With the Los Angeles Kings on the precipice of glory, it seems as good a time as ever to evaluate how the team was built. Or, more precisely, rebuilt.
GM Dean Lombardi – who according to insiders would likely have been fired had the Kings missed the playoffs or even lost in the first round – crafted his masterpiece by the end of the season and he did so by breaking a few eggs to get that proverbial omelet.
A few years ago, I spoke with Lombardi for a cover story on then-emerging Kings star Anze Kopitar. The affable GM was philosophical when it came to rebuilding Los Angeles, a team that had missed the playoffs three straight seasons before he was hired and wouldn’t get back in until his fourth campaign at the helm. He noted that fans needed to realize a rebuild – like the one the Chicago Blackhawks were about to top off with a Stanley Cup – does not happen in three or four years; the roots go back seven or eight.
The most obvious part of a rebuild is stockpiling those spiffy high-end draft picks. For the Kings, that included building blocks such as Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Brayden Schenn. Jack Johnson was pried out of Carolina when the No. 3 pick behind Sidney Crosby and Bobby Ryan in 2005 didn’t jibe with the Canes’ short-term plans.
Doughty and Kopitar eventually became two of the pillars in Los Angeles’ stampede through the Western Conference this season, but the draft alone did not bring Lombardi to this point. Thomas Hickey (fourth overall in 2007) never panned out, while Jonathan Bernier (11th in ’06) has been a good backup, but nothing more for Conn Smythe frontrunner Jonathan Quick. Lombardi’s assemblage proves that old adage that you should never fall in love with your own players. Johnson was shipped to Columbus in exchange for an unhappy Jeff Carter, who helped bring the Kings’ offense back from the grave at the trade deadline.
Schenn, the future franchise stalwart and former THN Future Watch cover boy, was packaged to Philadelphia last summer for Mike Richards, who brought a second elite pivot to the depth chart and excellent penalty-killing skills. Even Colten Teubert, taken 11 spots behind Doughty in 2008, helped reap the Kings Dustin Penner, the big man who is finally paying dividends for the silver and black.
In sending off Johnson and Schenn in particular, Lombardi made a huge statement: There were no assets off-limits if he was going to pull together a Stanley Cup contender.
Which transitions nicely to the Edmonton Oilers, a franchise at the opposite end of the spectrum right now. With a third straight No. 1 overall draft pick coming up, the Oilers will bring in another tantalizing young talent, but who will it be? Nail Yakupov is the consensus top prize, but he’s a high-scoring forward, just like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Edmonton needs defense for its rebuild.
So there are two ways to go if you’re Oilers GM Steve Tambellini.
First, you can take Yakupov and be top-heavy again in 2012-13, then move a big young chip (Sam Gagner and Magnus Paajarvi are also there, though neither would net as much as the other four) for a legitimate top-pairing blueliner. This is the route one NHL GM suggested to me.
“Take the best player available,” he said. “You can always rearrange the furniture later.”
The second option is to trade down or simply take a defenseman with the No. 1 pick, Ryan Murray being the most likely candidate. There may be some howls from fans and pundits in this scenario, but hey – when you’re trying to make an omelet, you also can’t worry if people think there’s egg on your face. It’s the final product that counts and Lombardi is about to have the proof.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.