Sunday, March 22, 2015

Investigating the Kings' 1st Round Draft Picks in the Lombardi Era

Dean Lombardi was hired in April 2006 to resurrect the Los Angeles Kings from the scrap heap into which Dave Taylor had led the franchise. Under Taylor, the team had failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs (but of did they ever come close in 2001) and to even make the playoffs since 2002. Despite spending heaps of money coming out of the lockout in acquiring players like Jeremy Roenick and Pavol Demitra, the Kings collapsed down the stretch, losing 11 of their last 17 games (even that free fall was not as epic as the end of the previous season before the lockout when they dropped a franchise record 11 consecutive games to finish the year, in the process falling from the playoffs and going into the lockout season in the worst fashion possible).

Ownership had finally had enough and the Dave Taylor regime came to an end. Enter Dean Lombardi, the former General Manager of the San Jose Sharks who had laid the foundation for that team to go from cellar dweller to consistent contender. Lombardi had a plan to build the Kings into a contender via the Entry Draft, and that meant Kings fans were going to have to put up with what fans in Buffalo and Arizona are currently seeing, a tank. Lombardi sold off the Kings' aging assets so the team would struggle to win games in the regular season and earn high draft picks. On the job for just about two months, Lombardi got his first chance to put his strategy to build the team through the draft from the goal out at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

The Kings had the 11th overall selection in 2006 and in the Year of the Goaltender, Dean Lombardi used his first pick as Kings GM to take the top ranked goalie available, Jonathan Bernier. A star in the QMJHL, Bernier was viewed as the guy who could be the first goalie in Kings history who would be developed by the team and go on to stardom (of course, this had also been thought about a previous Kings first round pick, 1994's 7th overall choice Jamie Storr, but this time things were going to be different!).

The trouble for Bernier was that a year earlier, Dave Taylor had used the 72nd choice in the draft on another Jonathan, Quick to be precise. As Jonathan Bernier failed to stick at the NHL level after his first handful of starts in the 2007-08 season, he moved behind Quick at every level. Finding a goaltender was a problem for the Kings. In the 2006-07 and '07'-08 seasons, 11 different men stood between the pipes for the team, with only Dan Cloutier making appearances in both seasons. But in 2008-09, with a year more experience Jonathan Quick took over the job and Bernier was never able to push him from the crease.

Bernier played a grand total of 68 games for the Kings, primarily as Quick's backup, with 25 appearances in the 2011 season being his most. He made only 1 playoff appearance, in relief of Quick in a 2014 Conference Final game against the Blackhawks.

Bernier was traded to Toronto in the 2013 offseason in exchange for Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens, and a 2nd round draft pick. Frattin and the pick would be flipped later for Marian Gaborik.

Bernier was not the goaltending savior Kings fans had hoped for. He has failed to be that guy in Toronto too, but that may have more to do with the lack of quality on that team. In the end, he was not a great pick at 11th and Lombardi did not manage this asset very well based on the return he got, but if you consider it a Bernier-for-Gaborik swap, that's not bad.

Lombardi traded for another pick in the '06 draft, shipping Pavol Demitra to the Minnesota Wild for Patrick O'Sullivan and the 17th overall pick which he used to select Trevor Lewis. Except for two very short call-ups in '09 and '10, Lewis wouldn't play regularly for the Kings until the 2010-11 season. In 338 games (as of 3/22/15), he has scored only 27 goals and 70 points, but he has been a key 3rd line contributor and has shown an ability to move up the lineup when necessary. Despite having been better than a point-per-game player in the USHL and the OHL, he has not shown much scoring ability with the Kings, but there is not doubt that his defense and penalty killing are top notch, and he has been an important piece of both Stanley Cup winning Kings teams with 7 goals and 7 assists split between the two Cup runs.

As Dean Lombardi’s scorched earth method of rebuilding went into effect in his first season as GM, Kings fan suffered through one of the worst seasons in franchise history in 2006-07. The team slogged its way through a 27-41-14 record, a single point ahead of Phoenix for the second worst record in the NHL. On draft lottery day, we had high hopes that the Kings might win the lottery and move up to the top of the board, but at the very least a top 3 pick for the first time since the 1995 draft should have resulted in a solid player for the team to build around. Instead, the Blackhawks, the fifth worst team in the league, sporting a 31-42-9 record, won the lottery and moved up to the top, leaving the Kings with the 4th overall pick.

Central Scouting’s top 3 ranked skaters (Kyle Turris, Patrick Kane, and James van Riemsdyk) went one, two, three, but there were a lot of good players remaining for the Kings. Even if you eliminate the excellent forward prospects like , Jakub Voracek and Logan Couture, because it was already common knowledge that Lombardi meant to build around his defense, there were several future blue line stars waiting for their names to be called who would all get chosen before pick 15, including Karl Alzner, Sam Gagner,current Rangers captain  Ryan McDonagh, and Blues stalwart  Kevin Shattenkirk. If you wanna go way off the board, perhaps the best defenseman in the game today, P. K. Subban, was selected by Montreal 43rd.

Rather than take one of these players, as would have been expected of a GM who has gutted his team in order to get a very high draft pick, Dean Lombardi picked Thomas Hickey of the Seattle Thunderbirds. Now Hickey wasn’t a bad prospect by any means -he had put up 50 points for Seattle the previous season – but he was a project and Lombardi knew it. I understand if Lombardi wanted another high pick in 2008 so he didn’t want a player who was going to have an immediate impact the following season, but the truth is there were no such players available in the ’07 draft except maybe Kane, who wasn’t even the top ranked player by Central Scouting. Lombardi could have made a much more conventional choice and still sent his player back to the junior league for the following season.
In fact, Lombardi did send Hickey back after the training camp that opened the 2007-08 season. Hickey responded well, posting another 45 points in 63 games as captain of the T-Birds and helping the Canadian World Junior team that featured 2006 Kings first round pick Jonathan Bernier in goal and future Kings first round pick Drew Doughty on defense, as well as Kings prospect Wayne Simmonds, to a gold medal that year.

In 2008-09, Hickey still didn’t earn a spot on the Kings and was once again sent back to Seattle for a second over-age season. He had another good, though injury-riddled season and this time captained the Canadian team to World Junior gold. Although his progress was slow, it did appear that he was headed for a solid career with the Kings.

But in 2009-10, Hickey once again failed to make the Kings line-up out of training camp. With no more junior eligibility, Lombardi sent him to Manchester of the AHL (hey, at least he didn’t go to the ECHL!). For three more seasons, Hickey continued to play in the AHL, never earning a single call-up to the Kings, even when Willie Mitchell was lost to injury at the start of the 2013 lockout-shortened season. As a result, the New York Islanders claimed him off waivers on January 15, 2013, and the Kings received absolutely nothing in return for the 4th overall draft pick of the first season of Dean Lombardi’s “blow it up” rebuild.
Thomas Hickey never played a single regular season or playoff game as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. So not only did Kings fans have to put up with the embarrassment in 2007 of watching Anaheim win the Cup, but this lost season did not even result in a high draft pick who ever played a game for the franchise.

In year 2 of Lombardi’s rebuild, the Kings were actually slightly better than they had been the previous season, winning 5 more games en route to a 32-43-7 record. Nonetheless they were the worst team in the league until in the waning days, their stupid pride, coupled with the Lightning’s complete lack thereof, resulted in a tie between the two teams for the NHL’s worst overall record. But the Kings won the tiebreaker by having a single victory more than the Lightning, thus essentially handing the top pick to Tampa.
Either way though, despite being the best player in the draft Steven Stamkos was never going to play for the Kings. Lombardi still needed his franchise defenseman and there was only one pick he was ever going to make, whether he had the 1st or the 2nd pick. This one barely even counts because picking Drew Doughty was such an obvious choice for a team that needed a defenseman.
Moving on.

Something Kings fans have probably repressed at this point is that Doughty was not the only first round pick the team made in 2008. At the draft, Lombardi finally traded the King we all loved to hate, Michael Cammalleri for what was ultimately the 13th overall pick in the draft. Lombardi used that pick to take defenseman Colton Teubert. Teubert never played for the Kings, and in fact played only 24 games in the NHL after Lombardi shipped him off to Edmonton in the Dustin Penner trade (along with the Kings' first round pick in the 2011 draft). While Penner's tenure with the Kings will probably be remembered more for injury-causing pancakes and an enjoyable Twitter feed, he did score the OT goal that clinched the 2012 Western Conference Finals for the Kings. Would someone else have probably done that if he hadn't? Probably (it was the Coyotes after all). So was he worth two first round picks? Probably not.

If you had to go with a defenseman in the first round, Norris Trophy-winning Erik Karlsson went a mere two spots later and Caps' stud Jon Carlson went 27th. Perhaps with one of those guys, the Kings would have won the 2012 Cup even easier and might not be trailing the pack for the playoffs right now.

In 2008-09, the Kings moved farther up the standings, but still finished with the 5th worst record in the NHL. With the 5th pick, Lombardi strayed from his pattern of the two previous seasons, and chose the best player available in a fairly weak draft (although Oliver Ekman-Larsson went next, so maybe he didn’t), and took a centerman, Brayden Schenn. At the time, we Kings fans thought we had just seen the selection of the Kings’ future second line center who would skate behind Anze Kopitar for years to come.
Schenn failed to make the Kings lineup out of training camp that fall, but Lombardi liked what he saw and called him back from junior for a very unusual one-game emergency basis try-out on November 26 against the Canucks. That was the only game he’d play in the 2009-10 season. In 2010-11 he did make the cut, but only barely. Before his NHL contract kicked in, Lombardi sent him packing back to junior after only 8 games.

At the end of that season, on June 23, 2011, Lombardi traded Schenn to Philadelphia for the next guy we all thought would be the second line center behind Kopitar, veteran Mike Richards (it worked for a little while!). Schenn continued to shuttle between the NHL and AHL until last season when he was a point-every-other-game player for the Flyers. This season he is the 5th leading scorer for Philadelphia with 39 points in 72 games (Wayne Simmonds, the other player in the trade, is their leading goal scorer with 27).

In total, Schenn played 9 games for the Kings, posting no goals and two assists. The team won the Cup the season after trading him, thanks in large part to the efforts of the man he was traded for, though Richards has quickly fallen out of favor in L.A., so Schenn’s value as a Kings draft choice, fifth overall, remains highly debatable. The two Stanley Cup championships probably don’t happen without his acquisition and trade, but the Kings could probably have flipped anyone they drafted that high for Richards.

TheTaylor/Tyler Draft, i.e.,the  2010 NHL Entry Draft, was held at Staples Center, but for the first time in 4 years, the Kings were not a lottery team so there was no hope of snagging the top pick. In fact, the Kings did not pick until the middle of the first round because the rebuild had finally shown some progress and the Kings had not just improved in 2009-10, but made the playoffs for the first time in 8 years. The Kings actually traded up to the 15th spot from the 19th, and with a pair of promising Angelinos available, it was thought Lombardi was going to draft Beau Bennett or Emerson Etem.
Instead, Lombardi went back to building his defense and made a selection that no one saw coming, ignoring the fiasco that Thomas Hickey’s selection three years earlier had by now become and taking on another project (although he was the 9th ranked North American prospect by Central Scouting) in Derek Forbort.

Five years later, Derek Forbort got his first call-up to the Kings this season but did not get into a single game. He continues to be a member of the Manchester Monarchs.

Blues superstar Vladimir Tarasenko was the next pick in that draft, by the way. Other players Lombardi missed out on include Evgeny Kuznetsov and Justin Faulk. Tarasenko and Kuznetsov were the second and third ranked European skaters by Central Scouting, by the way.

So all in all, the 2010 draft was another bust for L.A. in terms of the first round. Held in the Kings’ rink, Lombardi didn’t take either of the local boys he could have chosen, both of whom have already become productive NHL players, and the player he did take has continued to languish in the minors five years later with no games played at the NHL level. It should be noted that the Kings’ second round pick in 2010 was none other than Tyler Toffoli.

The Kings traded their 2011 first round pick for Dustin Penner. With what would have been the Kings’ pick, Edmonton took defenseman Oscar Klefbom 19th overall. It’s tough to say who the Kings would have taken, but you could do worse than Klefbom. At least he’s played in the NHL.

With the final pick of the first round in 2012 (that’s usually what you get when you win the Stanley Cup, but see 2014), the Kings made their first successful  first round pick in four years. Tanner Pearson had been draft eligible since 2010, but every single team had passed him over then and again in 2011. Just about every team skipped him once again in 2012, but the Kings took a chance on him and it paid dividends almost immediately. Pearson was a key member of the team that would win the Stanley Cup 9 days short of the two year anniversary of his selection.

The Kings traded their 2013 first round pick for Jeff Carter. Columbus took Marko Dano with the 27th selection in the 2013 Entry Draft. He has not yet become a regular NHL player, but he has spent time with the Blue Jackets.

The Kings used the 29th pick of the first round (thank you, Devils, for the Kovalchuk contract and losing your draft pick, which moved the Kings up one spot despite having won the Cup in 2014) to take Adrian Kempe.

Amazingly, Kempe is the first European player Lombardi has drafted in the first round since taking over GM duties in Los Angeles. This was his 9th draft as general manager and his 9th first round pick. How he had never selected a Russian, Finn, Czech, Slovak, Swede, or even a Goddamn Frenchman in 9 years is remarkable to me. When you look at the fact that the 2012 Cup champ Kings had only two non-North Americans in their lineup (Kopitar and Voynov) and the 2014 Kings added only Gaborik to that duo, you really have to wonder what Lombardi has against Europeans. Add to that the way he treated Alexander Frolov and it’s a very troubling pattern.

I guess to be fair, I should note that the Kings have drafted a handful of Europeans in later rounds under Lombardi (Oscar Moller, Slava Voynov, Valentin Zykov, etc), signed some European free agents (Ladislav Nagy and Michael Handzus), and they traded for Andrej Sekera before his year’s  deadline, but there is an unmistakable anti-European flavor to the Kings in the Lombardi era. I would love an explanation from him as to the reason for this.

Obviously Kempe didn’t make the roster this season, but I remain hopeful that he will be given a shot next year as the Kings will have to add in some younger and cheaper players to their lineup in order to be compliant with the salary cap. Kempe and 2013 second round selection Zykov could very well be the beneficiaries of this need.

Los Angeles Kings First Round Draft Picks in the Lombardi Era
2006: Jonathan Bernier (11th overall)- semi-bust, never lived up to potential and didn’t bring back much in trade value, though the player he was moved for did get traded for Gaborik, so good asset management later, but a bad draft pick
2006: Trevor Lewis (17th overall)- solid NHL player
2007: Thomas Hickey (4th overall)- BUST
2008: Drew Doughty (2nd overall)- obvious good pick
2008: Colton Teubert (13th overall)- BUST
2009: Brayden Schenn (5th overall)- good pick, valuable asset whose trade helped build a champ
2010: Derek Forebort (15th overall)- undecided, leaning BUST
2011: none
2012: Tanner Pearson (30th overall)- great pick
2013: none
2014: Adrian Kempe (29th overall)- undecided

9 players
1 European
4 played fewer than ten games in L.A. (excluding Kempe)
3 never played for L.A. (excluding Kempe)

It's very lucky Lombardi has drafted so well in the later rounds because frankly, that is an abysmal record in the first round. And to be perfectly honest, there was no reason for Kings fans to have to suffer through the 2006-07, 2007-08, and 2008-09 seasons of tanking for high draft picks because aside from Doughty, Lombardi completely failed with his other top five selections.

To be perfectly blunt, Lombardi has basically picked as poorly in the first round as his predecessor. He and Dave Taylor both hit one home run in the draft (Kopitar and Doughty). At least Taylor gambled a little bit, Lombardi took the guy everyone on earth would've taken.

Second Round Selections in the Lombardi Era
2006: Joey Ryan (48th overall)
2007: Oscar Moller (52nd overall), Wayne Simmonds (61st overall)
2008: Slava Voynov (32nd overall)
2009: Kyle Clifford (35th overall)
2010: Tyler Toffoli (47th overall)
2011: Chris Gibson (49th overall)
2012: none
2013: Valentin Zykov (37th overall)
2014: Roland McKeown (50th overall), Alex Lintuniemi (60th overall)

5 of those 10 have already played for the Kings with Voynov, Clifford, and Toffoli playing major roles in at least one, if not both, championships. Moller was a completely wasted asset, lost for nothing. Simmonds was part of the massive overpayment for Richards. McKeown was traded to Carolina for Sekera. Gibson was a wasted pick. Still waiting to see what will happen with Zykov and Lintuniemi.

Overall, those second round picks are better than what we've seen in the first.

So in conclusion, while Dean Lombardi has been hailed for rebuilding the Kings through the draft by tanking for 3 seasons, the truth is that any praise he receives should really be for the later rounds because for the most part his first round selections have been total whiffs, and the Kings have missed out on some very good players like Tarasenko and Karlsson, chosen in the immediate wake of busts like Forbort and Teubert.

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