- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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The stack of papers announcing the news sat in the media room among the game notes, stat sheets and news releases as a reminder that the Kings didn't need to do anything hasty or drastic to their roster.
"Devils Acquire Kovalchuk."
The news story of the New Jersey Devils' acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk, the superstar winger from the Atlanta Thrashers, was being disseminated by the Kings because Los Angeles was one of four teams in the running for the player but in the end decided Atlanta's price tag was too much.
It isn't surprising, considering the Kings haven't made a blockbuster move to acquire a superstar in his prime since trading for Wayne Gretzky nearly 22 years ago and certainly haven't made any moves to bolster their roster down the stretch the past eight seasons while they've been out of playoff contention.
While it's fair to criticize the organization for its inability to acquire a superstar in the past, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi made the right decision this time. This wasn't the time to give up on the Kings' future for a second-half rental who might have allowed the Kings to win a couple of more playoff games, if that, but not much more.
The Kings were such players in the Kovalchuk sweepstakes last week that Thrashers general manager Don Waddell was in New Jersey on Sunday to scout the Kings for potential players to be included in the deal. The Devils were such nonplayers at that point that their general manager, Lou Lamoriello, hadn't even contacted Waddell about a possible trade.
Waddell apparently liked what he saw from the Kings. The problem is, he liked too much of what he saw. When he called Lombardi to discuss the parameters of a possible deal, he wanted Dustin Brown, Jack Johnson and Wayne Simmonds. Brown (the Kings' 25-year-old captain), Johnson (the team's 23-year-old Olympic defenseman) and Simmonds (the 21-year-old fan-favorite winger, who leads the team with a plus-17 rating) make up the core of a young Kings team that also includes Drew Doughty, 20, and Anze Kopitar, 22.
Trading for Kovalchuk not only would have taken away three of the Kings' core players, but the team would have traded away its future for a player who would be in L.A. for only the last 25 games of the season. There was no way the Kings were going to be able to keep Kovalchuk after the season. He turned down a deal from Atlanta that was worth more than $101 million over 12 years, and the Kings are not in a position to offer any one player close to $10 million a season.
If they even thought about offering anyone that kind of money, it probably would come at the expense of Doughty and Kopitar, completely gutting the team of its core for a single superstar. Such a move would leave the Kings back where they were a couple of years ago and erase any progress the team has made under Lombardi.
The very reason the Kings were looking into making the trade -- to bolster the roster of a young squad in playoff contention -- is also why they were hesitant to make the move. If the Kings were simply a collection of young players with the potential to be good sometime down the line, that would be one thing, but the Kings have shown over the past eight games that their young group might not be far from being ready to contend on its own without the help of a big-name player.
On Thursday, soon after news broke that the Kings would not be acquiring Kovalchuk, the Kings beat the Ducks 6-4, winning a franchise record-tying eighth straight game. Fittingly, the three players rumored to be involved in the Kovalchuk deal all contributed to the win. Brown scored the go-ahead goal with 5:32 left, Johnson had a goal and three assists for his first four-point game in the NHL, and Simmonds scored as well to lead the Kings to their best start after 57 games since the 1980-81 season.
One reason Kovalchuk is looking forward to going to New Jersey is the opportunity to play with goaltender Martin Brodeur, but the Kings might have a budding star in 24-year-old Jonathan Quick, who has been in net during the team's eight-game run, breaking the franchise record for the longest winning streak by a goalie. Quick's 33rd victory of the season also gave him the league lead by one over Brodeur and put him within two wins of the club record, set in 1980-81 by Mario Lessard.
"We have the youngest core group in the NHL by a couple years," Kings coach Terry Murray said after the game. "There's no question that they've shown a growth spurt during this critical time of the year. When we lost a game against St. Louis in our last homestand, we set a goal that we would make it right before the Olympic break. There was a lot of responsibility thrown their way. They really had to step up and play better, and there's no question that their contribution has been major. They're going in the right direction now."
And so are the Kings, who continue to prove they don't need to make any changes to their roster to change the direction of a team that continues to move up in the playoff standings just fine on its own.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.