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A Tale of 2 Rebuilds: How the Rangers and Kings Revitalized Their Rosters

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMarch 20, 2021

New York Rangers' Adam Fox (23) plays against the Pittsburgh Penguins during an NHL hockey game, Sunday, March 7, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Seven years ago, the Stanley Cup was Hollywood vs. Broadway. It was a five-game series defined by two of the best goalies in the world who could not have been more different, on the ice or off it, and two teams that looked like they would dominate their divisions for years to come.

There was Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, the dapper king of the Garden, who needed a Stanley Cup jewel to put in his crown. King Hank played so deep in his crease he created an ice pile that saved a goal in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden and prevented the Rangers from getting swept.

Jonathan Quick was the antithesis of Lundqvist—and probably still is. Well-spoken and well-dressed, Hank wore tailored suits, while the Connecticut native often showed up to postseason press conferences dressed like Bill Belichick, a hooded sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves, and speaking like him as well—short and gruff.

Quick lived life on the crease dangerously, often playing way out of his net and antagonizing his opponents. Not much has changed on that front.

But the defining moment of that series was Alec Martinez scoring the game-winner in double-overtime at Staples Center to secure the Los Angeles Kings' second Stanley Cup in three seasons. The defenseman was so excited he shook off his gloves in a celebration that Angelenos still refer to simply as "jazz hands."

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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Then it all unraveled for both teams. Their cores aged. The coaches were fired. Stars retired. Rebuilds are inevitable in salary-cap leagues, even for the big-market teams. Years later, these teams find themselves in similar positions trying to do exactly that. They have the two deepest prospect pools in hockey, so while their outlooks are strong, it's unclear just how near that future is.

Let's take a look at the two rebuilds and see whether we can gauge how quickly these teams will return to prominence.

                 

Where the Builds Began

The Rangers issued a statement to fans ahead of the trade deadline in February 2018, saying the club intended to be sellers instead of buyers. At the time, the Rangers were within striking distance of a playoff spot, but the Blueshirts brass saw the writing on the wall: The game was getting younger and faster, and the Rangers needed to follow that blueprint if they wanted to be competitive in the future.

They traded star forward Rick Nash and Michael Grabner. The biggest haul came from the trade that sent captain Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Through those three trades alone, the Rangers received three players currently contributing at the NHL level (Ryan Lindgren, Brett Howden and Libor Hajek) and five draft picks, including two 2018 first-round picks, giving them a total of three in 2018.

The Kings were slower to come around to the idea of rebuilding. General manager Dean Lombardi and head coach Darryl Sutter, two people most responsible for building those championship teams, were fired in the spring of 2017 and replaced by franchise great Rob Blake and John Stevens.

The Kings still had a large group left from the 2014 Cup team: captain Anze Kopitar, former captain Dustin Brown, that '70s line of Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli that was so successful in postseasons past, role-player forwards Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis, Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Drew Doughty and his skating partner Jake Muzzin and, of course, Martinez and Quick. Blake saw a talented group still in its prime and believed it had another playoff run together.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

But the game passed them by. The Kings were still playing a big-heavy game when the rest of the league went to speed and skill. They finally pulled the plug during the 2018-19 season, firing Stevens and starting the building process by acquiring draft picks.

           

What Came Next

The Rangers fired Alain Vigneault in 2018 and replaced him with David Quinn, the former Boston University coach who helped shape players like Jack Eichel at the collegiate level.

In 2019, the Rangers won the Artemi Panarin sweepstakes, signing the winger as a free agent through 2026. A trade-and-sign brought Jacob Trouba to the blue line, and the next season Chris Kreider was extended. Mika Zibanejad rounded out the leadership group.

A year later, Blake hired Todd McLellan to replace interim coach Willie Desjardins and used the 2019 trade deadline to stockpile more draft picks and bring in some quality prospects to reshape the farm system. The Kings were forced to part with several members from that Cup-winning team.

         

State of the Systems

The Kings and Rangers have done a fantastic job of bringing in prospects. The Athletic's Scott Wheeler ranks the Los Angeles system as No. 1 in the NHL and the New York system as No. 2.

The Rangers have most of their top-tier talent playing in the NHL. Wingers Kaapo Kakko (No. 2 overall in 2019) and Alexis Lafreniere (No. 1 in 2020) and defenseman K'Andre Miller (No. 22 in 2018) headline a young group, though defenseman Adam Fox, a Harvard product the Rangers acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes, has been the star. The Rangers also have two young goalies in Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev and several top prospects in Europe, with Vitali Kravtsov set to join the team any day.

Bruce Bennett/Associated Press

Blake and his group brought high-end talent to their farm system and significantly deepened it after years of struggling to develop talent.

Quinton Byfield, the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, is the key piece. Byfield is playing for Ontario of the American Hockey League this season, with the Kings not trying to rush the development of their 6'4" game-changing center. This team won two Cups with significant depth up the middle, and Byfield could help them replicate that success in the future.

However, the Kings don't have a true goaltending prospect with Quick's likely replacement, Cal Petersen, already 26 years old, which complicates their situation.

           

Where They Stand

The Kings only have five players remaining from that 2014 squad, and one of them is Quick. He could also be their best piece come trade time. And for the first time since 2017-18, the playoffs might be in sight for Los Angeles. The Kings find themselves sitting in fifth place in the West Division, five points behind the St. Louis Blues, with the top four teams in each division making the playoffs this year. They may not be able to keep up with some of the better teams in the division, but they can easily fend off the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, and also probably the Arizona Coyotes.

So, how do they play this? Do they bring in a couple of players to help them get to the postseason or try to move some of their high-end forwards to bring in more assets? If they decide to go in the latter direction, they could trade Quick.

The 2012 Conn Smythe winner and two-time Jennings Trophy winner is 35. He still moves well laterally. He knows how to win. His contract is also relatively easy to swallow: Quick has two more years left after this season, and because his contract was heavily front-loaded, he'll make $3.5 million this year, $3 million next year and $2.5 million in the final year of his deal.

That cap space could be valuable to a team on the rise.

The Rangers had high hopes after making the postseason bubble last summer, but they haven't lived up to the hype. Kakko and Lafreniere have not developed into stars overnight. Quinn may be to blame. Or maybe it's the player development system as a whole. They've both been moved around the lineup quite a bit, which is not ideal for two young, developing players.

Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

But at the same time, shuffling is going to happen when the team is struggling to find consistency. It's also possible they just need some time. They're both so young, and every player develops at his own pace.

               

The Outlook

The Rangers might have more NHL-ready talent and a younger core, but they need to get better on the back end of the blue line, and they need to figure out whether Quinn is the coach who can get them through this rebuild. If the prospects aren't developing under him, it could be time to go in another direction.

However, if there is a chance of the Rangers getting Eichel from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline or over the summer, then maybe he's worth keeping around.

The Kings have stabilized the whole operation. There is no question who is leading the rebuild and no question about who will be coaching the team next season.

So, which team is ahead in the race to rebuild?

Neither—they're neck and neck with the forgotten team from 2014, the Chicago Blackhawks, who lost to the Kings in overtime of a thrilling Game 7 in the Western Conference Final. Not much was expected from the Hawks without captain Jonathan Toews, who has been out all season with an undisclosed medical condition, but Patrick Kane has them sitting in fourth place in the Central Division.

We could be headed for a repeat of 2014 in the next five years: a Los Angeles-Chicago series and a Hollywood-Broadway Stanley Cup Final. They aren't there yet, but give it two years and prominence will be restored.

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