These three Kings a winning hand
While pondering Jeff Carter's natural hat trick in Game 2 and the systematic way the Los Angeles Kings are absolutely woodshedding the overmatched Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference Final, it is worth remembering that some of the best trades are the ones you don't make ... and the ones that you do.
In the case of Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, a man who is capable of finding the looming dark cloud on the sunniest of SoCal days, both happened within hours.
On an off day in late February, Kings captain Dustin Brown was shopping with his wife, Nicole, at Orange County mall. (See, the rich really are like you and me.) The news of the Carter trade came over Brown's Twitter feed -- in a classic case of buyer's remorse, Columbus was offloading the miserable forward less than a year after acquiring him from Philadelphia -- and Brown was pleased that Lombardi had made a bold move in an attempt to strengthen a team that was no better than 50-50 to make the playoffs.
"And then 10 minutes later," Brown recalled last month, "my Twitter feed was saying the Kings are trying to move Brown. "Now my phone's blowing up. Whether it's friends or family, everybody's calling or texting. My wife is reading updates on Twitter. So I suggested that we just go have dinner and turn our phones off and talk about anything but hockey. But it was always sitting in back of our minds. We're doing some stuff in our house back home (Ithaca, N.Y.) and we talked about when we'd be getting home, which depended on whether (the Kings) made the playoffs or if I was going to be traded to a team that was not making the playoffs. Everything we talked about kinda got back to hockey. I understand the fans' standpoint about trades. They're excited about new players coming and going. It's entertainment for them ... I'm sure fans were saying it'll be great if we can move him and other fans were saying no way."
In the end, Lombardi said no way. He will not confirm that Brown's name was in the mix prior to the trading deadline. He will say that he did talk to every GM in the league prior to the deadline, which is business as usual.
"If someone asks you about (Brown), suddenly you're moving him?" Lombardi asks. "Particularly after we got Carter, people thought we were blowing the team up. Really, whose name doesn't come up during the trade deadline?"
Brown remained, of course. He was rejuvenated after his brief stay in Rumorville, physical and productive in the final six weeks of the season as Los Angeles slithered into the eighth spot in the West. Through two rounds and two games, the right winger has been the best forward in the tournament. He had an assist in the Kings' 4-0 Game 2 win over Phoenix, giving him 14 points in 11 postseason matches. Brown is plus 11, the only full-time player not to be a minus in any playoff game this season. He is being hailed as Conn Smythe material, although that kind of talk now is about as fruitful as drawing up an NCAA basketball tournament field in mid-February or publishing 2013 NFL draft rankings on the day after 2012 draft. Really, are we in that much of a hurry?
Then there is Carter, who has been a passenger for much of the playoffs, but who awoke from his slumber with the first Kings playoff hat trick since Wayne Gretzky in 1993. With running mate Mike Richards and a revitalized Dustin Penner, the Kings second line is doing enough damage to remove some of the pressure on Anze Kopitar and Brown.
But there is another seemingly forgotten piece of the puzzle on a team that is unbeaten on the road and has won 10 of its 11 playoff matches, one reason Lombardi could even consider assuming a commitment of 10-plus years for Carter. In order to obtain the forward for a team that wound up 29th overall in goals, Lombardi had to part with Jack Johnson, a 25-year-old defenseman with pedigree (third overall in the 2005 draft; member of Team USA at the 2010 Olympics). And Lombardi was comfortable -- or as comfortable as he ever gets -- moving a stud defenseman because he had another one with great potential sitting in front of him: Slava Voynov.
Voynov was drafted 32nd overall by the Kings in 2008. He spent three full seasons playing in AHL Manchester, which frustrated the Russian to the point that he would have welcomed a trade, according to one source. When Drew Doughty sustained a concussion in the fourth game on the season, Los Angeles finally recalled Voynov.
"Well, first off, the kids today, they want it right away," Lombardi told SI.com. "But this kid, don't forget, was playing in the (AHL) as an 18-year-old. So, as far as him doing his time (in the minors) -- what we told him when I sent him down the last time (when Doughty returned from his injury), was 'you're ready,' but we had to create a roster spot and that he had to keep doing what he was doing. I wouldn't have been able to make that deal for Carter, moving a defenseman like Jack Johnson, without this kid allowing me to do that. As much as we needed Carter, I wasn't going to leave my back end exposed."
Voynov, recalled for good in late February, has played with preternatural calm and displayed exceptional vision. His pass from deep in his own zone to Brown at the red line sprung the captain for his quasi-breakaway goal in Game 1 against Phoenix, a 4-2 victory. Voynov also scored in the second round against St. Louis. A right-handed shot, Voynov is averaging 18:10 minutes on the second pair with veteran Willie Mitchell, a left shot. They are a combined plus 11 in the playoffs.
The Kings have been waiting for a trip back to the Stanley Cup Final for almost 20 years. In context, waiting four for Voynov doesn't seem too extreme.