2011-12 YEAR-IN-REVIEW: The Los Angeles Kings won the 2012 Stanley Cup. What is there to review or evaluate? Plenty. To start things off, here’s a look at how a “front office turnaround” set their run to the Stanley Cup in motion.
LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings blew right through the Vancouver Canucks, the St. Louis Blues, and the Phoenix Coyotes, before the New Jersey Devils gave them a bit more to handle in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Nevertheless, the Kings won the 2012 Stanley Cup, the first Stanley Cup Championship in the 45-year history of the franchise.
Given that they reached the pinnacle of achievement this season, what is there to review or evaluate?
Although some might think that is a waste of time, no Stanley Cup Championship team can rest on its laurels during the off-season and expect the same level of success. As players, coaches and general managers often say, improvement is always needed, and the Kings are no exception to that axiom.
As such, the time has come to look back on the 2011-12 season, one that turned out to be truly glorious for the Kings and their fans, despite the fact the team often looked like it was spinning it wheels, or worse, hurtling into oblivion.
In the first story in this series, Frozen Royalty looks back at the 2011 off-season, and how it set the Kings up for an historic season.
Front Office Turnaround Starts The Ball Rolling
Around this time last year, when one looked back on the 2009-10 season, it was clear that the Kings suffered greatly by putting all their eggs in one basket during the 2010 off-season, focusing solely on signing superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk took his sweet time, playing the Kings, and a couple of other suitors, off against the Devils, trying to milk every dollar he could out of them. By the time he signed with the Devils, all the unrestricted free agents who could have made an impact with the Kings had been snapped up by other teams. The only thing left for Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi to do, other than shore up his blue line corps by signing veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell, was to sign left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky to a one year deal.
The fact that Lombardi had no “Plan B” to fall back on, forcing him to settle for Ponikarovsky instead of landing a winger who could play top six minutes, was a huge blow to the 2010-11 Kings. They struggled to score goals, averaging 2.55 goals per game (25th in the NHL).
That team was just as bad on the power play, with a 16.1 percent rating (21st).
Things could have gone the same way heading into this season, when Lombardi and the Kings once again went hard after the top unrestricted free agent last summer, forward Brad Richards.
But Richards signed with the New York Rangers, as expected, taking less money to reunite with Rangers head coach John Tortorella, than he was offered by some other teams, including the Kings.
The only difference for the Kings, this time around, was that Lombardi had a Plan B. Actually, it was more like a Plan B+.
Lombardi began to turn things around from the previous summer on June 23, 2011, when he completed a blockbuster deal, acquiring veteran center Mike Richards and the rights to center Rob Bordson (who was not signed by the Kings) from the Philadelphia Flyers, in exchange for right wing Wayne Simmonds, center Brayden Schenn, and a second round pick in the 2012 National Hockey League Entry Draft (the Flyers traded the pick to the Dallas Stars).
That move gave the Kings a one-two punch down the middle that they had not had since Wayne Gretzky and Bernie Nicholls were their top centers back in the 1988-89 season, and a little over half of the 1989-90 season.
“I don’t know if it’s an analogy with baseball and the [number] three [and] four hitters, the idea of having a guy hit behind you,” Lombardi said during a media conference call after the trade was announced. “Looking at [the 2010-11] season, going into the playoffs, or how we lost in the playoffs, [the second line center] was clearly the hole to me. That was our biggest hole.”
“You go into Vancouver and it’s [Henrik] Sedin and [Ryan] Kesler,” Lombardi added. “You go into Detroit, it’s [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk. You go to San Jose, it’s [Joe] Thornton, [Joe] Pavelski or [Logan] Couture. Those models of strength down the middle—Boston is another example—that still holds.”
“Frankly, our conference is like that. It allows your coach to get the matchups he wants. It allows you to focus on a third line. It can, maybe, focus on checking instead of spreading your scoring. I think the centers, as I’ve always said, make other players better. It allows you to build your wingers a little easier, when your middle has hockey sense and makes plays. There’s a whole host of reasons, but this isn’t some revelation…most hockey people agree with that.”
A year later, it is crystal-clear that this trade gave the Kings the push they needed to finally become a true Stanley Cup contender.
Back to Plan B+…
While the Kings were in Toronto, making their pitch to Brad Richards, they were already talking to unrestricted free agent left wing Simon Gagne and his agent, and once Brad Richards signed with the Rangers, the Kings moved quickly to sign Gagne on July 2, 2011.
The thought was that Gagne would fill the hole the Kings had on left wing on their first and second lines.
“It was fairly important for us,” Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall told the media shortly after the signing was announced. “We’ve looked at the trade market, and there’s not a lot there. Quite frankly, after yesterday on the free agent market, there wasn’t a ton there, but this was a guy we had our eye on from the start, if we didn’t get Brad Richards.”
“We moved as quickly as we could,” Hextall added. “Obviously the familiarity with people in our organization—[former head coach] Terry Murray, [assistant coach] John Stevens, myself, Dean and, particularly, his relationship with [newly-acquired center] Mike Richards, both on and off the ice—were factors in him coming to LA.”
Although Gagne struggled offensively—he was invisible for a long stretch—and then was lost to a concussion in late December, forcing him out of the lineup until the Stanley Cup Final seven months later, his signing was a clear signal that the Kings’ attitude had changed.
Indeed, the Kings had already said that just getting into the playoffs was no longer acceptable. Rather, they were expecting to go deeper, at least into a long, drawn out second round series, if not the conference finals, and the Mike Richards trade and the Gagne signing were shots across the bow, so to speak, warning everyone that they were serious.
Although it wasn’t a sexy deal involving a top six forward coming to the Kings, on June 26, 2012, veteran left wing Ryan Smyth was dealt back to the Edmonton Oilers, a trade that Smyth requested for family/personal reasons. In return, the Kings received then-26-year-old center Colin Fraser, along with a seventh round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft (traded to Dallas on June 23, 2012, for a seventh round selection in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft).
Fraser, a checking line center, began the season in limbo due to what was initially believed to be an ankle injury, and that he would be cleared to play within one week of the date of the trade. However, Kings doctors discovered that Fraser also had an unhealed fracture in his foot, along with other problems, that would prevent him from playing.
Fraser required surgery, and missed most of the Kings’ training camp. He was also in limbo because there were questions about him ever cracking the Kings lineup. But he made his debut with the team on November 10, 2011, in a 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks at Staples Center in Los Angeles, and never looked back. He surprised everyone by earning the fourth line center spot as an effective checking, defensive center, one who would become an integral part of the Kings’ success this year.
Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Colin Fraser…three key acquisitions by Lombardi last summer that played a big role in his team reaching the pinnacle of success this season. But one thing loomed large over the Kings and their front office last summer, and it could have easily derailed their plans altogether.
Frozen Royalty will look at that one remaining issue that hung over the Kings like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, along with the first few months of the 2011-12 regular season, in the next installment.
- 2011-12 Year-In-Review: Doughty Holdout, Failure To Execute In Offensive Zone Almost Sunk LA Kings Early
- 2011-12 Year-In Review: Coaching Change, Three Rookies, Big Trade Help LA Kings Reach For The Stars
- 2011-12 Year-In-Review: Can LA Kings Forwards Reach The Next Level After Stanley Cup Win?
- 2011-12 Year-In-Review: Quick, Blue Line Corps Were LA Kings’ Greatest Strengths
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