helped them win a Stanley Cup, for nothing, zip, nada, zero.
Think about it. The Kings dealt Pearson three months ago to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Carl Hagelin, a player who missed 20 games with a knee injury and scored all of one goal and four assists in 22 games for them. That brings us to Thursday when the Kings turned around and dealt Hagelin to the Washington Capitals, a team that will instead use him as the utility player he is for another playoff run, then either allow him to leave as an unrestricted free agent or have him re-sign on a minimal offer. And the Kings get in return a third-round pick and, if the Capitals win two playoff rounds and Hagelin plays in half of those games, an additional sixth-round pick.
The chances of either of those picks actually being an NHL regular incalculably small. And even if it does happen, it won’t be because they traded Hagelin. It will be because they struck it lucky on a third- or sixth-round pick.
So what exactly have we learned here? Well, the big lesson is that when you’re slow to react to trends around the league, it causes you to act hastily and make mistakes. And the current edition of the Kings is a perfect example of that. Los Angeles has two Stanley Cup banners, so you can see why they were a little slow off the mark in transforming their team from a big, physical, slow, puck possession team into a fast puck pursuit and puck possession team.
It’s easy to criticize the Kings for sticking with a lineup that was not built for today’s NHL in mind, but that would be conveniently omitting two very real factors. The first is the league transformed on a dime. It was not a gradual change, so it made it difficult for teams such as the Kings to adapt. The second is that it’s all well and good to say the Kings should have derricked players who didn’t fit the mold, but it’s far more vexing a problem to actually gulp hard and trade those players who brought you success. Those who think otherwise are, for the most part, guys who play fantasy hockey and make six-player trades on a weekly basis. The only risk for them is they lose a few bucks and their buddies get to chirp them on-line.
But the Kings were caught in a both a literal and figurative game of catch-up. That’s why they sacrificed a solid roster player and contributor to get Hagelin. The Kings probably got very, very tired of hearing how old and slow they were and felt the pressure to add a player who they thought would be able to help them pick up the pace. The only problem with that in order for that to work, those players have to be at the core of your lineup, not on the periphery. Kings GM Rob Blake is learning on the job here and one of the lessons he’s likely picking up is that you can’t dabble in establishing your identity. You have to go all-in on these things and make bold moves.
This is a deal that works very well for the Capitals because they’ll employ Hagelin in a support role. He’s been a key component for two Pittsburgh Penguins team that have won Stanley Cups and he’ll go into this situation with a clearly defined role as a bottom-six forward who is there to supply speed and scoring depth for a playoff run. In fact, he has the possibility to be the second coming of Michal Kempny for the Capitals. Rarely do we see teams that make a big splash at the deadline actually win the Cup, largely because if they need to fill a hole that gaping in order to be a contender, perhaps they weren’t that good in the first place. More often than not, it’s the teams that tweak their lineups at the deadline that instead win championships. Hagelin has that written all over him. The Capitals are likely thinking that he’ll be motivated and hungry, and he’ll use his speed and experience to give the Capitals a bump they might need to get past the first or second round.
The Kings meanwhile, will go to the draft armed with one more pick, possibly two. And when you frame it that way, it’s pretty easy to see who got the better of the deal.