On Rebuilding - Part 5, The Los Angeles Kings

Kent Wilson
July 20 2012 11:21AM

 

 

(Rex continues his rebuilding Odyssey series. Today he looks at the Cup champs.)

By: RexLibris

What is the common belief about the Kings rebuild? Was it injuries that annihilated them and put them into a high draft position to which they then became addicted? Did ownership want to cut costs? Was it repeated failure to win a Stanley Cup after years of trying to import high-end talent?

For the sake of this series let us agree that the general theory about the rebuild in L.A. is that Lombardi was hired to do it right, regardless of the timeline, after many years of failing to win a championship by other means. Based on that premise would it be reasonable to hypothesize that Philip Anschutz and AEG hired Lombardi in order to gradually draft and develop a top-flight team that would bring a Stanley Cup to Los Angeles?

Game of Thrones

AEG purchased the Kings from Jeffrey Sudikoff and Joseph Cohen in 1995, ending a short-lived rebound relationship for that franchise after Bruce McNall sold the team in 1994*.

*(As an interesting footnote to history, it was McNall’s leadership of the Board of Governors at the time that shifted the vote in favour of Gary Bettman as the league’s commissioner)

AEG, for what it is worth, seems to be largely a hands-off owner, in NHL terms. Aside from hirings and firings, there appears to be little else that they directly influence in the day-to-day workings of the Kings team. They have multiple other sports franchise ventures, including heavy involvement in Major League Soccer. This diversification may lead to giving the Kings a welcome degree of autonomy.

AEG hired Dean Lombardi after firing Dave Taylor as President and GM of the Kings at the end of the 2005-2006 season. Following Taylor out the door was the coaching staff, assistant coaches and the CEO of the Kings, Tim Leiweke. Lombardi had worked most recently as a scout for the Flyers and was formerly the GM of the San Jose Sharks, so he came to the job with experience and a recent tutorial in the draft process.

The Draft Acquisitions

Prior to Lombardi’s hiring the Kings had already drafted players such as Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick, and Anze Kopitar. All were players that would eventually give the team the bones around which to build in the future. Lombardi’s early tenure with the organization bears some telltale marks of an organization prioritizing the draft. There were very few bodies that the Kings could have offered in trade as they had all more or less already been traded away due to financial concerns following McNall’s ownership. Or had left in free agency.

However, Lombardi’s first trade was to send Pavol Demitra to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Patrick O’Sullivan and a 1st round pick that became Trevor Lewis. Lombardi’s moves during the initial phase of his rebuild were, in what is now a standard rebuilding fashion, to move bodies for draft picks. In fact, following the trade with Carolina that sent Eric Belanger and Tim Gleason east for Oleg Tverdovsky and Jack Johnson, Lombardi made 18 consecutive trades (save a deadline day free agent rental of Jamie Heward where the Kings offered only a conditional draft pick that was not exercised) where LA received draft picks as their primary return.

Most of Lombardi’s moves were to target the peripheral players that wouldn’t be part of a new core and/or who would only have unrealized value on a fading team. Lombardi was trading away players like Sean Avery, Brent Sopel, Mattias Norstrom, Craig Conroy, Brad Stuart, and Michael Cammalleri. All of them were were solid NHL players to varying degrees, but had they remained on the Kings roster they would only have served to falsely inflate the performance of a fundamentally poor team.

Los Angeles turned some of those picks into Colten Teubert, Alec Martinez, and Wayne Simmonds. After emphasizing the draft Lombardi spent a great deal of time wheeling and dealing his way through the draft order. On June 20th 2008, Lombardi was a key architect of a deal that saw the Flames acquire Cammalleri and a 2nd round pick (Mitch Wahl), the Buffalo Sabres get the 12th pick overall (Tyler Myers – originally the 1st round pick that the Oilers forfeited to Anaheim in the Dustin Penner offer sheet), the Ducks would receive two first round picks, 17th and 28th overall that were used on Jake Gardiner and Viktor Tikhonov, respectively, and the Kings got a first round pick, 13th overall (Colten Teubert), a 2nd round pick (Brian Dumoulin) and a 2009 3rd round pick later sent to the Flames (Ryan Howse) for two more picks in the 3rd and 4th round of that year’s draft.

When Lombardi is accused of being a used-car salesman it is not entirely without some merit based on his aggressiveness in dealing players and picks. In spite of all this, the Kings never reached the levels of draft day bonanza that the Blackhawks did in 2004. In the 2007 and 2009 draft years, the Kings had ten picks in the seven rounds. In 2006 and 2008 they had nine. Both are rates higher than most playoff-level and championship teams, but not in the realm of a meltdown-rebuild similar to Chicago in 2004 (17 picks) or Washington in 2002 and 2004 (13 picks in each of those years).

So while Lombardi has been aggressive in his acquisition of draft picks for his team, often loading up on selections beyond the standard one pick per round, he has never exceeded the usual upper limit for rebuilding teams of ten picks in a given year.

With all those selections, did the Kings have any more success than other rebuilding teams at the draft table? Between 2005 and 2009, LA made 46 selections in the amateur draft: seven 1st round picks, seven 2nd round picks, eight in the 3rd round, five in the 4th, seven in the 5th, five in the 6th, and seven in the 7th. Ten of those picks have had an impact on the NHL level in Kopitar, Quick, Lewis, Jonathan Bernier, Wayne Simmonds, Alec Martinez, Drew Doughty, Brayden Schenn, Vyacheslav Voynov and Kyle Clifford. That is a 21.7% success rate, well above the league average of approximately 13%.

The Kings have never won the draft lottery, despite being in the top five three times in the last five years. They have been fortunate in the emergence of some of their depth draft selections in Jonathan Quick and Alec Martinez. However, it should be noted that many of the impact players the club drafted and developed have been selected in the first, second or third rounds.

During this rebuilding period the Kings had the misfortune of being a terrible team in an era of terrible teams. In 2007, they were only bad enough to be able to draft as high as 4th overall where they (mistakingly) took Thomas Hickey. The following year the Kings were bad enough, and their draft-day competitors in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington had improved enough, that they were able to draft 2nd overall (Drew Doughty). The year after, they climbed as high as 5th overall and selected Brayden Schenn.

Out of those lottery picks, only Doughty has had any direct impact on the team. Hickey is still developing but at this point appears unlikely to cover the Kings bet in taking him so high, while Schenn was part of the exchange that brought in Mike Richards. For those who believe the lottery is an uncertain, or unnecessary, path to building a team, the Kings provide a confirmational case study.

Nevertheless, the success rate of the Kings drafting and the talent that they were able to add throughout the draft in a relatively short period of time (seven years from the hiring of Dean Lombardi to their appearance in a Stanley Cup final as a favoured team after a dominant playoff performance) should speak to how a draft-and-develop strategy can work when well-executed. The Kings have also suffered their fair share of prospect defections with Oscar Moller, Bud Holloway, John Zeiler and Corey Elkins all leaving the AHL to play in Europe. Their value as prospects can be debated given the team’s success without them, however, the fact that all four played for the Monarchs just prior to leaving suggests that there are some issues to resolve, either with the AHL franchise or with the character assessments by the Kings’ scouts.

My Kingdom for a Kovalchuk

In 2009-2010 Lombardi finally stopped selling and started buying.

Or at least he tried to.

When Ilya Kovalchuk went on the market during the February trade deadline in 2010, LA was one of the final bidders, losing out to New Jersey. Lombardi was very displeased with missing out on Kovalchuk, and instead acquired first Alexei Ponikarovsky as a free agent, then traded for Ryan Smyth in the same off-season. He also added Jeff Halpern and Fredrik Modin, then Dustin Penner, Mike Richards and most recently Jeff Carter.

When Lombardi has chosen a direction for the Kings he has pursued it aggressively. As an example, recently trading 1st round draft picks in consecutive years* for forwards Carter and Penner. Lombardi has never shied away from making roster moves and is seemingly fearless about moving nearly any asset, be it a roster player or highly-coveted prospect, for what he perceives as a net gain for the franchise.

*(Columbus had the option of deferring the L.A. draft pick in the Carter deal to 2013)

A Business Hierarchy

The Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, the Kings’ affiliate, are also owned by AEG. This connection should not be understated as it provides the franchise with an opportunity for a great deal of control and consistency in the player and prospect experience. If run well, this kind of partnership can strengthen a franchise and give it a valuable competitive edge in the area of roster depth and continuity.

The Kings management has been largely unfettered by an intrusive ownership. Dean Lombardi has had a free financial hand with no internal player budget to consider outside of the salary cap. The ownership group controls both the NHL and AHL teams and thus has a single, continuous voice throughout the player development process. Drafting has been a strength of the franchise for the last decade and the Kings have benefited from some timely player acquisitions. The Kings Stanley Cup win this year was too late to make good on the goal of being the first Californiam, but it was still the culmination of many years of slow (at during more recent times, frantic), deliberate building.

On Rebuilding Series:

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Former Nations Overlord. Current FN contributor and curmudgeon For questions, complaints, criticisms, etc contact Kent @ kent.wilson@gmail. Follow him on Twitter here.
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#1 mcculb
July 20 2012, 11:47AM
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"Ten of those picks have had an impact on the NHL level in Kopitar, Quick, Lewis, Jonathan Bernier, Wayne Simmonds, Alec Martinez, Drew Doughty, Brayden Schenn, Vyacheslav Voynov and Kyle Clifford. That is a 21.7% success rate, well above the league average of approximately 13%."

The combination of procuring picks and finding and keeping a good amateur scouting staff is a credit to the Kings organization. A model we should have adopted 2 or 3 years ago. Continuing to try to be a middling and likely non playoff team yet again is handicapping and protracting the development path of this team. The Summer Olmypics begin in one week. There will be many insprirational stories about the pursuit of excellence. This organization is not inspired by the same kind of passion. I blame ownership for not reaching for excellence.

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#2 the-wolf
July 20 2012, 11:57AM
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"Most of Lombardi’s moves were to target the peripheral players that wouldn’t be part of a new core and/or who would only have unrealized value on a fading team. Lombardi was trading away players like Sean Avery, Brent Sopel, Mattias Norstrom, Craig Conroy, Brad Stuart, and Michael Cammalleri. All of them were were solid NHL players to varying degrees, but had they remained on the Kings roster they would only have served to falsely inflate the performance of a fundamentally poor team."

Maybe you can send that to Feaster and King.

That aside, the general crux I've taken from all of these articles is that teams take different and often very difficult paths towards a rebuild, but that a well-thought out and managed rebuild has a reasonable chance of bringing ultimate success. Versus, you know, just hanging-on and hoping for different results.

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#3 RexLibris
July 20 2012, 12:44PM
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@mcculb

I think the Flames ownership and management truly believe that they are pursuing excellence. The problem with that statement is that it is easy to make and somewhat easy to fabricate evidence of an effort while deflecting a lack of finish as attributable to outside forces (injuries, lack of trade partners, the freemasons, etc).

There are 28 teams in the league that say they are pursuing excellence (Toronto is just pursuing the market and, well, the Islanders?). They can't all be right and they can't all be excellent. This isn't elementary school, and not everyone can win.

I'm not a fan of Feaster and I am very grateful that he isn't the GM of the team I cheer for. That being said, he has brought one significant new aspect to the Flames that was lacking under Sutter's reign, which is a willingness to look at new areas and information for insight into hockey talent.

In that regard alone, I think Feaster has lived up to the definition of intellectual honesty.

The rest of his actions, though, I feel fall somewhat short of that mark.

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#4 RexLibris
July 20 2012, 12:57PM
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@the-wolf

Hey, long time no comment.

Yeah, there are a few common elements. Toronto, to date, sticks out like a sore thumb, but much of that has to do with the approach taken, or not taken depending on your point of view.

We also have the Islanders and Panthers to cover, as teams that haven't made the transition from terrible to told-ya-so.

Having a plan and sticking to it is definitely a requirement for any management group in a rebuild. It could arguably be tougher to do than to have a plan for a playoff contending team, as L.A. was up until this year, as it takes longer and the optics are so much worse.

To that end, I believe that Feaster has a plan, but it is a strategic plan to maximize their current situation, rather than to objectively assess their current situation and plot out a strategy that looks five or ten years down the road. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but it tends to translate as a deferred cost for continued perseverance and potential mediocrity.

Honestly, I don't think it would be so bad for Flames fans if the teams wasn't constantly compared to the Oilers.

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#5 the-wolf
July 20 2012, 01:13PM
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@Rex - out of the country for 4 weeks, still catching up on all the hockey news.

"To that end, I believe that Feaster has a plan, but it is a strategic plan to maximize their current situation, rather than to objectively assess their current situation and plot out a strategy that looks five or ten years down the road. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but it tends to translate as a deferred cost for continued perseverance and potential mediocrity."

That's the problem. The denial that there is a problem at all or least that the problem isn't as big as it actually is.

The Flames believe they can compete and rebuild at the same time, but history would seem to indicate that the two are mutually exclusive.

Feaster isn't the first Flames GM to try it and won't be the last. While the varying Calgary GMs have had different styles, the philosophy remains unchanged since it comes from ownership.

The difference now, or so they hope, is that Feaster has put a ton more resources into scouting and development, implemented advanced stats, etc. So, in that way, he's progressive.

The idea being that Iginla, Hudler, Cvervenka and company keep the team competing for 8th until the improvement in drafting/development can take hold.

IMO it's not enough, the age gap is still too great between the fading stars and the propsects and I don't think Hudler and Cverenka really change that. They may be in their mid-20's, but they're not difference-makers.

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#6 ChinookArch
July 20 2012, 01:17PM
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@RexLibris

"Honestly, I don't think it would be so bad for Flames fans if the teams wasn't constantly compared to the Oilers."

I think you're probably right, it's irritating hearing about how the Oilers are doing it, in light of the fact they haven't accomplished anything or are really trending upwardly, at this point.

Having a plan is important. Without one, setting goals for yourself or an organization is a useless waste of time. What is interesting to me is the amount of luck that organization's seem to need in order to right the ship. In the King's case a 21% drafting record in the last few years is outstanding. Now let's see if they can keep that up.

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#7 the-wolf
July 20 2012, 01:28PM
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@chinook arch -

"I think you're probably right, it's irritating hearing about how the Oilers are doing it, in light of the fact they haven't accomplished anything or are really trending upwardly, at this point."

Yeah, but tell me that the Oilers getting Justin Schultz on top of Yakupov, Hall, Eberle, Nuge and Gagner doesn't stick in your craw.

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#8 smith
July 20 2012, 01:42PM
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You can rebuild on the fly while remaining competitive. Numerous teams have done it. Vancouver, Rangers, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Minnisota etc... Often these teams spent one year well out of the playoffs, but in general were in the mix year in and year out.

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#9 smith
July 20 2012, 01:49PM
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Why not have a look, in this series, at teams that have rebuilt without sucking? This is the model the flames seem to be trying to do. Each of these teams you are covering were bottom feeders for years.

How does these teams rebuild have any barring on wether the flames can rebuild and remain competitive? This series seems focused on the oiler style rebuild trying to show that it is valid. Sure it might be but it would be nice to see another style of rebuild looked at.

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#10 Danger
July 20 2012, 01:57PM
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@the-wolf

I generally agree with what you're saying about the feasibility of Feaster's plan, but just want to make the small point that I think it's too early to say whether or not Cervenka is (or is going to be) a difference-maker.

I'm not saying the kid is a guaranteed world-beater or anything like that, just that he seems to be getting criticized a lot already (not necessarily by you, but in general around here) for something that he hasn't done yet (i.e., be a disappointment, fail to make an impact, etc.). I just think it's a bit unfair to the guy.

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#11 Danger
July 20 2012, 02:09PM
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@RexLibris

Great article once again, and I hope the Nations Overlords see fit to run more of your work in the future even after the rebuilding series is done.

With that said, I think it bears mentioning that Feaster's compromise approach - aiming for 8th while the youngins ripen - may not be in the best long-term interest of the franchise, but it's clearly in the best interest of one J. Feaster. GM tenures tend to be much shorter than 10 years, especially for GMs of non-playoff teams.

In light of this fact, the compromise approach at least has the benefit of trying to improve the franchise's future fortunes, even if that effort is hindered somewhat by the win-now mandate.

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#12 ChinookArch
July 20 2012, 02:36PM
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the-wolf wrote:

@chinook arch -

"I think you're probably right, it's irritating hearing about how the Oilers are doing it, in light of the fact they haven't accomplished anything or are really trending upwardly, at this point."

Yeah, but tell me that the Oilers getting Justin Schultz on top of Yakupov, Hall, Eberle, Nuge and Gagner doesn't stick in your craw.

YES IT DOES!

Let's just hope Shultz is way overrated. They also don't seem to appreciate Gagner much either.

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#13 RexLibris
July 20 2012, 02:40PM
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@the-wolf

Let me assist: Bettman, brinkmanship, blah, blah, blah, Suter, Parise, offshore accounts, captial gains tax, blah, blah, blah, Weber, small unmarked bills, wire transfer, tear in my beer, blah, blah, blah.

I hope that helps.

The two, rebuilding and competing, aren't mutually exclusive. But it does appear as though rebuilding and actually winnning a championship are.

smith mentions this, and most seem to like the Philadelphia, or more recently Florida and Ottawa, comparison. While these teams had one bad year, and have subsequently returned to playoff contention, the assets gained in that bad year had little or no impact on their resurgence.

Crosby, the best player in the world by many people's estimation, took four years to take his team from the draft floor to Stanley Cup Champions. He had some help along the way. Is it reasonable to think that any other team can draft first overall for one year and then magically rebound to playoff contention?

I'm just starting to write the Flames article in this series and many of the topics you've mentioned are coming up in my initial research.

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#14 RexLibris
July 20 2012, 02:47PM
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@ChinookArch

The accomplishments of the Oilers will be covered in detail (I apologize about the length in advance) in their article.

The short version is that they improved dramatically in the areas peripheral to the standings. The farm team is competing for the Calder Cup, the coaching ranks have been settled, the development stream has been reinforced and is getting rave reviews, the professional scouting has improved (it wasn't going to get much worse: they traded FOR Patrick O'Sullivan), and the powerplay, penalty kill and goals against all took dramatic steps forward this year.

I agree, at some point it is time to put up or shut up, but remember, much of the ballyhoo is coming from national media. If Flames fans are sick of it then keep these two things in mind: Edmonton fans had to hear nothing but how good Iginla, Phaneuf, Kiprusoff, Regehr and Sutter were for the Flames and that it isn't, generally, Oiler fans doing the hyping aside from Oiler sites.

As Kent would probably say, the Kings are due to return, at some point, to the league average. They're lack of draft picks these past two years will eventually take its toll. We shall see how their drafting and management holds up when this team needs to refuel and try for another run next season and the one after that.

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#15 RexLibris
July 20 2012, 02:49PM
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@Danger

Thanks. The agreement is simple. I keep sending those suitcases of nonsequential, unmarked small denominations to Kent, and he keeps putting up my delusional rants.

It's a symbiotic arrangement.

I am writing a similar article on the Flames that will run at the end of the series. I'll be looking at long-term versus short-term and impacts and such.

That being said, I think you have some good points here and I'll probably add that perspective to my analysis, if you don't mind. ;-)

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#16 RexLibris
July 20 2012, 02:55PM
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@ChinookArch

About Gagner...

The Oilers have had an organizational fixation with big centers since a certain St. Albert son left town. Jason Arnott was a temporary fix, but they have spent generations trying to scratch that itch. Isbister, Daze, Hulbig, Bonsignore, etc, etc. Funny thing about that, historically, the team has had the most success with the diminutive yet creative centers. Go figure.

Schultz was overrated by the media, but most people in hockey realize what he is. Essentially the Oilers got an NHL-ready prospect as though they had an extra 1st round pick in the top ten of this year's draft. I suspect he will be a player of similar potential impact as Jeff Petry. Probably a great second pairing when all is said and done.

His first season or two should see some time perhaps in the AHL or as a 3rd pairing guy with plenty of powerplay time. If he graduates to 2nd pairing this season then either he is a quick study or the Oilers are hit by injuries. Nah, that never happens.

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#17 FireOnIce
July 20 2012, 03:37PM
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@RexLibris

Thanks for another great article in the series Rex, I've quite enjoyed reading them.

As far as Schultz playing in the AHL next season, I don't see it happening unless he completely bombs in the NHL. There's a reason he didn't want to play for Anaheim (besides many glaringly obvious ones) - he was probably going to play for their AHL team to start and didn't want to. I get a sense of arrogance from him.

I think part of the attraction to Edmonton, besides playing with some really good, flashy young players, is that Schultz will likely make the team out of camp. If he wasn't directly promised that by the Oilers' management, I'm sure it was implied.

His contract is the maximum possible amount they could give him. Why pay $3.78M for a player you're going to just stick in the AHL?

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#18 RexLibris
July 20 2012, 04:03PM
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@FireOnIce

Thanks. I'm actually flattered that they are getting such a positive response (outside of Toronto, of course).

Schultz had said that his primary motive in leaving Anaheim was a desire to play in Canada. I know, as a fellow Canadian this is a bit of a shock, but looking through his final teams they were all Canadian after the Rangers were eliminated early.

Obviously he can read a depth chart and knows that the Oilers have a dearth of NHL-ready defensive talent right now, but it was communicated ad nauseum by both he and his agent, as well as Ralph Krueger and Tambellini after the fact, that development was his next focus. While the depth chart of the Oilers certainly gives him plenty of latitude, he recognized the change that he could start the season in Oklahoma City and said that he would accept that assignment willingly.

I know that you can always second guess what a player says, but at some point, after the same message is repeated over and over again, one has the choice to either take them at their word or discount everything they say out of hand.

Looking at this with a skeptical eye, I think he saw that at his age he fit into the learning curve of the Oilers perfectly and felt that, at the worst, he would spend two years here before moving on to another (presumably Canadian) team for a better opportunity. At best he has a chance to sign a significant contract and perhaps be a member of a championship-caliber team (I did say, "at best").

One thing I will point out is that Krueger was insistent that he would do what was best for the long-term development of players like Schultz and Yakupov.

We'll see when they finally decide to get back to playing the game on the ice rather than the one in the boardroom.

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