LOS ANGELES -- There will probably be more attention paid to who signs where on July 1 when hockey’s silly season begins anew, but the Los Angeles Kings are the latest example of why what happens the week before will likely have more impact on shaping future Stanley Cup champions.
The Kings captured the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history Monday night, beating the New Jersey Devils in six games and reminding everyone in the sport about the importance of the NHL Draft. Of the 20 players who dressed for the Kings in Games 3-6, 10 of them are "homegrown" players -- guys who were drafted and developed by the organization.
Every Stanley Cup winner since the work stoppage in 2004-05 ushered in the "new NHL" has featured a core of homegrown talent. Some, like the Detroit Red Wings in 2008, Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 and Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, have relied on the draft to find elite talent more than others (the 2011 Boston Bruins and 2006 Carolina Hurricanes), but those teams still had several integral players that were acquired through the draft.
Dustin Brown, top center Anze Kopitar, goaltender Jonathan Quick and defenseman Drew Doughty. After this postseason, all four players could arguably be ranked in the top five in the League at their respective positions. All four were drafted by the Kings.
Other guys who are role players on the team also arrived via the draft. Three of the team’s key guys who ascended to permanent roles this season -- defenseman Slava Voynov and forwards Jordan Nolan and Dwight King -- have only known life as NHL property of the Kings.
General manager Dean Lombardi has not been short of the courage needed to make big trades to complement his homegrown talent with the final pieces of a Cup contender. Seven of the 20 guys on the ice Monday night came to the organization via trades.
Even with the trades, Los Angeles’ success in the draft played a huge role. Lombardi used a pair of quality young players the Kings drafted, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds, to land Mike Richards from the Philadelphia Flyers. It was a deal consummated, fittingly, on the eve of the 2011 Draft.
Los Angeles’ first pick in that draft, along with 2010 first-round choice Colten Teubert, were the package sent to Edmonton before the trade deadline last season to acquire Dustin Penner. A future first-round pick, either later this month or (more likely) in 2013, and Jack Johnson went to Columbus for the third member of the team’s second line, Jeff Carter.
Brown is the team’s captain and longest-tenured player, having joined the organization during the incredible 2003 NHL Draft. Carter and Richards were also first-round picks that day in Nashville.
It has been called a contender for the greatest draft in NHL history, and this victory for the Kings has helped its case. Though most of the players are still only 27 years old, 13 of the 30 first-round selections from 2003 have played in a Stanley Cup Final, and with the additions of Brown, Carter and Richards, nine of them have hoisted the Cup.
To put that in perspective, the 2000, 2001 and 2002 drafts have combined to produce 13 first-round picks that have played in a Final and only six that have won the Cup. The first rounds of the 2004, 2005 and 2006 drafts have combined to produce 12 Cup finalists and six players who have won the Cup (including Kopitar, Quick, Trevor Lewis and Jonathan Bernier from the Kings).
The draft and the trade market has produced many of Los Angeles’ strengths -- center and goaltending depth, size on the wings, offensive-minded defensemen -- but Lombardi used free agency to fill one important need -- veteran defensive defensemen.
That is a position that teams have overpaid for in recent years. Anton Volchenkov, a key free-agent signing for the Devils, is making more money per season than both Scuderi and Mitchell, and he played the least of the six New Jersey defensemen in each of the first three games in this series.
Mitchell and Scuderi have blended perfectly with what is still a young team -- they, along with Gagne, were the only Los Angeles players on the ice Monday who are at least 30 years old -- and provided leadership and the backbone of the team’s defense in front of Quick.
Brown recently credited Lombardi’s trade for Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene in 2008 (another deal that happened in the days leading up to July 1) as the day when it felt to players on the team that the rebuilding process was over and the path to Cup contention began.
The player Lombardi used to acquire Stoll and Greene? Lubomir Visnovsky, who was a draft pick by the Kings in 2000.