Kings offer proof of successful alternative to Blackhawks’ rebuild approach

The Kings, the Blackhawks’ closest competition throughout the first half of the 2010s, have become the anti-Blackhawks.

The Los Angeles team that visited the United Center on Thursday already has gone through a rebuild and reached the other side, returning to the playoff mix last season and positioning themselves to remain a postseason contender — if not exactly a Stanley Cup contender — for years to come.

While Hawks general manager Kyle Davidson plunges his franchise into a scorched-earth rebuild, Kings GM Rob Blake’s maneuvers the last five years demonstrate how the less dramatic alternative strategy — call it a nuanced rebuild — also can work.

Neither approach is better or more effective than the other. They’re simply different philosophies, and plenty of NHL GMs have succeeded and failed with each.

But it’s certainly interesting to see Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick — three longtime core players — still holding the roles of top-line center, top-pairing defenseman and starting goaltender on a Kings roster that, 10 years after winning its first Cup title, has a bright future again.

After four years of middling results following their second Cup win in 2014, the Kings bottomed out from 2019 to 2021, receiving the No. 5, No. 2 and No. 8 overall draft picks.

But they never enacted a full-blown yard sale to get there. The closest equivalent came in February 2020, when Jack Campbell, Tyler Toffoli and Alec Martinez were shipped out consecutively. That hardly compares to what the Hawks have done this year, and it will pale in comparison even more if Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews accept trades by March.

Instead, Blake made a series of quiet yet wise and well-timed moves to replenish his prospect pool and accumulate cap space, then pulled off a few higher-profile but hardly blockbuster moves to flesh out the roster with the right types of players.

The whole process hardly made a ripple in the hockey world — another sharp contrast to the Hawks, whose abrupt teardown ignited debates throughout the league about the ethics of tanking.

Oddly enough, none of the players the Kings selected with those top-10 picks — Alex Turcotte, Quinton Byfield and Brandt Clarke — is even contributing much.

Conversely, Blake struck draft gold on Gabe Vilardi (the 11th overall pick in 2017) — who led the team with eight goals and 13 points entering Thursday — as well as Arthur Kaliyev (33rd in 2019), Mikey Anderson (103rd in 2017) and Matt Roy (194th in 2015). He also smartly bet on underappreciated Maple Leafs prospect Sean Durzi and unsigned Sabres goalie prospect Cal Peterson.

And when he realized in 2021 that the team’s outlook had improved faster than anticipated, Blake brought in Phil Danault in free agency and Viktor Arvidsson via trade to supplement the forward group. Danault, the ex-Hawks prospect, has especially blossomed into a two-way star center in Los Angeles. The acquisition of Kevin Fiala this past summer continued that trend.

The result is a team that earned 99 points last season and also owns the NHL’s 10th-best prospect pipeline (according to The Athletic’s rankings). The defense is a particularly impressive example of a “nuanced rebuild” gone right, with Doughty, Anderson, Durzi and Roy making up the top four while prospects Clarke, Tobias Bjornfot and Jordan Spence develop.

One valid criticism: The Kings don’t appear on track to contend for championships in this new era, even if they remain a solid team for years. The Hawks are arguably aiming higher for their next era, and that’s partly why they’re aiming lower during this rebuild.

But nothing is guaranteed. If the Hawks’ 2024 or 2025 roster resembles the Kings’ 2022 roster, they’d probably be satisfied with that outcome. That the Kings have reached this point without blowing everything up — and with three cornerstone players still present — is proof that there are multiple ways to successfully rebuild.

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