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IT'S TIME FOR KINGS TO RIGHT THE WRONGS.

Byline: MATT McHALE Hockey

NASHVILLE - The year after coming from St. Louis in the 1996 Wayne Gretzky trade, Roman Vopat had two game-winning goals in his first two weeks in the NHL. He never was heard from again.

Neither was Patrice Tardif or Matt Zultek, two other players the Kings acquired for Gretzky. The best the club could do was Craig Johnson.

So what does this not-so-fun Kings fact have to do with Rob Blake, who was shipped out last Wednesday?

Everything.

When the Kings traded Gretzky, they said the return would replenish their farm system. They insisted it signaled a commitment to player development. No longer would there be a hostage crisis in the name of unrestricted free agency.

Five years after the Gretzky deal, the Kings are beginning another five-year plan. The acquisition of Adam Deadmarsh and Aaron Miller from Colorado might or might not get them into the playoffs this year. Beating Calgary and Columbus the last two games is not exactly a guarantee.

Although management will look at Deadmarsh and Miller to try and feel better about the Blake deal, the bigger challenge lies with the rest of the package.

If the Avalanche signs Blake, the Kings will get two first-rounders the next two years. They also can select an Avs prospect from a pool within 30 days of the trade. That sounds good, but the Kings have a dreadful draft history. Twenty-five times in their 33 years, they have traded away their first-round pick.

What the Kings do with this bounty could shape the team for years. Trading No. 1 picks has only been part of the problem. Over the years, a combination of laziness, ineptitude and cronyism in player development have been more destructive than any botched negotiation with Blake.

Now is the time to right the wrongs.

Upper management has conceded some mistakes and is reshaping the scouting department. Guys who always seemed to spend the cold months working in Florida are being replaced. Smaller target areas are being drawn and scouts are working them extensively rather than bouncing all over North America and Europe.

In the 1990s, the Kings had only four No. 1 picks and that was their most fertile decade ever. The choices were Darryl Sydor(1990), Jamie Storr (1994), Aki Berg (1995), Olli Jokinen (1997). Enough said.

The infamous Matt Zultek, the No. 1 they got from the Blues, never even signed.

The Kings don't need to look any further than the Avalanche to see how important player development is to NHL success.

Certainly, the Avs got a good start in 1992 when the then-Quebec Nordiques received seven players from Philadelphia - including Peter Forsberg - for the rights to Eric Lindros. But the Avs also selected right-winger Milan Hejduk in the sixth round in 1994. The same year, Colorado took center Chris Drury in the fifth round. Center-left wing Alex Tanguay was the team's first selection in 1998.

It is the development of these players that has put Colorado at the top of the NHL. It also is the reason there was no need to squirm with veteran Joe Sakic eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of the season.

Sakic leads the league in scoring, but the Avs are the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. General manager Pierre Lecroix now has Drury and Tanguay ready to step in. Plus there are two centers from last summer's draft who could be ready next season, Vaclav Nedorost (first round) and Jared Aulin (second).

Building a team is a crap shoot. It also is a lot of hard work. Colorado took goaltender Brent Johnson in the fifth round in 1995 and later traded him. Today, Johnson is the top goaltender in St. Louis. But diligence tilts the odds.

When this season began, the Avs roster was a testament to balanced planning: 12 draft picks, 11 acquired players, three free agents. Colorado has one Cup in the last five years but is in contention every year. The Dallas Stars had the same makeup in 1999 when they won it all.

Their system also enabled them to use prospects to make major trades at the annual March deadline, including Patrick Roy in 1996, Theo Fleury (1999) and Ray Bourque last season.

Colorado used goaltender Jocelyn Thibault, acquired in the Lindros deal, to help get Roy.

Who the Kings wind up getting in the future will depend on the front office. Right now, they look better than Calgary, which got Robyn Regehr and Brad Werenka (via Rene Corbet) for Fleury, and Boston, which picked up Brian Rolston, Sami Pahlsson and Martin Samuelsson for Bourque.

But the future is in their often shaky hands.

O'DOMINO EFFECT

Completing the Blake deal three weeks before the deadline should trigger more moves, including one for former Kings defenseman Sean O'Donnell of expansion Minnesota.

The Wild has been playing well, especially at home, but O'Donnell is an unrestricted free agent and there is a good chance he will be moved.

Teams that missed out on the Blake sweepstakes are going to start looking for alternatives. That means GM Doug Risebrough now has a little more time to field offers for O'Donnell. Had the Blake deal dragged out until the deadline, Risebrough might have been rushed into making a trade.

``Now that Blake has gone, teams that missed out might start looking at plan B and C,'' said O'Donnell, in Nashville on Saturday to play the Predators. ``I'm sure Doug will start getting more serious calls now. I'm sure something is going to happen and it will probably get more serious now. There are only a couple weeks left, but now that Blake has gone, things could pick up.''

ONE LINERS

After 25 years in which the six Sutter brothers played for 12 NHL teams, they finally had one who came home. Ron joined the Calgary Flames this past week and became the first member of the family to play for a team in Alberta, the Sutters' native province. . . . Owen Nolan returns Thursday to San Jose after serving an 11-game suspension for his hit on Dallas' Grant Marshall. . . . Olli Jokinen, the third overall pick in the 1997 draft who also has been with the Islanders and Panthers, might wind up with Montreal, his fourth team in four seasons, before the deadline.

NHL BLUE LINES

By Matt McHale

HE SAID, HE SAID.

Something to remember when taking sides in the recent Flyers/Leafs/Eric Lindros mess. Although Philly GM Bobby Clarke acts like the foul-mouthed bad guy, it was Toronto GM Pat Quinn who was coaching the Kings (1986-87) at the same time he was negotiating for a job in Vancouver. After talks for Lindros broke down, Quinn said Clarke did not negotiate in good faith, that he never had any intention of trading Lindros. Clarke said Quinn was a crybaby and that the Maple Leafs were trying to hide an injury suffered by defenseman Danny Markov. Clarke also wanted defenseman Tomas Kaberle, which Quinn said killed the deal. This one might not be over. Philly does not have a center after Keith Primeau.

WANTS TO KEEP PLAYING

New Jersey captain Scott Stevens has one more season on his contract but says he expects to play until he is 40. Stevens, 36, won't approach the Devils about an extension this summer but certainly is willing to listen. After winning the Stanley Cup in 1995, Stevens and goaltender Martin Brodeur each took less money on new contracts because they wanted to stay with a winner. It will be interesting to see whether Devils tight-fisted GM Lou Lamoriello remembers the loyalty.

THE DONALD

It appears unlikely the Atlanta Thrashers will re-sign one of their top scorers, Donald Audette, an unrestricted free agent who was traded by the Kings last March. Audette and the Thrashers were less than $1 million apart, total, on a three-year package. That was until Chicago's Steve Sullivan signed a three-year, $9-million contract. Audette, who revived his career getting regular shifts and power-play time in Atlanta, now is asking for an extra $750,000 annually to put himself in line with Sullivan. It doesn't look as though the Thrashers will come up that high.

CAPTION(S):

photo, box

Photo: PAT QUINN

Associated Press

Box: Blue Lines (see text)
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 27, 2001
Words:1379
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