In a playoff season where almost nothing seems to make any sense, count on the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings to turn everything upside down.
When you think of the Rangers and Kings, you think glamour, Broadway and Showtime. You think star power. But what you’re getting are two teams in the biggest NHL markets that are a triumph of the collective. The Rangers are certainly more than a sum of their parts and the Kings are quickly becoming a Stanley Cup favorite on the strength of having every single player on the roster making a significant contribution.
But most of all, you have two teams that, after years of taking the path of least resistance, finally learned you must build from within to have any sort of sustained success and sometimes that can be a long and painful process.
Who would have thought of the four teams remaining in the Stanley Cup tournament, the Kings and Rangers would have the most homegrown players on their rosters, while the New Jersey Devils would be third and the Phoenix Coyotes fourth?
You’d think the Coyotes wouldn’t be able to afford to do anything but build from within, but they had just five players on their roster for Game 3 of the Western Conference final who had been drafted and developed by the organization – defenseman Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and forwards Shane Doan, Mikkel Boedker and Michael Stone.
The Kings, by contrast, had 11 players they had either drafted or signed as undrafted free agents in their lineup – goalies Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier, defensemen Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez and forwards Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis, Jordan Nolan and Dwight King.
And every one of them, with the exception of Doughty and Kopitar, has spent significant time developing in the American League. Brown, for example, came to the NHL as an 18-year-old the year before the lockout and scored one goal in 31 games. Then in 2004-05, he spent the lockout season in the AHL, became a far more confident player and came back to the Kings as a much better prepared NHL player.
The Rangers, meanwhile, haven’t stopped chasing high-profile free agents such as Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, but it was only when GM Glen Sather came to the realization that model couldn’t work exclusively the Rangers began to make serious strides on the ice. As a result, they had nine homegrown players on their roster for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final – goalie Henrik Lundqvist, defensemen Michael Del Zotto, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal and forwards Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Artem Anisimov and Carl Hagelin. And that doesn’t even include Ryan McDonagh, a player who was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, but never played a game in the organization before the Rangers stole him in the Scott Gomez trade.
The Devils are still building through the draft, but theirs is a team that is no longer constructed exclusively on talent from within. They also had nine players in their lineup who had originally been drafted or signed as undrafted free agents and developed by the team – goalie Martin Brodeur, defenseman Mark Fayne and forwards Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora, David Clarkson and Stephen Gionta. That doesn’t include defenseman Adam Larsson, the Devils first-round pick last summer who has also played sporadically in these playoffs.
The Devils with Ilya Kovalchuk, the Rangers with Richards and Gaborik and the Kings with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have not shied away from acquiring big-time talents either through trades or free agent signings. In fact, the reason why the Kings were able to get both Richards and Carter was because they had young players they had originally drafted in the fold and were in a position to give up some of the future in order to get help in the present.
That’s the way it’s supposed to be done in the NHL. And now with teams such as the Rangers and Kings unable to spend their into and out of big-money mistakes, the importance of building from within has never been more relevant.
The Kings and Rangers seem to have finally grasped that concept. And it’s a major reason why one of them might end up winning the Stanley Cup.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.