Frank Orris/Icon SMI
Jeff Carter, right, has had a good impact on his friend and roommate Mike Richards.
As the Los Angeles Kings venture even deeper into the NHL playoffs, winning another road game Sunday night to improve to 9-1 in the postseason, the front-office decisions from late February continue look like the tipping point in their success.
Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, under pressure as a result of the subpar performance from the team he built, made what was described at the time as a career Hail Mary. He cut ties with a young, puck-moving defenseman, Jack Johnson, and traded him to the Columbus Blue Jackets for high-scoring winger Jeff Carter.
While Carter hasn’t exactly played to expectations, scoring six goals in 16 regular-season games (two of which were empty-netters) and just one in the playoffs, he has impacted the second line in other ways. Most notably, his good friend and roommate, Mike Richards, pulled out of a late-season tailspin with 10 games remaining and has emerged as a difference-maker in the postseason.
And then there was the less obvious change that came with the Carter trade. Johnson’s departure opened a full-time spot on the blue line for rookie Slava Voynov, and his sound defensive decisions and offensive acumen have been the perfect addition to an already solid defensive corps. Voynov made two crisp outlet passes in Game 1 against the Phoenix Coyotes, leading to tiebreaking goals in the 4-2 victory.
Voynov’s value to the team can pretty much be summed up in the plus-minus category. Johnson was a minus-12 in 61 games with the Kings this season, Voynov was a plus-12 in 54 regular-season games. He sits at plus-3 in the postseason.
And then there was the move everyone outside of Lombardi’s office was discussing as the trade deadline approached, but was never made. The Kings were fielding calls from organizations interested in Dustin Brown, the gritty right wing with just enough scoring touch to make him a front-line player. At a reasonable cost of $3.5 million a year through the 2013-14 season, he was also considered a good fit on most payrolls.
Lombardi didn’t pull the trigger and Brown repaid him in kind, beginning a scoring spree with 20 games left in the regular season that carried into the playoffs. He scored his seventh goal of the postseason in the Game 1 victory Sunday in Phoenix, which held up as his third game winner of the playoffs.
Brown has emerged as a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which is awarded to the most valuable player in the playoffs. Between his goal scoring, leadership and jaw-rattling hits during the postseason, Brown has put the Kings on his broad shoulders and carried them into the Western Conference finals for just the second time in franchise history.
And there’s the psychological factor that came with the trade-deadline moves (and non-moves). The front office showed the players it meant business, leaving them no reason not to exhibit a 100 percent effort. After the Carter deal went down, the Kings went 13-5-3 down the stretch, assuring themselves a spot in these playoffs.
The career Hail Mary by Lombardi is now in the hands of the players, and it appears there's little to prevent them from taking it all the way.