|GM Dean Lombardi and his staff have nine picks in the draft.
For a team attempting to find success in the NHL, progress is often difficult to measure in a tangible way. In recent years, fans have wondered, "Are the Kings getting close?"
Actually, they’re getting further away, and that’s perhaps the best indication of progress.
At the NHL’s annual entry draft, each team has a table on the arena floor, and the tables are organized by draft order. Teams with the first few picks are closest to the front, while the Stanley Cup winners get to enjoy the view from the back of the pack.
In 2007, 2008 and 2009, when they picked fourth, second and fifth overall, respectively, the Kings were close enough to land a paper airplane on the stage. This year, it’s different. The NHL Draft will be held June 25-26 at STAPLES Center, and for the first time in four years, the Kings don’t figure to give much face time on Versus.
The Kings -- barring a trade -- will make their first pick at No. 19, their latest appearance at the podium since they took Alexander Frolov at No. 20 in the 2000 draft.
"From our standpoint, it’s kind of nice," said Michael Futa, the Kings’ co-director of amateur scouting. "We’ve got some hard work to do, but it’s the first time, certainly since I’ve been involved, that we haven’t been a first down from the steps (of the draft stage). So it’s something different for us. It’s something we’re certainly proud of."
The Kings have nine picks in the draft, one in the first round, two in the second round (No. 49 and No. 59), two in the third round (No. 70 and No. 79) and one each in the fourth (No. 109), fifth (No. 148), sixth (No. 169) and seventh (No. 199) rounds.
Futa recently said that the Kings have "kind of ironed out about seven or eight guys that we really feel are going to be available in the area we’re picking," and the staff has spent recent weeks doing exhaustive video review and face-to-face interviews.
It’s no stretch to say that the Kings’ attempt to build through the draft, under general manager Dean Lombardi, has been done in stages, and it certainly has fit within Lombardi’s stated strategy to build the team from the back end.
In 2006, Lombardi’s first draft, the Kings took goalie Jonathan Bernier
with the No. 11 pick. The next two drafts netted defensemen, Thomas Hickey
at (No. 4) and Drew Doughty
(at No. 2) in the first round.
With the defensive side of the reserve list flush with young talent, the Kings looked up front last year and took center Brayden Schenn with the No. 5 overall pick.
This year? It is presumed, given that 5-on-5 scoring looms as a potential short- and long-term weakness, that the Kings will pick a forward with the No. 19 pick, but it’s all but impossible to predict who will be available when the Kings are on the clock.
Mock drafts present some interesting options. NHL.com’s experts have the Kings potentially looking at a pair of KHL-based Russian forwards, Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeny Kuznetsov, while others have mentioned Canadian junior winger Jeff Skinner and Minnesota high-school center Brock Nelson.
Might the Kings add a local player to the fold? Long Beach native Emerson Etem might be available, although he’s considered by some to be a top-10 prospect, while Gardena native Beau Bennett, a former Junior King, has been tabbed in one online mock draft.
Making an accurate prediction on any mid-to-late first-round pick is always difficult, but it’s complicated this year, Futa said, by the overall depth beyond the first few picks.
The consensus is overwhelming that Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin will be the first two picks, but after the first few picks, there’s little agreement. For instance, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a player such as Tarasenko get picked anywhere from No. 10 to No. 20.
"This year, I honestly think that once you get past the first three or four players," Futa said, "there’s going to be such a variety of players and lists, with people sorting through the Russian factor and different things, Europeans and stuff. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we’re getting a guy who we have ranked seventh or eighth on our list (at No. 19). We feel good about that, when it has happened in the past.
"This year, you always take a look at some of these publications, and I’ve never seen such a variety, so much difference of opinion on players. Again, there’s a lot after that first, initial group. That doesn’t mean there’s not going to be some stars in the secondary group. It’s just a very common group, and you really have to do your homework to try to get that gem. There are a lot of different things that these kids bring to the table that give them better opportunities than others, I would say."
The thought that the Kings certainly will take a forward at No. 19 might be too simplistic. After all, it’s unlikely that this year’s draftee would crack the NHL lineup this October, and by the time he is NHL-ready, the Kings’ needs might have shifted.
Also, Lombardi is somewhat well-known for not following convention in the draft and, in a recent radio interview, Lombardi cautioned against presuming that the Kings would only look at forwards simply because top-level scoring is an immediate need.
"I think, whenever you’re dealing with 18-year-olds, it’s the standard line. It’s the best available player," Lombardi said. "It certainly is a cliche, but when you’re dealing with 18-year-olds, that’s the way it is. If you get trapped into drafting by position, in most cases that kid isn’t going to be ready right away, and your needs could change. The term you usually like to use is `asset value,’ and that’s the best player. The only time, traditionally, that you go by position if you’ve got two players that you value the same.
"Let’s say you can’t decide if they should be one slot above or below. Then you might look at position, and which position is more valuable in the marketplace. Traditionally, that’s on defense, so you might shade that way, because most hockey people figure that they have a bigger impact on winning. But other than that, it’s the best player."
By the time the first round starts, the team at the Kings’ table, toiling in relative anonymity near the middle of the arena floor, will have been well-schooled.
In the weeks leading up to the draft, Lombardi drills his team, led by Futa and fellow co-director Mark Yannetti, on various scenarios. Given that the Kings pick at No. 19, and not in the top five as they have in the past three seasons, there are plenty of scenarios.
"Mark and myself, we pull the pieces together and respect the opinions of the area (scouts)," Futa said. "We know that at the end of the day, it’s going to be us who makes the finishing touches and makes those picks. Then we do different practices with Dean, in terms of moving up or moving down, different scenarios so that there are no surprises when you get to the draft.
"Is there a certain player that you feel is worth having? We have those extra picks that Dean always seems to provide us, and that helps if you feel the need to move up."
Life in the middle of the draft floor might be a little more complicated, but the Kings won’t be complaining about the seating arrangement.