For a team that has gone 44 years without a championship, the Los Angeles Kings are a fascinating study on so many levels. In their history, they've made just one trip to the Stanley Cup final (1993) and may have even won the thing if Marty McSorley hadn't been caught using an illegal stick, right at the point that they were about to take a 2-0 lead, on the road, against the Montreal Canadiens.
It's been mostly downhill for the 15 seasons since - 11 years out of the playoffs, three first-round exits, plus one memorable upset win over a 111-point Detroit Red Wings in 2001, with coach Andy Murray behind the bench.
One of the NHL's biggest issues during that down turn was how weak its teams were in the three major U.S. markets - New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The iffy results in Boston, another attractive Original Six market, weren't great either. But the Rangers have been OK for a few years now; the Bruins soared to the top of the Eastern Conference last year; and the Blackhawks possess one of the best young teams in the game.
So now it is just left for the Kings to execute their turnaround in the standings, a painfully slow process that some thought would be expedited this July in the unrestricted free-agent market. It didn't happen, but not for lack of trying.
The Kings ended up with one strategic signing - defenceman Rob Scuderi, off the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins - and one addition made via trade, acquiring former Oilers winger Ryan Smyth from the rebuilding Colorado Avalanche.
The Kings had been linked to the Ottawa Senators in a possible trade for Dany Heatley, but assistant GM Ron Hextall put an abrupt end to that talk during a recent season-ticket holder forum, noted that Heatley came with too many red flags for their liking.
Smyth, a left winger with a less impressive resume, but also less perceived baggage, became a more attractive second choice.
On the surface, it looked as if the Kings took on a fairly hefty contract with Smyth because of his annual $6.25-million (all currency U.S.) salary-cap charge. However, a closer look shows it's not as bad as it may appear. For starters, the Avalanche took back from Los Angeles a player, Tom Preissing, who was earning NHL money ($2.75-million for two more years) in the minor leagues.
Kyle Quincy, the other player surrendered in the deal, was a decent contributor last year for the Kings, but he was acquired on the waiver wire from Detroit, so they didn't invest a lot of time or effort in his development.
Moreover, Smyth's original contract with Colorado was front-loaded, so the most expensive two years (one at $7.5-million, one at $7.25-million) have already clicked off the contract. What's left are the final three years at $6.5, $5.5 and $4.5-million.
It's not a great cap number ($6.25-million overall), but for a team such as the Kings, with cap room to spare, it's not as big an issue as it might be elsewhere in the NHL. They are still $7.25-million under the 2009-10 salary cap, with 20 players signed for next year.
In terms of cash out of the owners' pocket, the Smyth contract - minus what they were paying Preissing in the minors - is just about right for a player who scored 59 points in 77 games last season and meets the organization's primary requirement for depth at left wing.
Financially, the Kings would still be in a position to revisit a Heatley deal if they so desired, but according to general manager Dean Lombardi, they chose to go in a different direction with Smyth.
"The contract is good, but that's not the reason we did it," said Lombardi, of the trade he completed last weekend,just ahead of the July 4 holiday in the United States and thus received minimal notoriety or attention.
"No. 1, (Smyth) is a heart-and-soul guy. We started down this path of building with youth and one of the quickest ways of getting off track is by trading your draft picks or trading young players or bringing in the wrong kinds of guys that don't stand for what you believe in."