February 18, 2010 Kings fans happy with
TFP Columnist Dennis
Bernstein, based in Los Angeles, explores the psyche of the Kings' fan
[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- Although March 3 is the NHL trade deadline, the deal
that will stand to be the biggest of this season was consummated 27
A few weeks ago, the hockey earth moved in the Deep South
when Ilya Kovalchuk was extracted from a 7-and-a-half year sentence of hard labor
in the Peach State.
While it's hard to imagine that the gritty
destination of Newark, N.J. would be a safe harbor for anyone, much less
one of the world's best (but not THE best) hockey players, Kovalchuk
expressed happiness to join the perennial contender.
The Russian sniper's remarks about joining a first class Devils
organization were more a slap at his former employer than an
affirmation of how Uncle Lou Lamoriello rules the roost with an iron
fist in the Garden State. The flux in Atlanta's ownership has hurt the
Thrashers franchise and the lockout put a knife in the momentum in the
team's popularity with attendance never being the same.
To Kovalchuk's credit, he's been the good solider; rarely missing a
game, ascending to the captaincy and avoiding controversy amid the
apathy in Atlanta. He never asked out and as the trade winds
increasingly swirled around him his performance never waved.
When Atlanta GM Don Waddell gave his mea culpa, his first point was to
address the staggering amount of money that was offered to the player.
When learning that Kovalchuk passed on a contract worth over $100
million, the internet message boards lit up like the Christmas tree at
Rockefeller Center. Most fan comments were that Ilya took a wrong
turn, one that had him wind up 1000 miles north and with no guaranteed
money until at least July 1.
But young Ilya is no fool, nor is his sage advisor, uber agent Jay
Grossman, who's received little criticism in this whole affair. They
both realized they could realize the same money and maybe a smidgen
more when unrestricted free agency comes calling.
Frankly, it's tough
to criticize a player who would have fulfilled his contractual
agreement and then exercises his right that was bargained for by his
union and the NHL. Heck, the duo might sniff around the KHL and let
head man Alexander Medevdev buy them caviar and champagne on an all
expenses paid trip to Russia in the summer.
But make no mistake, Kovalchuk will be back in the NHL next season;
his drive makes it necessary to play at the elite level not at a
locale where Jiri Hudler can garner a $4 million a year salary and
Alexei Yashin and Jaromir Jagr chose to rode off into the sunset.
So while Devils' fans hopes are brightened to bring home a fourth
Stanley Cup in franchise history, a curious response by another fan
base that's known its share of disappointment occurred.
The Los Angeles Kings are having their best year in over a decade.
With Terry Murray doing a job that rivals the work by Phoenix's Dave Tippett, the Kings are pace for a 100+ season, a figure that would
end the seven year itch of post season-less hockey in the City of the
They've arrived even earlier than planned by GM Dean Lombardi;
his thinking was that the 2010-11 season would be the breakthrough
With Anze Kopitar finally establishing
himself as a true No. 1 center, Drew Doughty refusing to play like the 20-year-old he is
and Ryan Smyth adding his grit and veteran leadership, the Kings are a
mounting force in the NHL's Western Conference. Their growth hasn't
been lost on their recently diminishing fan base; they've returned in
droves over the past weeks including Saturday's raucous sellout crowd
that witnessed Los Angeles' whitewash of the Avalanche that punctuated
their pre-Olympic schedule with an exclamation point.
The Kings' fan base has suffered from a severe inferiority complex
over the past decade. Few playoff appearances, refusal of big name
free agent to the join the team and uninspired on ice play left most
of KingsNation wondering if bright days would ever return again. When
the hot start that saw the Kings sit in the uneasy position of first
overall in the conference faded in late November, most of the faithful
thought they had been deceived by a mirage. The Kings stabilized their
ship and even threw in a franchise record nine games winning streak to
boot, setting the stage for rampant speculation that Kovalchuk, a
legitimate crown jewel, would be added by Lombardi before the
pre-Olympic roster freeze.
But in a less than story book ending, King Dean didn't get his
plunder. Although Waddell scouted the Kings in the days
prior to his deal, it was the Devil(s) in the detail that got it done.
The word came down that Atlanta wanted two of three core players off
the Kings varsity: Wayne Simmonds, Dustin Brown and Jack Johnson.
Lombardi, trying on the new shoes of a buyer, not a seller at the
deadline, realized that the risk involved for surrendering his core
talent for a game changing one was too great, given the specter of
impending free agency. So while times were better, the Kings missed
out on another unique goal scoring talent.
The funny thing is... the Kings fans got it.
This time or maybe, finally.
Casually polling Los Angeles fans, none of them would have made the
To a person, they've understood that with a GM like
Lombardi, it DOES take a number of years to build a reserve roster and
develop talent, that there are truly no quick fixes in the NHL. While Kovalchuk would have made this team even more dangerous in the post
season, the fans have become patient, willing to see if Lombardi wants
to spend the money in July without having to surrender any players for
Some even challenge Kovalchuk's track record: no playoff
wins, no Hart Trophies and noting his inability to make players on the
Atlanta roster better. Indeed, while it would be magical for these
fans to see Kopitar throwing feeds to the Russian winger, they know
it should be for the right price and the right time.
So the moral to the story is quite simple for an NHL general manager;
to pacify a fan base, even a long suffering one, just win baby.
We've heard the Kings will be on a short list of teams willing to
offer $10 million a season on July 1. You can forget the possibility
of the Devils re-signing him at that price, Ilya's only a rental. While Lombardi
won't flinch at the per year dollars, the challenge will be the term
of the contract, Dean-O's not a 10-year contract type of GM. He might
be better served to grab a guy from an organization he already knows;
perhaps offering Patrick Marleau $24 million, three-year deal, a move
that would make the Kings deeper and Sharks weaker. A more dramatic
move that would further dial up the Southern California rivalry would
be to offer Ducks winger Bobby Ryan a $30 million, five year offer
sheet on July 1.