Friday July 25th, 2008

Digging deep into the mail on a warm Friday morning ...

Can you explain to me how a rebuilding team like the Kings can justify trading away a recent first-rounder for a guy no one's ever heard of? How could they give up Lauri Tukonen for Richard Clune? Please tell me that Clune is a late bloomer with 30-goal potential and that Tukonen has two broken legs and needs to be put down like Eight Belles! That has to be it, right? -- Ian Detwiler, California

I like the Eight Belles line, Ian, but honestly, I'm not sure this was such a brutal deal for the Kings. Tukonen, the 11th overall pick in 2004, certainly has the better pedigree. The right winger has a pro build (6-foot-2, 200) and he's a demon in the corners and along the boards. That said, his hands have never really developed as the Kings hoped, and a series of injuries that seemed to cost him at least 20 games each of the past four seasons earned him the tag of being brittle. Add to that the presence of Oscar Moller, Wayne Simmonds and Ted Purcell -- all of whom are moving up the depth chart -- and some pretty loud whispers about clashes with the coaching staff in Manchester of the AHL and the Kings brass probably looked at this as a case of cutting their losses.

The Stars, having lost Antti Miettinen as a free agent to the Wild, likely see Tukonen as someone who can eventually, if not immediately, replace the Finnish winger as a constant source of fan frustration on the third line.

In Clune, the Kings get a smaller but feistier left wing with the potential to be a fourth line energy player, but a greater likelihood of spending his season in the ECHL. That should tell you all you need to know about Tukonen's value around the league, and why L.A. had no concerns about trading him to a divisional rival.

How many of this summer's first-round draft picks are going to make the jump directly to "The Show?" Who makes the biggest impact, offensively and defensively? -- Brent Duff, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Depends who you ask. Canvass the picks, and you'll get 30 guys who think they're ready for the big time. Ask the general managers, and you might hear 10 names. Ask the coaches ... well, you get the point.

Although teams are more willing than ever to give a long look at their top picks, the odds are stacked against them, especially blueliners. Just four members of the 2007 first round saw action last season, and one of those, Kyle Turris (No. 3 overall) played only in the final three games of the season. Like Turris, the others, Patrick Kane (No. 1), Sam Gagner (No. 6) and David Perron (No. 26), all are forwards.

But that may change this season with Drew Doughty, the second overall pick and a good bet to earn a spot in Los Angeles. The Kings lost three defenders from last year's squad, and from here anyway, he looks like one of the top three options they have to fill the spots. The Thrashers also have jobs to offer, and No. 3 pick Zach Bogosian is being counted on to win one. And given Toronto's history of throwing young defensemen to the wolves, Luke Schenn (No. 5) might see some time on their blue line.

While those three are probables, there's only one sure thing: top pick Steven Stamkos. The Lightning have him inked, not penciled, in as their second-line center, and given the caliber of players that Tampa has added to ease his transition, he's the preseason favorite to win the Calder.

Other forwards who are thought to have a chance to play this year are Nikita Filatov (No. 6, Columbus), Mikkel Boedker (No. 8, Phoenix), Colin Wilson (No. 9, if Nashville can talk him into leaving school) and Viktor Tikhonov (No. 28, Phoenix). Filatov and Boedker both have the speed and hands to make an instant impact as top-six forwards, but the other two likely would be worked in slowly in depth roles if they were to stick.

In terms of impact? Give me Stamkos and Bogosian.

I read a horrible rumor about the Kings trading Anze Kopitar in a three-team deal with Chicago and Ottawa, with the Kings getting a veteran goaltender and a defenseman. Please tell me this is not true. Kopitar is a star in the making. Plus, they have Jonathan Bernier almost ready. Could you shed any light on this? -- Jason Debney, Los Angeles

Ever since Aug. 9, 1988, I've learned never to say never about trade buzz, no matter how outlandish. All I can tell you with any certainty is that a rumor has made the rounds suggesting Kopitar would go to the Blackhawks, Martin Gerber and Andrei Meszaros would go to the Kings and Nikolai Khabibulin would join the Senators.

Sounds crazy, but is it possible? Sure. Still, I'd be willing to bet the house against it happening.

Why? Well, multi-team deals are rare because they're notoriously difficult to pull off, especially in the cap era. And when they do happen, you almost never hear of them in advance.

And more to the point, this is a terrible deal for the Kings, who would be giving up their franchise forward for a journeyman goalie and a marginal second-pairing defender. It would set them back five years.

That said, I can see some of these pieces moving around this year. Khabibulin seems to fill a need in Ottawa, and Chicago would certainly like to clear his salary out of the crease after signing Cristobal Huet to a four-year, $22.5 million deal. And Gerber, who has just one year left on his deal at $3.7 million makes some transitional sense for a Kings team that would like to have Bernier in the lineup in 2009-10.

Bottom line, if you've got a Kopitar jersey, I'm betting you'll be able to wear it to home games next season, and for many years to come.

Did Tampa Bay decide to retool one year too early? How much better would they have been next year if they'd gone with the same lineup, finished last and got John Tavares with the first overall pick next June? With Vinny, Stamkos and Tavares on the team, they could roll three power lines with a handful of FA signings. It's not a guaranteed lottery win, but are these pickups going to make a gainful difference? I doubt it. -- Adam Burk, Winnipeg

It's a good question, Adam, and one that might have been answered differently under different circumstances. I tend to agree that this type of patch job is more damaging in the long run because it leads to both mediocre finishes and mediocre drafting positions. But the thing is, the new ownership group clearly wasn't of a mind for a long, drawn-out rebuild, especially with two key players, Vinny Lecavalier and Martin. St. Louis, already in their prime. They wanted instant improvement, and they're likely to get it.

And there's method to their madness: the Lightning think they have the players in the system who one day will be able to step into key roles. All they needed were some gap fillers, guys like Gary Roberts and Adam Hall and Olaf Kolzig, who can smooth out the process until Karri Ramo, Vladimir Mihalik and Luca Cunti are ready to step in. And rather than have them suit up in a difficult losing environment, they have a chance to ease in to a more positive situation, aided by some experienced veterans.

Would John Tavares have made a good addition to this group? Sure, but from this perspective, Tampa would have been unlikely to take the highly touted center next year, even if they'd been given the pick of the litter. Massive Swedish defender Victor Hedman, a Chris Pronger-clone in the making, would be a better fit for their needs. But that's a hypothetical argument for another day. The Lightning clearly want to win now, Hedman and Tavares be damned. That approach has to please the fans, if nothing else. And only time will tell if the approach serves the team well.

So what do you have to say now, Allan, after the Sabres locked up Ryan Miller with a five-year extension? Remember, you were convinced he was going to Detroit after the last year of his current deal? Playoffs, here we come! -- Robert C., Milton, Ga.

I had more than one source tell me that there was almost no chance Miller would re-sign with the Sabres because of the team's growing reputation for not taking care of its players, so this has to feel good for Buffalo's fans to keep one for a change. I think this season is looking a lot less stressful for their die-hard supporters than it otherwise would have. Given the team's inability, or unwillingness, to sign a number of key free agents over the past few years, the Miller situation would have been a significant distraction if not addressed as early, and as successfully, as it was.

As soon as they take care of Jason Pominville's contract -- he's an arbitration eligible restricted free agent after this season -- the team can concentrate on moving forward instead of simply scrambling to hold on. Having Miller locked up doesn't mean they'll be back in the playoffs, though. Take a look at the East -- for the Sabres to make it in, someone else has to drop out. Do any of the teams who finished ahead of them last year look worse off? I'm not sure I see an obvious candidate. Still, injuries, rough patches, whatever, could open up an opportunity, and I think the Sabres could improve on the 90 points they put up last season and sneak in if someone else slips. Guess we'll see....

As for the thoughts of Miller playing out the season before heading to Detroit, well, I'm sure there were those in that organization who were, ahem, aware of Miller's contract status and his ties to the state that might have made the Wings an intriguing long-term employment opportunity. But now they'll have to look elsewhere for their goalie of the future.

Allan, just wanted to point out that Oct. 25 will be the second time all 30 NHL teams have played on the same day since the lockout. The entire league was in action on Oct. 5, 2005, the first day of the post-lockout era. -- Ryan Burgess, Lyndonville, NY

A tip of the cap, Ryan. Thanks for correcting my mistake.

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