Last spring, defenseman Slava Voynov’s contribution to the Los Angeles Kings’ playoff push was among the key ingredients that allowed a stagnating team to evolve into Stanley Cup champions.
Having conquered Manchester, New Hampshire to the tune of 107 points in 231 American Hockey League games, only National Hockey League spoils lay ahead for the highly regarded prospect – if not for the packed blueline that blocked his ascension.
With such sturdy defensive depth, Voynov’s availability allowed general manager Dean Lombardi the flexibility to package defense in a trade to acquire much-needed offense at last year’s trading deadline. After he sent Jack Johnson and a first round draft pick to Columbus for forward Jeff Carter, the Kings went 13-5-3 down the stretch as Carter netted a hat trick in a conference final game and an overtime game winner in Game 2 at New Jersey.
As important as a piece as Voynov was to last year’s run, it was back to Manchester for the soon-to-be 23-year old, who returned to the AHL with wingers Dwight King and Jordan Nolan during the NHL lockout.
According to general manager Dean Lombardi, it wasn’t as simple as booking a seat on a cross-country flight for Voynov, who was recruited heavily by teams in his native Russia.
“They were all over him again. ‘Come back here. Let them let you go. You shouldn’t have to go to the minors. You won a Stanley Cup. We’ll pay you two million dollars,’” Lombardi said, echoing the teams’ methods of persuasion.
Voynov’s agent broached the subject once, Lombardi declined to release his young defenseman, and the issue was hardly heard of again. Voynov returned to the long bus trips and odd-hour flights of the AHL, and Lombardi was left with concerns over whether he would make the best use of his developmental opportunity.
“Now, the next thing, is the guy going to pout?” Lombardi wondered. “He, for the most part, played his ass off.”
“The nights I was in here, I said ‘Wow.’ That was a pleasant surprise over there. He didn’t get permission [to go to Russia], and it didn’t affect him at all. He has grown so much as a person, and in his maturity since he was drafted here. I was really impressed with that, because I expected – once I said ‘Alright, you’re going to go through the motions and pout’ and he didn’t do that at all.”
On the contrary. Voynov’s 16 points in 35 AHL games represented virtually the same point-per-game pace he enjoyed in his three and a half previous AHL seasons. He capped off his final game last Saturday when he received a David Meckler feed in the slot and snapped home the game-winning goal 3:01 into overtime, giving Manchester a 3-2 win and a two-game road sweep of St. John’s.
Voynov grew up quickly in the playoffs. He provided a clutch first period goal to tie Game 1 against St. Louis after the Blues had scored early to get a rise out of its home crowd. Though there were more awkward moments in the Stanley Cup Final when a pair of point shots deflected off Voynov and past Jonathan Quick in New Jersey, any perceived gaffes – not that there were many – were all in the name of the maturation of one of the league’s most promising two-way defensemen.
Though Lombardi referred to players who occupied their time in the minor league or in Europe as having an “edge”, there’s still the question over how disrupted the developmental process becomes for young players whose early seasons are affected by a lockout that pushes them into the minor leagues after they’ve already won a Stanley Cup.
“It’s a good question, you know, and a lot of us general managers have been asking that amongst ourselves, because we’ve all had guys in the minors that either were on the big club, or probably for sure would’ve been on the big club. How realistic, for young players who’ve won, and then there was always the thing, too, ‘well, I’m only here for a week to stay in shape because it’s going to be settled.’ As much as we want these kids to just try and get better and give 110% every day, like we wish we could all do, I’m not sure it was totally practical. So to say that when I went down there and I was seeing the drive to get better, I’m not prepared to say that,” Lombardi said of the Cup winners assigned to Manchester.
“But as a practical matter, given the mindset of most those guys in that situation throughout the league, I think they did very well.”