Every year people look at the latest Stanley Cup winners and try to divine deep meaning from their construction. Every year the exercise quickly gets annoying. (e.g. "You just have to fight everyone, like the Ducks!" ... "No, you just have to have Sidney Crosby backed up by Evgeni Malkin, like the Pens!" ... "Easy, just get two home-run top-three picks, like the Hawks!")
But the Los Angeles Kings, winners of their first-ever Stanley Cup last night, do pose an interesting case to study. For one, they've been building a long time -- with all the stops, starts, and impatient fan angst that implies.
For another, they were constructed with enough depth that, when the time was right, they were able to cash in a player previously thought to be a core member (Jack Johnson) for a re-balancing of assets (scoring forward Jeff Carter) with ample backup ready to step in (Slava Voynov, Alec Martinez).
It's fine that Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe after the marvelous season he had -- indeed, the Kings wouldn't have made the postseason without him -- but ironically the Kings' 16-4 march through the playoffs did not require Quick to be the hero. It required the rest of the team to play as it is capable, a capability thanks to GM Dean Lombardi's disciplined, steady construction and Darryl Sutter's perfectly timed influence. For Islanders fans, that offers a few lessons:
1. Depth Matters
You can have stars (Anze Kopitar is a severely underrated one), but it doesn't matter if you don't have depth. You need depth not just for the injury hits you take along the way, but also for the deals you'll need to make to rebalance your assets. This Cup win doesn't happen without the Kings trading from strength by adding a second center in Mike Richards and adding a secondary scorer in Jeff Carter. It doesn't happen without adding Dustin Penner, despite his struggles before Darryl Sutter arrived to kick his butt.
And none of those acquisitions happen without depth.
2. Patience Matters
You want it now, I want it now, but barring gifts from the hockey gods, that's not how this deal works. The Kings missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons before their return three springs ago -- including the first three seasons after Lombardi took over the helm.
But this isn't about "tanking" or any such cynical GET A CROZBY!!1 approach. This is patience because it takes a while to accumulate and develop assets. The Kings could deal Johnson because they were patient with Voynov and Martinez. And even with that, they didn't start making futures-for-present deals like the Dustin Penner and Richards acquisitions until they felt they were close to the prize.
3. Money Matters ... Eventually
You can't buy your way to a Cup, but you do have to be prepared to spend for that depth when the time is right. The Kings have done that, spending close to the cap this season but only after inching upward from the middle of the pack in 2010-11 and 2009-10. They were in the bottom six in cap spend in 2008-09.
Part of that is a product of what happens when you develop stars: Your Doughtys and Kopitars are eventually going to need to be paid. You can add free agents, but you better make sure it's under terms that don't force you to Chicago some key players.
The Islanders are a low-revenue team in a universally panned and poorly accessible arena. Few dispute that. Revenues are hard to come by for at least 20 teams in this league, and the Isles aren't in the upper tier of that 20. So if they need to play it lean for now -- despite the cap floor's annual rise -- that's not the end of the world. If they're saving for later expenditures (and certainly their core contracts are backloaded), that's fine. But if and when this team gets closer, that's when they must be willing to splurge for those "final piece" parts, those proverbial Butch Gorings.
4. Centers, Centers, Centers
Kopitar is an incredible center. Richards, though he had a rough year, was a go-to center on a recent Cup finalist. He brought several skill sets to the table (penalty kill, some power play punch, physical intimidation). Jarret Stoll, who's been through a long playoff run before, had one of his finest runs this postseason. Carter was once a center and still might be willing to play one on TV.
The point is centers are usually hockey's most talented players, their most well-rounded, 200-foot, all-zone, all-anticipatory figures. When the Avery hits the fan during chaotic playoff battles, they are the ones who are best at reading the play to cover up defensive breakdowns.
You'll notice the Islanders have collected a lot of centers in their system, even if some will end up or are already headed toward futures as wingers. This is a good approach. Isles fans like to sketch forward and pencil Ryan Strome or Brock Nelson or Casey Cizikas or even David Ullstrom and Johan Sundstrom into different center slots in the future depth chart, but the bottom line is you don't know. We can't know. Josh Baileys happen all the time. A two-way center who has to move to wing is better than a sniping winger who doesn't snipe or doesn't backcheck at the NHL level.
(A tangential point here: Size isn't everything, but it matters too. You can have Frans Nielsens playing excellent matchup center through sorcery rather than through physical domination, but you can't count on it throughout the lineup. From Kopitar to Mitchell, the Kings make good use of size throughout their lineup.)
5. Coaches Will Be Fired
It's stupid, but it's how this sport works: Rosters take years to turn over, coaches take a single meeting.
Lombardi is on his third full-time coach. The first one lasted only two seasons. The second one lasted three and a quarter. The third one was the right move at the right time, and the difference will now be etched on the Stanley Cup for eternity -- the first non-Islanders SUTTER to appear on the fabled chalice.
Sometimes it really is the coach. Sometimes it's an expedient reality of people management. Sometimes it's a mix of both. It happens, but these cards must be used wisely.
6. Know Who Your Key Players Are, Hold on to Them
Dustin Brown was drafted in 2003. Kopitar and Quick in 2005. Drew Doughty (a no-brainer pick) in 2008. It takes years for most key players to emerge. At one time Johnson was seen as a key -- so key they signed him to a rather foolish contract. But they knew when to cut bait. At one time Quick was seen as possibly keeping the place warm until Jonathan Bernier unseated him. Never happened. Quick just kept improving. Now he has a Conn Smythe.
It's not over, of course. The Kings have some key young pieces who could give them a shot at multiple titles. But the decision-making never ends. Richards, Carter and their contracts might actually become problems as they age. Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi will soon need replacing. It's critical who replaces -- or leaps them -- on the depth chart. The need for smart, hard decisions does not recede.
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On that note, I've always felt that the toughest part of a rebuild -- assuming you have the patience and job security to withstand the tough early lean years -- is not those lean years but rather the years just around the corner for Garth Snow and the Islanders: The years when you have to make difficult decisions on which assets to keep and which to let go. Years where expectations increase inside and out.
There are only so many slots open, so many contracts to keep, and so much time to keep replacements incubating in the minors and waiver-exempt. (For example, the Kings stuck with the long view on Voynov by keeping him in the AHL so many seasons, and he was tempted to depart to the KHL until he broke through this year.)
Drafting John Tavares, collecting picks in 2008 and through deals like the James Wisniewski pump-and-dump -- those moves aren't exactly rocket science. But evaluating what they have as more of these prospects get closer to maturity, that's art. That will be where pivotal decisions are made. That will be where this rebuild is ultimately judged.
There will be slip-ups (for the Kings, the Johnson contract could have easily been one). There will be risks (taking on the long-term Carter and Richards deals poses future risk for sure). There will be hindsight mistakes (what, like Matt Moulson's 30 goals per year wouldn't have helped this low-scoring Kings team?) There will be unforeseen obstacles (taking on Ryan Smyth, only to have him demand a trade to a single team for pennies on the dollar).
And even if you get through all of those, you could still be where the Kings were this past March -- staring at the possibility of missing the playoffs entirely. Or if everything breaks right, you can be where the Kings stand today: Stanley Cup Champions.
It's no guarantee. In fact, with 30 teams, odds are better for a team to go more than a generation (as the Kings, Bruins and Hawks did) without a Cup. But if you want to put yourself in a position to have a shot year after year, these are things you must do, and do again, and do again.