Posted: 07/12/2009 10:53:56 PM PDT
One commandment in hockey must always be followed: Thou shalt stand up for thy teammate.
Any violation has the potential to fracture a locker room and, almost certainly, will cause a coach or team executive to fume. In the Kings' case, one negative incident might have colored an entire offseason plan.
General Manager Dean Lombardi looked at his team and decided it wasn't tough enough. So he got some tough guys. Not goons, not glorified linebackers on skates, but hard-nosed, gritty players who can provide leadership. Imports have included Ryan Smyth, Rob Scuderi and a handful of drafted youngsters.
"I've said it all along; the culture is not built with slogans," Lombardi said. "It's a process of building with the right people.
"That doesn't mean you don't need skill, but it's all about the compete."
Last season, the Kings had the youngest roster in the NHL. Team leaders such as Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Matt Greene commanded respect, but none had been in true leadership positions in the NHL.
Those players are expected to retain leadership positions, but they will be supported by Smyth, who is known as "Captain Canada" for his extensive experience with Canada's national team, and Scuderi, a no-nonsense defenseman whose gritty play helped Pittsburgh win the Stanley Cup last month.
Why are they Kings? In part because Drew Doughty got smashed, and nobody properly responded.
During the second period of a Jan. 12 game at Staples Center, Doughty left the game after a scary leg-to-leg collision with Tampa Bay's Evgeni Artyukhin. Opinions about Artyukhin's intent were mixed, but Kings brass was incensed, both at Artyukhin and at the Kings' lack of a response.
Sean O'Donnell drew a cross-checking penalty immediately after the hit, but no further response came. After the game, the Kings held a closed-door meeting. Mild-mannered coach Terry Murray was angry.
"You have to do something to acknowledge it, to say, `We're not going to tolerate this and we're going to support our teammate,"' Murray said after the game. "It's important that we support our teammates. Not just (Doughty), but every player. ... There just needs to be some initiative on it, by any one of the players."
In fairness to the young Kings, they simply might not have known how to react.
To that end, Lombardi decided some changes needed to be made. Out went Kyle Quincey, a smooth-skating defenseman, and in came Scuderi, who rarely scores but always gives a full defensive effort.
Smyth also came in, as Lombardi chose to take his bloated salary (averaged at $6.5 million) rather than pursue forwards such as Marian Gaborik or Martin Havlat, who are talented scorers but less physical.
Also arriving, via the draft, were first-round draft pick Brayden Schenn, a scorer also noted for his defensive play, and Kyle Clifford, Michael Pelech and Jordan Nolan, each of whom totaled at least 120 penalty minutes for their respective junior-level teams last season. The message was inescapable.
"I think the theme of our draft this year was competitiveness," said Michael Futa, co-director of amateur scouting. "We got a good mix of players with a lot of skill, but they will also be tough to play against."
Those players aren't likely to crack the NHL for at least a couple seasons, but Smyth and Scuderi will provide an immediate boost.
Smyth, at age 33, instantly became the oldest forward on the Kings roster and Scuderi, at 30, became the second-oldest defenseman behind 37-year-old O'Donnell.
Smyth has played in 81 NHL playoff games, with three teams. Only four other Kings forwards have ever been to the playoffs, and their combined game total is 135. Scuderi joins O'Donnell and Justin Williams as the only three players in the Kings organization to have lifted the Stanley Cup.
Given their on-ice talents, Scuderi and Smyth will be counted on to help the Kings win. Perhaps more importantly, with their presence, the young Kings will be better equipped for tough situations.
"It's all about the attitude and work ethic that you bring to the rink every day," Scuderi said.