The Florida Panthers and LA Kings owned the 10th and 11th picks at the NHL Draft. After Detroit had selected Michael Rasmussen ninth overall, Los Angeles knew they’d be selecting one of two OHL players: Mississauga’s Owen Tippett or Windsor’s Gabriel Vilardi. Dale Tallon strode to the stage, waited for a standing ovation at Chicago’s United Center to die down before yelling out, “Right back at ya!” and then announced Tippett’s name. Tippett is a prime NHL prospect on the verge of a recall to a deep offensive group and scored a goal as a teenager for Florida two seasons ago. Vilardi, too, has an NHL goal. A really nice assist, too.
For one needed night at the beginning of a stretch in which they’ll play 14 of 15 at home – a scheduling imbalance that Todd McLellan had strong opinions about – the Kings summoned up some juju they’ll need to sustain over a long weekend and beyond. It was storybook, it was poetic, it was an important moment for a young man whose career was in jeopardy and whose health requires some pretty regular attention. “He’s got a pretty crazy routine before practice,” Drew Doughty told me before the game. Obviously, he went through some problems, injury-wise, so now he has to go through all these things to get ready for the game. You see some great professionalism from him there.” The reward was so worth the pain and sweat and, for a long time, inertia, to get to this point, and across hockey there were endless platitudes and well-wishes expressed towards someone who over an exhausting process had to rewire himself and the way he practiced and prepared for games so that he might experience the type of pure, unadulterated joy we saw both last night and the night in Chicago his name was called.
(This is not the time to note that Sergei Bobrovsky, who entered with an .899 save percentage, is 31, and carries a $10-million cap hit through 2026, allowed the softest goal we’ve seen this season on the first shot of the game, but, gosh, we’ve got to do it anyway. Meanwhile, Toffoli, who had a 6.35% 5×5 shooting percentage since 2017, punches a hole in his hat. Also, can we agree that we’ve understood that Aleksander Barkov is an outstanding player for years – that wristshot on the second goal, hoo boy – and that Jonathan Huberdeau is much more “underrated?” Every time I watch Florida, I’m aware of how great Barkov is, but it’s always Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov whose playmaking and puck protection subtleties that get me almost every time.)
Importantly, it’s gut check time for a number of young-to-young-ish Kings whose names were mentioned by McLellan during some extended media availability. “The decision was made, the plan was plotted, the execution of the plan is beginning now,” McLellan said. “I think the next level of player – and that would be Amadio, Wagner, Lizotte, Moore, Prokhorkin – those are the guys now. You’ve got 22 games to figure where you fit in and what you can get done and accomplish here.” Michael Amadio (turns 24 in May), Austin Wagner (23 in June), Blake Lizotte (recently turned 22), Trevor Moore (turns 25 in a month) and Nikolai Prokhorkin (26) have 22 games to show what role they will play in this rebuild and how they might entrench themselves on future rosters. This was essentially the thrust of this season, one in which the cavalry – Vilardi, Alex Turcotte, Samuel Fagemo, Rasmus Kupari, Arthur Kaliyev and now Tyler Madden among them – hasn’t yet arrived. Before it does, it still needs to be seen what Rob Blake can take from this season and whether there are those who may be written in ink or pencil next year. One-game samples don’t mean much, but Austin Wagner’s struggles in the defensive end continued as his backhanded, up-the-middle pass was picked off and turned into Barkov’s first goal. Trevor Moore scored on an astute deflection but wasn’t otherwise fond of his game, telling me afterwards that while he’s been happy with his his overall game, Thursday “wasn’t one of [his] best performances.” He’s got two goals in six games and became only the second Californian to score for the LA Kings at Staples Center some 13 years after Noah Clarke did so off Dustin Brown and Jaroslav Modry assists in a win over Edmonton.
And, let us end by touching on Alec Martinez, the latest King to become a necessary casualty of roster turnover and an ongoing infusion of youth. While there has been an exodus of players, the banners remain intact, the memories may collect some dust but hardly fade and as hard as it may be for some to see the Kings legend in a Golden Knights jersey, the bonds between players who accomplished what those like Martinez did remain intact forever. Both Toffoli and Martinez traveled with the team to Winnipeg. A group that included both veterans went out to dinner Monday night, and just as food was served, Rob Blake’s name popped up on Toffoli’s phone. Tyler knew what it was about and he was waiting for that moment, but that didn’t make it any less abrupt. The news was processed so quickly that when Martinez wanted to reach out to Toffoli, he was already at the airport, ticketed for Vancouver. We were largely expecting an L.A.-Vegas trade but learned of the Martinez news one day later from a mid-afternoon Bob McKenzie tweet. Because cap space played into the equation, the exchange couldn’t be consummated until Wednesday, and Martinez flew home with us to Los Angeles. Alec came to the back of the plane and before hanging out with the media for 10 minutes gave Daryl Evans an enormous bear hug. (It was joked that it would serve multiple parties well if he were to *not* throw his back out that night.) But Alec thanked all of us, and we returned the appreciation – with gusto – for his intelligent candor and what he managed to accomplish in Los Angeles. I recalled a few times that he referenced the 13 years he’d been a part of the organization – Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick have been with the organization for 15 years, Trevor Lewis for 14 and Drew Doughty for 12 – so it was important they’d all found time to congregate one last time as teammates. “I’m at the card table, but he came up and we chatted for a long time,” Doughty said before Thursday’s game. “He was obviously a little sad leaving the LA Kings organization. He put a lot of blood, sweat & tears into it, but at the same time, we continued to tell him, ‘What a great opportunity you have.’” Those moments will be remembered live and in technicolor and for a long, long time by a lot of people in an otherwise nondescript season. And then the plane landed, and they got into their cars, and it was off into the early morning darkness.