Philadelphia, PA – In the summer of 2010, the Los Angeles Kings unsuccessfully threw their hat into the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes.
Of course, the Kings wound up losing that offseason battle to the New Jersey Devils. However, on Monday night in Los Angeles, Kovalchuk and the Devils were forced to accept the ultimate defeat, as the Kings finished off a magical championship run with a 6-1 victory in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
It was the franchise's first Stanley Cup title and Dean Lombardi, the club's president and general manager, had his fingerprints all over the famous trophy. From making bold trades that added veteran leadership to firing head coach Terry Murray and bringing in Daryl Sutter, Lombardi pulled all the right strings this season, but getting his team to the level they displayed this spring wasn't always an easy task.
Two years ago, Lombardi was frustrated at being unable to lure Kovalchuk to L.A. After all, the Kings were already in rebuild mode when Lombardi took over as GM in April of 2006 and he already had top-notch prospects like forwards Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown and goaltender Jonathan Quick as a solid foundation for the future. Trying to add a prolific sniper like Kovalchuk was an attempt to legitimize the Kings and take them to the next level.
So, a few months after the Kings made the playoffs in 2010 for the first time in eight years, L.A. made its run at Kovalchuk, who ultimately signed a 15- year, $100 million to remain with the Devils.
Who knows what would have happened if Lombardi had been successful in signing Kovy? Obviously, going down that high-priced road wasn't a necessary step in building a winner. Instead, Lombardi and his franchise made several smaller changes to help the Kings land their first Cup since entering the league for the 1967-68 season.
Already stockpiled with blossoming young talent such as Kopitar, Brown, Quick and defenseman Drew Doughty, who Lombardi selected with the second overall pick of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, the Kings began adding veteran scoring help. Over the span of a year, Lombardi made three trades that ultimately formed the highly effective line of Dustin Penner, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, a unit that played a huge role in getting L.A. its first title.
The construction of that useful second line did not get off to a great start, however, as Penner struggled to prove his worth to his new club after coming over in a trade with Edmonton on Feb. 28, 2011. Although Penner had already notched four seasons of 20 goals or more by the time he was shipped to L.A., the 29-year-old recorded only 23 points (nine goals and 14 assists) in 84 regular-season games with the Kings before the 2012 postseason began.
However, the additions of Richards and Carter -- the one-time linchpins of the Philadelphia Flyers organization -- helped get Penner's L.A. tenure on the right track. Together, the second line combined for 15 goals and 39 points in 20 postseason games this spring and the unit helped make things easier on the top line of Brown, Kopitar and Justin Williams.
The trades for Richards and Carter were bold moves that defined this championship run and Lombardi should be commended for knowing the right time to bring in an influx of veteran talent. To land Richards from the Flyers, the Kings had to part with highly coveted forward prospect Brayden Schenn as well as emerging power winger Wayne Simmonds. Carter, who was dealt by Philly to Columbus last summer on the same day that Richards was shipped to L.A., was acquired for defenseman Jack Johnson and a conditional first-round pick at the 2011-12 trade deadline.
With one championship down, the question for Lombardi and the Kings now is can they carry the dominant form they displayed in this year's playoffs into next season?
Having a goaltender like the Conn Smythe-winning Quick, who at 26 years old is entering the prime of his career, gives L.A. a fighting chance to turn its one title into a dynastic run. With the impressive American backstop between the pipes, the Kings excelled at preventing the opposition from scoring all season long and eventually the offense began pulling its weight once Carter joined the fold in late February.
While the addition of Richards and Carter played such a big role in getting this team to the top of the mountain this year, the duo's huge contracts could eventually prevent the Kings from keeping all of its young nucleus intact. Richards is signed through the 2019-20 season with an annual cap hit $5.75 million. Carter is Kings' property for even longer, as the deal he signed with Philadelphia runs through the 2021-22 campaign and will cost L.A. $5.27 million against the cap each season.
Also, one of the reasons Philadelphia opted to trade both players is that they have no-trade clauses that are about to kick in, meaning it could be difficult to deal them down the road. With Quick due to be an unrestricted free agent after next season and some of L.A.'s players still on their entry level contracts, the Carter and Richards deals could loom large in this salary cap era.
Still, those are problems for another day. Unlike the Chicago Blackhawks, who were forced by salary-cap constraints to conduct a massive overhaul of their roster just weeks after winning it all in 2010, the Kings have enough time to not only enjoy this championship, but also to gear up for another crown next season.
It's been a long time since the Detroit Red Wings were the last team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in 1997 and '98, but Lombardi has set up his team to change that next spring. It may have taken awhile to get the right formula, but for Lombardi and the Kings, it was well worth the wait.