On many levels, the Los Angeles Kings are the perfect symbol of the road not taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs under general manager Brian Burke's watch.
For years, Burke worked in this same southern California market opposite his Los Angeles Kings counterpart Dean Lombardi, and the two are good friends. But philosophically, they are miles apart.
As Burke tried to rebuild the Leafs organization on the fly - by among other things, surrendering two first-round draft choices to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Phil Kessel's rights - the Kings undertook the polar opposite approach. They hoarded all of their draft choices and went all scorched-earth, deciding to build a new foundation from the ground up.
Since 2003, or when they selected the trio of Dustin Brown, Brian Boyle and Jeff Tambellini in the first round, the Kings had a total of 12 first-round picks in seven years, including three in the top five. Additionally, the Kings picked up a 13th first-rounder when they acquired Jack Johnson (third overall in the 2005 draft) in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes.
It was the sort of patient but painstakingly slow building philosophy that many thought Toronto should have undertaken when Burke first took over and inherited a team that needed a massive overhaul.
But after all these years, and adding all those prospects, the Kings remain a work in progress. Some days, they show signs of being on the verge of greatness. Other times, they seem decidedly aimless.
This can be a function of youth, which can test and frustrate even the most patient of managers and coaches, but not the Kings' Terry Murray.
"As a veteran coach, I've really enjoyed the approach that everybody's taken around here," said Murray, who spent four years as an assistant in the Philadelphia organization before joining L.A. in July, 2008.
Lombardi was scouting for the Flyers before he got hired to run the Kings; it is where he and Murray first crossed paths.
"Dean's doing it the right way here," Murray stressed. "It all starts when you make the decision that you'll start to go through the process of rebuilding. Three years ago, that was a hard decision to make, I'm sure. Mr. [Phillip]Anschutz [the team's owner]was clearly on board. When I got the job here, meeting him for the first time, he gave Dean the thumbs up to stay with it. It's going to be hard. It's going to be a process. The fans and the media might have a difficult time with it sometimes, but you're doing the right thing. Stay with it. When you get that kind of endorsement from your ownership, it's very significant. It means everything.
"The process is going along according to plan. We have a very good minor-league team. They went deep into the playoffs last year. Lots of young kids. They were maybe the youngest team in the AHL last year and maybe again this year. We're one of the younger teams in the NHL.
"But the man on the hot seat is Dean. You have to say no to a lot of tempting offers and not go for the quick fix."
The Kings briefly considered the quick fix last summer, but ultimately bowed out of the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes. Since then, they've been linked in possible trades for impact players such as Jarome Iginla (Calgary) or Brad Richards (Dallas), neither of which seems doable at the moment.
So for now, they rely on a nucleus of three home-grown players to lead them out of the wilderness: Drew Doughty (second overall in 2008), Anze Kopitar (11th overall in 2005) and goaltender Jonathan Quick (72nd overall in 2005). The Kings were lucky to get Kopitar where they did - he was fifth-ranked by Central Scouting, but dropped in his draft year, in part because no one knew too much about him. In goal, Quick is outplaying the more heralded Jonathan Bernier, a first-rounder, 11th overall, in 2006.
Washington was a non-traditional market when Murray coached there and Florida, another place where he worked, is still trying to find its NHL groove. L.A., however, is different. It is a more mature market, 44 years in now, and still awaiting its first championship. Sooner or late, the hope and expectation is that the Kings can do what the Chicago Blackhawks did a year ago and see all of that young talent blossom at once into a championship contender.
At times - during last year's run to the playoffs, in a 12-3 start this year - the signs of progress are there. At other times - during a five-game losing streak that ended Saturday against Columbus - they look like a team spinning its wheels.
More than anything else right now, the Kings lack consistency. Until they develop some, their blueprint, while wildly different than Toronto's and far sexier, has yet to pay any significant dividends - at least not yet anyway.Report Typo/Error