Best Friends.

I was sitting at a computer writing away on June 23 when Jeff Carter was traded to Columbus. You’ll recall that nobody was surprised. The Flyers had just signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine year, $51 million deal and someone had to go. Immediately eyes fell on Carter being he was the expendable guy with an immense contract. Having the luxury of a Claude Giroux or James van Riemsdyk on your roster means Carter can be trade bait.

Everyone and their mom had picked Columbus as the eventual destination for Carter. Plenty of cap space and their public lobbying for a big gun to fit in alongside Rick Nash made it a perfect fit on paper. We now know that it was an unmitigated disaster in reality. Carter’s discontent and the Jackets’ propensity for ineptitude became a deadly cocktail. Now Carter is a member of the Kings and reunited with a good friend. That good friend is where things got odd back in June.

Mike Richards was shipped out to Los Angeles roughly a half hour after Carter received a one-way ticket to Ohio. If you were the person who saw that coming, I suspect that you are a member of the Flyers or Kings organizations and had privileged information. Every one of the rest of us, hockey’s chief insiders included, were taken aback. Here was a face of a franchise, a team captain, in the early part of a 12 year $69 million contract being traded to another team, across a country, in another conference.
We like to bandy about the term ‘facelift’ when teams restructure themselves in dramatic fashion. There’s your incision. The skin had been separated from the bone in Philly.

Coming back to Broad Street were four guys with big shoes to fill. Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek were the ‘tenured’ NHLers of the bunch while Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier were looked upon to round out the youth movement. Paul Holmgren decided he wanted to play Dr. Frankenstein and this was going to be his monster. Take away an Olympic gold medalist and one of the most prolific goal scorers of the post-lockout era, plug in four kids and see what you’ve got. Let’s make no mistake about it, the Flyers new players were, and still are, just that – kids. Simmonds is the oldest of the bunch with a birth certificate from 1988 while Couturier rounds out the group with a 1992 birthday. The Flyers appear to have a closing window on their championship core and Holmgren shipped out two players entering their physical prime for guys who recently exited puberty.

An interesting phenomenon in sports is the need to proclaim a winner of every transaction. Those of you who play fantasy sports know the type who subscribes to this theory. That buddy who refuses to do any sort of trade that doesn’t screw you or another willing partner. You’ve got Sidney Crosby? They’ll offer you Tim Connolly. Despite his best intentions, that’s not how it works in the real NHL. Assuming you are not trading with Pierre Gauthier, of course. (Too soon?)

The Ilya Bryzgalov contract is an albatross of Coleridge proportions and it will be a difficult task to dissuade anyone of that conclusion. While he set off the chain of events that brought about these two reinvented teams, it would be unfair to conclude that there was a loser here. Quite frankly, both of these teams are set up to win a lot of hockey games for a long time to come.

Dean Lombardi was rather straight forward about why he brought in Mike Richards in the first place. In the Western Conference, if you don’t have that 1-2 punch, you don’t have anything. Sedin-Kesler, Toews-Kane, Thornton-Marleau, these are the measuring sticks of the conference. As it turns out, Kopitar-Richards measures pretty well. The Kings were strapped for secondary scoring throughout the season to an almost improbable degree. They could put a puck anywhere that didn’t have a goalie in front of it, and even if you got rid of him it wasn’t a guarantee. So, with the immensely talented Slava Voynov knocking on the door, they shipped out Jack Johnson for Carter. His nine points in 16 games weren’t exactly anything to write home and tell mother about, but it was a welcome addition to a team desperate for SOMETHING. You want 1-2 punch? There’s your 1-2-3-4. Kopitar-Richards-Carter-Stoll. Find a team that can match that every night and I’ll show you a hell of a team.

With that group of centers between the likes of Dustin Brown, Justin Williams and the rest of the Kings you have a stellar forward corps that will remain intact for at least another three seasons. Drew Doughty leads a more than capable defensive group and will for a long time. Jonathan Quick is the only cornerstone unsigned of this group, but you can bet he will be paid accordingly.

The Los Angeles Kings, as they stand, will be among the NHL’s best for another five seasons AT LEAST. Combine that with the fact they have one of the top scouting and development teams in the game, and you can expect to see Los Angeles deep in the playoffs for a while yet. Having your core players locked down long term will do that for you.

Philadelphia went out with a whimper to the New Jersey Devils but you’d be off base thinking that they won’t be back. The core of this team is younger than it was a year ago, it will be more battle tested each season and it will be loaded down the middle for a long time. You want the 2012 Kings equivalent three years from now? Try Philly. Claude Giroux – who will be their captain – will be 27, Schenn and Couturier will be 24 and 22 respectively, and all will have more than enough experience to be considered capable NHL vets. This is a young man’s league and these are not your average young men. These are young men with superstar potential, and one has already reached it.

There is an obvious reflex to say “what about Edmonton?” or another team stockpiling wunderkinds, but I’d take this moment to remind you that Philadelphia and Edmonton rank 15 and 16 in average NHL age as things stand today. You’d be hard pressed to convince me that Edmonton is further along because they are .163 years younger on average. If we’re putting down futures now, I’ll take the 2015 Flyers over the 2015 Oilers in a seven game series.

The goaltending is the question mark in Philadelphia but it seems as though it always will be the case. I have no doubt that Bryzgalov will bounce back, that he will be better and the team will progress further. Sure 2011-12 had some ugly moments, but there were also stretches of vintage Ilya –including games during this very playoff run – that made it clear why he was signed to such a deal – ludicrous as it may be – in the first place.

When I say we’re too ready to proclaim winners and losers in trades, I don’t mean to take away from how rare this situation truly is. It is one thing to say that the Rangers won the Scott Gomez trade and another to try and fathom how exactly three trades formed two conference powerhouses as we head into the future. Obviously one team is better served in one of these examples, it’s just alright if we admit both teams did well for themselves.

In many ways their round one wins served notice to the league that a changing of the guard was happening. Vancouver and Pittsburgh will continue to be excellent, Detroit will persist against all odds and Boston will be the bullies of the East for some time. We don’t have a reason to think otherwise. If you want to have a look at where the league is heading though, to see which two heavyweights will be picked to duke it out every year, you don’t have to look any further than two unlikely trade partners from June 23, 2011.