The Kings should be happy that Colorado and Tampa Bay are in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Of course, they’d rather represent Avalanche instead of Western champions, who pushed back the Lightning’s Cup three-peat try by winning Wednesday’s opener in overtime with Andre Burakovsky’s smooth one-timer.
But the way Avalanche and East champion Tampa Bay created their rosters is similar enough to the Kings’ rebuilding strategy to encourage them that they’re on track to get back to the league in a couple of years to fight cup.
Colorado and Tampa Bay are built around top-tier draft picks that years of scaring have earned them. The Kings are trying to do the same after missing the playoffs in five of seven seasons before losing to Edmonton in seven games last month.
Colorado, who picked No. 2 Gabriel Landeskog in 2011 and No. 1 Nathan MacKinnon in 2013, lucked out in 2017 when New Jersey, Philadelphia and Dallas ceded Cale to Makar, whose mobility and creativity make him the ideal modern defender. Gifted defenseman Bowen Byram (No. 4 in 2019) is helping Colorado’s defense become productive and exceptionally dynamic.
Tampa Bay, who picked Steven Stamkos No. 1 in 2008 (ahead of Kings defenseman Drew Doughty), No. 2 Victor Hedman in 2009, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy as 19th in 2012, has carried its success to later rounds. The Lightning drafted premier striker Alex Killorn 77th in 2007, Nikita Kucherov 58th and Ondrej Palat 208th in 2011 and Brayden Point 79th in 2014.
Kings picks Quinton Byfield (No. 2 in 2020), Alex Turcotte (No. 5 in 2019), Tobias Bjornfot (No. 22 in 2019) and Gabe Vilardi (No. 11 in 2017) are still developing, but the Kings showed a good eye drafting Matt Roy in the seventh round in 2015, Mikey Anderson in the fourth round in 2017 and Jordan Spence in the fourth round in 2019.
“I think you have to live with that in the modern NHL, especially with the salary cap, you have to be comfortable with being bad. And it also means being bad at the right time to get certain players,” Chris M. Peters, a longtime NHL draft and prospect analyst, said on Thursday, a day off for Avalanche and Lightning.
“The Kings had a lot of high picks. Their designs turned out very well. I think they were very aggressive outside of the first lap too. They had many hits outside of the first round. You need that. Tampa did that particularly well.”
Early drafting is no guarantee of success. The Edmonton Oilers have had four No. 1 picks in six seasons beginning in 2010, but have not built around them.
“Finally, that’s where you need to go,” said Craig Button, a design analyst for Canada’s TSN network. “But if you try to round it off without the top players in the draft, you’re going nowhere. You don’t round off anything.”
“I think LA did a fantastic job building the prospect pool.”
Craig Button, design analyst for the Canadian TSN network
In a salary cap league, the draft is the only viable way to build. “You have to nail your draft picks. That’s just the way it is,” Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek, a former director of scouting and deputy general manager of the Lightning, said in a recent phone call.
“And then OK, you can nail that, but you still have to develop them properly. You have to be wary of pushing them into the NHL too soon, maybe taking that extra year to let them go back to junior level or playing in another league where they can still dominate, but they’re learning how to become a pro. That’s also the tricky part.”
Tampa Bay excelled in development, which is also being prioritized by the Kings. “That’s the key component for Tampa that I think is really the secret of their success,” said Peters. “It’s not so much the drawing, it’s the development afterwards.”
The top Kings affiliate practices at the Kings El Segundo facility and plays in nearby Ontario, perfect for Kings general manager Rob Blake and development coaches to oversee them.
“Everything they did, from draft to the next process, was very intentional, and I think that’s probably where they took some of the things that made Tampa successful,” said Peters.
The signing of center Phillip Danault as a free agent last summer allowed the Kings to resist any temptation to knock Byfield into the NHL. They were at a point where it made sense for them to add high-profile players like Danault and winger Viktor Arvidsson, who was brought over from salary-cap-squeezed Nashville, because it took the pressure off the kids and left the team unexhausted her fortune pushed her into the playoffs.
The Kings have the depth and salary cap space to trade excess prospects and picks to fill gaps in their roster as Colorado and Tampa Bay have done so well.
Former Kings general manager Dean Lombardi used his fortune to put the finishing touches on the 2012 and 2014 Cup teams, acquiring Jeff Carter for Jack Johnson in 2012 and Marian Gaborik in 2014 for a prospect and two draft picks.
Colorado GM Joe Sakic did the same this year, sending prospects and picks to the Ducks for stalwart defenseman Josh Manson and to Montreal for winger Artturi Lehkonen, who had seven goals and 12 points in 15 playoff games.
Tampa Bay’s Julien BriseBois, backing the three-peat, paid the high price of two conditional first-round picks to get Chicago forward Brandon Hagel and sent a prospect and pick to Ottawa for forward Nick Paul.
“I think LA has done a fantastic job of building the pool of prospects. This year too. You don’t have to put Quinton Byfield in a frontline role. They signed Danault. You still have [Anze] Kopitar and now Quinton can come,” Button said. “If it works right I think if Quinton gets better and Anze Kopitar gets a little bit older and Phillip does, they can move it to a little bit less Ice Age and Quinton can have a bigger role now.
“Are all these players going to play for the LA Kings? No they are not. But if you consider different things to improve your team to help your current group, you now have players that are attractive to other teams and can help you now.
The Avalanche and Lightning return to practice on Friday in preparation for Saturday’s Game 2 at Ball Arena. The Kings aren’t cup final material just yet, but Colorado and Tampa Bay give them reason to believe they can make it if they get things right.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.