The key to the successful use of the National Hockey League draft is an accurate assessment of the future value of 18-year-olds. Risky business at best, and infrequently rewarding.
The Kings can only hope they will find such gems as Luc Robitaille, who was their ninth pick in the ninth round and 171st overall in 1984, and Jimmy Carson, their first in the first round and second overall, in today's NHL entry draft at Detroit.
It is the first time in 70 years that the draft has been held outside of Canada.
"You don't get kids like that too often," King General Manager Rogie Vachon said of Robitaille and Carson. "We know that."
Robitaille, who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's outstanding rookie, scored 45 goals and had 85 points for the Kings. Carson, a finalist in the Calder voting, had 37 goals and 79 points.
"Most of the players picked this year will not have an immediate impact on teams," Vachon said. "We can't force a kid into the lineup if he's not ready. With a kid like Carson, it's tough to keep him out of the lineup."
This year's draft crop is big, deep and heavy on defensemen, which the Kings need. Eleven of the top 20 picks, as rated by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau, are defensemen.
But, although the Kings have long needed to shore up their small defense, Vachon said that selecting a defenseman was not necessarily a top priority.
"When you pick as high as we do, we can't pass over the best player available," Vachon said. "We can use a defenseman, we can use a goalie, we can use a big right winger. What we have to do is get the best guy who's remaining. You can't let good players go."
Vachon would not mention the players he was interested in. "We're playing games right now," he said. "We have to be careful. We don't want other teams knowing what we are going to do."
But there are two players coveted by most teams, Pierre Turgeon and Brendan Shanahan.
The 6-foot 3-inch Turgeon, a center with the Granby Bisons, is the most skilled offensive player in the draft but has been compared to Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux. It's a back-handed compliment, since Lemieux is perhaps the finest offensive player in the NHL but is also a spotty performer and prone to mental lapses.
That makes Shanahan, a center-right winger with the London Knights, all the more attractive. He's big at 6-3 and 200 pounds, and he's a hard worker. He's not the scorer that Turgeon is but, as Vachon said, "He's got great hands and a great shot."
The Boston Bruins would love to have Shanahan, both for his name and his tenacious style.
Buffalo, with the first pick overall, is expected to take Turgeon, but management there is coyly declining to say.
"Buffalo is just kidding itself if they don't take Turgeon," Vachon said.
New Jersey has the No. 2 pick but there are indications that the Devils may trade it for an established player and try for a defenseman in the later rounds.
That may give Boston, with the third pick, a shot at Shanahan.
Were it not for the glut of defensemen in the draft, center Dave Archibald of the Portland Winter Hawks would be a more solid third pick. As it is, the Winter Hawks' Glen Wesley, a good offensive defenseman, may go ahead of Archibald.
After Wesley are four more defensemen, Chris Joseph of the Seattle Thunderbirds, Wayne McBean of the Medicine Hat Tigers, Bryan Fogarty of the Kingston Canadiens and Luke Richardson of the Peterborough Petes.
McBean is considered the best of that lot. He was the MVP of the Memorial Cup, and is likely to go high in the draft.
The best goaltender available is Jimmy Waite of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens , whom Vachon compared to Edmonton's Grant Fuhr. The Kings have six goaltenders under contract now but that number may be reduced to five July 1, when John Franzosa's contract expires. The Kings probably will not re-sign the minor leaguer.
The other position the Kings would like to draft for is right wing.
"It would be nice to have a big right winger," Vachon said. "We've been relying on Dave Taylor on the right side for a lot of years. I'd like to get some bigger guys to help our lines."
Jody Hull, a 6-2, 198-pound right winger from Peterborough, fits the description. He's rated as the 10th pick, but if the top defensemen are gone by the time the Kings pick, Vachon could go for Hull.