I was sad to see Thomas Hickey go this morning. In an alternate universe, it’s Hickey and not Alec Martinez or Slava Voynov playing in LA with his name on the Stanley Cup. Does that sound crazy? Consider that Hickey’s injuries early on are what kept him from getting his “cup of coffee” early on, at a time when he was still ahead of Martinez and Voynov on the depth chart. And let’s not forget that Voynov seriously considered bolting for the KHL in the middle of last season. Yes, you read that right: in the middle of what was to become the Kings’ Stanley Cup year.
I’m not saying that Hickey is better than either of those guys. Actually, I don’t think he is. But that’s not why Hickey never got to play in LA.
The Islanders grabbed another defender off the waiver wire today in Thomas Hickey a day after they got Joe Finley. Finley is rather large defender whose attributes and shortcomings are fairly straightforward; he fights, hits people, stays at home and skating could use work. With Hickey, it’s a tad more complex. Hickey is a fourth overall pick who has spent the past four seasons in the AHL. So why did the Kings put him in a position to get plucked off the waiver wive and why didn’t he make the Kings?
I think sometimes people forget that the whole purpose of waivers is to keep teams like the Kings from keeping players like Thomas Hickey stashed away in the minors forever. I like to think of it like the “use it or lose it” rule we sometimes have for our kids (if we have kids). Waivers prevent teams from keeping a perfectly good shiny toy in the closet unused, when it might be given to someone who appreciates it.
When Dean Lombardi drafted Thomas Hickey 4th overall in 2007, he was working off the theory that you build from the back out, from goalie to d to forward. The previous year, he had used his first ever pick as Kings GM to select Jonathan Bernier 11th overall in 2006. Later that year, he traded for Jack Johnson. The season leading up to the Hickey draft, the Kings looked like this:
Mike Cammalleri – Anze Kopitar – Tom Kostopoulos
Alex Frolov – Derek Armstrong – Dustin Brown
Brian Willsie – Scott Thornton – Patrick O’Sullivan
Raitis Ivanans – John Zeiler – Jamie Lundmark
Rob Blake – Lubomir Visnovsky
Jaroslav Modry – Aaron Miller
Mike Weaver – Kevin Dallman
(Jamie Heward, Oleg Tverdovsky)
Dan Cloutier / Mathieu Garon / Sean Burke
Of those D, only Mike Weaver and (kind of) Lubomir Visnovsky are still playing in the NHL. Brent Sopel had been traded in January for the pick that became Wayne Simmonds (leading eventually to Mike Richards). Craig Conroy had been traded in January for Lundmark and the pick that became Dwight King. Sean Avery had been traded in February for picks and prospects including Marc-Andre Cliche. Norstrom had been traded for picks and prospects that turned into Oscar Moller and (via Colten Teubert) Dustin Penner. In the pipeline, besides the recently acquired Jack Johnson, the Kings d prospects were:
- Joey Ryan
- Niclas Anderson
- Constantin Braun
- TJ Fast
- Patrick Hersley
- Paul Baier
- Josh Myers
- Ryan McGinnis
Those guys ended up playing a grand total of zero NHL games. So, not to put too fine a point on it, Lombardi needed to draft some defensemen. There were, of course, some arguably better defensemen available (e.g. Karl Alzner), but it seems to me Lombardi wanted a leader, a smart kid with character and an offensive-upside. He wanted Hickey and he got him. In 2007, Lombardi also selected Alec Martinez., who — while not captain of Team Canada or anything — otherwise was/is in a similar mold to Hickey.
In 2008, he drafted Drew Doughty, Colten Teubert, Slava Voynov and Andrew Campbell. Drafting Doughty allowed Lombardi to trade Visnovsky to Edmonton for Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene. Voynov would not be ready for prime time for another four years. With Doughty, Johnson and Greene, the Kings were now half way to a full defensive rebuild.
Rob Scuderi was signed in 2009. Willie Mitchell in 2010. From 2008 until 2011, Hickey was at the top of the prospect depth chart and had ample opportunity to be the guy who gets called up. Instead, he got hurt. In 2009, Peter Harrold got a spot. In 2010, Martinez and Drewiske (and Jake Muzzin). In 2011, Voynov.
At which point, Hickey’s waiver-exemption expired. When that happens, you either make the team or you are exposed to waivers. Muzzin, Drewiske and Harrold were prospects signed by Lombardi. Voynov, Doughty and Martinez were drafted by Lombardi. That’s six prospects of Lombardi’s who actually turned into viable NHL defensemen. He barely had any misses among his d picks (Kidd and Ryan never played; Teubert, Campbell and Kolomatis could be called misses, or at least non-hits, at this point; Derek Forbort, Nic Deslauriers and Kevin Gravel are too young to tell).
Even being uncharitable and conservative, Lombardi turned more than half of his defensive prospects into NHL players. That’s more success than anyone could have reasonably expected. And I’m pretty sure if any of Voynov, Martinez, Muzzin, Drewiske or Harrold hadn’t earned spots, Hickey would have gotten his shot.
But they did, so he didn’t. And so Hickey is the shiny unopened toy that someone else gets to enjoy. And I look forward to following him on the Islanders.