NEWARK, N.J. -- Three weeks before the trade that sent shock waves through the NHL and turned this season around for the Los Angeles Kings, there was the conversation.
Kings general manager Dean Lombardi sat down with rookie defenseman Slava Voynov in early February and broke the news that he was sending him back to the minor leagues.
The Kings were stacked with defensemen, and Voynov was better off playing full-time for the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, rather than watching games from the locker room as a healthy scratch.
It was heartbreaking news for Voynov, who had already spent three full seasons with the Monarchs and was the final cut coming out of training camp last fall. He came up for five games in October while Drew Doughty nursed a shoulder injury, then was sent down again. He was brought back in November when Alec Martinez was injured and thought he would stick around for good, but then came the devastating news from Lombardi.
Voynov, 22, said he thought about giving up on his dreams of playing full-time in the NHL and returning to his native Russia, where he could become just as rich and famous playing in the Kontinental Hockey League.
But with the demotion came assurance from Lombardi that Voynov, an early second-round pick of the Kings in 2008, would soon be back.
“When I got sent down, I thought about the KHL because, you know, I’m mad and sad,” Voynov said Friday afternoon on the eve of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals. “My friends told me not to think about it, just wait and trust yourself and Lombardi.”
Voynov followed their advice and returned to Manchester, where he continued to play like a man among boys.
Meanwhile, the Kings went 2-5-2 without Voynov in the lineup, and changes needed to be made if they had any hope of qualifying for the postseason for a third consecutive year.
Lombardi, knowing he had an NHL-ready defenseman in Manchester, pulled the trigger on the league’s biggest trade-deadline move, sending defenseman Jack Johnson to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for high-scoring winger Jeff Carter.
“I wouldn’t have been able to make that deal for Carter, moving a defenseman like Jack Johnson, without [Voynov] allowing me to do that,” Lombardi told SI.com last month. “As much as we needed Carter, I wasn’t going to leave my back end exposed, and I had in the back of my mind that this kid was ready.”
The maneuver paid off like triple 7s on a slot machine, as the Kings went 13-5-3 down the stretch with both Carter and Voynov in the lineup and secured the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. That momentum carried into the postseason. The Kings are 13-2 in the playoffs heading into Game 2 on Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils and stand three wins from winning their first Stanley Cup title in franchise history.
“What an experience,” Voynov said. “I’ve been dreaming of this season since I was 2 years old. I’m so excited.”
One way to measure Voynov’s value to the team is in the plus-minus category. Johnson was a minus-12 in 61 regular-season games with the Kings this season, Voynov was a plus-12 in 54. He sits at plus-2 in the postseason with a goal and two assists. More important, counting the regular season and playoffs, the Kings are 43-18-8 with Voynov in the lineup, and 10-11-7 with him either scratched or in Manchester.
By design, Kings coach Darryl Sutter has paired Voynov with the most experienced blueliner on the team, Willie Mitchell.
“I’m the guy who’s supposed to be there, on most nights, to settle things down, cover up for him, but he’s a good young player,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes, he’s covering my butt out there.”
Voynov says he never stops learning from Mitchell.
“I learned everything, especially for the D-zone, behind the net, the blue line, everywhere,” he said. “Offensively, probably a little bit. I know about [offense].”
Like Martinez and Doughty, Voynov brings an offensive element to his game that makes him dangerous on the power play and odd-man rushes.
“He’s got a lot of poise with the puck, he’s got a fantastic shot and he gets it through to the net a lot, which is important on our power play and even strength,” said Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi. “He has been a great addition for us.”
The sky’s now the limit for Voynov. He’s signed through next season at $787,500 a year and then will become a restricted free agent.
There’s a good chance the next extended conversation he has with Lombardi will bring a big smile to his face.