LOS ANGELES - The Chicago Blackhawks' first Stanley Cup triumph since 1961 was the best thing that could have happened to the Los Angeles Kings short of winning it themselves.
The Blackhawks' six-game victory over the Flyers proved that good things come to those who wait. And who draft well, create the right mix in the locker room, and benefit from supportive ownership.
The Kings and Blackhawks were on the same dismal track most of the last decade, lacking a cohesive plan or the guts to build the right way.
The Hawks missed the playoffs every season but one between 1997-98 and 2007-08; the Kings' last playoff appearance before this spring was in 2002. The Hawks reached the Western Conference final last season and put that lesson to good use this year; the Kings lost their first-round series to Vancouver two months ago but felt they could have won, a memory that can inspire them next season.
After years of neglect, the Blackhawks were revived when Rocky Wirtz succeeded his late father, William, and put money and passion into hockey operations and marketing. The Kings, whose season-ticket base dropped below 10,000 four years ago, have made substantial gains under General Manager Dean Lombardi, who is fanatical about building through the draft and developing players with as much character as skill.
The Kings are probably two years, two centers and a defenseman or two behind the Blackhawks' path, though that could change depending on Lombardi's moves in the free-agent market. The Kings should be a desirable destination for premier players, and that would again follow the lead of the Blackhawks, who filled vital holes through free agency with prolific winger Marian Hossa, defenseman Brian Campbell, clever winger Tomas Kopecky and gritty fourth-liner John Madden, twice a Cup champion with the New Jersey Devils.
But Chicago's first step was to assemble a solid core through the draft by wisely using the early picks that resulted from all those non-playoff finishes.
Duncan Keith, who is likely to add the Norris trophy to a haul that includes an Olympic gold medal and Cup title, was a second-round pick in 2002. His defense partner, Brent Seabrook, was chosen 14th in 2003. Power forward Dustin Byfuglien was an eighth-round pick that year and had an enormous effect on the Blackhawks' Cup run with 11 goals.
Dave Bolland, a solid, two-way center, was chosen in the second round in 2004. Troy Brouwer, a big forward who scored 22 goals this season, was chosen five rounds later.
Their heartbeat is steady center Jonathan Toews, drafted third overall in 2006, and flashy winger Patrick Kane, the No. 1 pick in 2007. Toews, 22, won an Olympic gold medal with Canada in February and the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs. Kane had probably his best game of the final in Game 6, setting up two goals and scoring the Cup-winning goal in overtime.
The Kings also put their core together through the draft. Team captain Dustin Brown, whose bruising play sets the team's tone, was the 13th pick in 2003. Center Anze Kopitar, on the cusp of elite status, was the 11th pick in 2005. Winger Alexander Frolov was the 20th pick in 2000. Goaltender Jonathan Quick was a third-round pick in 2005. Winger Wayne Simmonds was a second-rounder in 2007. Defenseman Drew Doughty, chosen second overall in 2008, is a Norris finalist at age 20 and a franchise cornerstone.
Trades for young defensemen Matt Greene and Jack Johnson and center Michal Handzus accelerated the Kings' progress, just as trades for Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd helped carry the Blackhawks to another level.
The Blackhawks paraded the Stanley Cup through the streets of Chicago Friday. There's no hurry to plan a Cup parade in Los Angeles, but the Blackhawks have shown the Kings the route from oblivion to the pinnacle. It's up to the Kings now to follow that lead, too.