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Michael Futa is one of the the hottest non-general manager management names in hockey.
Since he arrived with the Los Angeles Kings in 2007 as the team’s co-director of amateur scouting, Futa has helped acquire one of the top groups of young players through the draft.
He helped select Drew Doughty, Kyle Clifford, Dwight King, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. Former Kings Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds were also selected by L.A. under Futa’s watch.
Also Futa helped identify Jake Muzzin to sign him as a free agent.
People with lesser drafting/scouting resumes have assumed general manager roles in the NHL.
Futa is currently the Kings vice president of hockey operations and director of player personnel. He has been considered by both the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres for vacant GM roles in the past, but has stayed in Los Angeles.
“I know where I stand with the Los Angeles Kings,” Futa said. “It’s the only team I’ve ever been a part of and if it’s the only team I’m ever a part of, I’ll be satisfied.”
Futa and his scouting staff had the interesting task of pivoting strategy to a degree as the team’s success has grown.
Doughty was selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2008 Draft and was slam-dunk clear-cut future superstar. Pearson was selected with the 30th pick in 2012 after the organization’s first Stanley Cup and had gone through the draft already.
Instead of finding that franchise cornerstone, like when you’re picking high early in Futa’s Kings tenure, now it’s about finding guys who can fit in the structure created by high-end players picked in earlier years. And from a scouting perspective on down to player development, Futa’s group has done just that.
L.A.’s AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, just won the Calder Cup. Doughty, Toffoli and Pearson are all 25-and-younger. Clifford has fit in seamlessly on the Kings' checking line. Schenn and Simmonds would look pretty nice in Kings black and silver if they weren’t traded for Mike Richards before the 2011-12 season.
While other teams with recent success have opted for major changes (see Bruins, Boston) Futa's ability to keep unearthing talent have prevented the Kings from taking such a drastic step. Even after missing the 2015 postseason following the org's 2014 Stanley Cup victory.
We talked with Futa about the Kings' culture, how he scouts and what makes the team such a player production factory.
Q: Once you started having that higher level championship success, as a scouting staff, how does that put more pressure on you to find guys lower in the draft?
FUTA: There’s an understanding that you’re not worried about taking kids that have gone through a draft. We showed that the first time we picked 30th in 2012 after our first Cup, taking Tanner Pearson, who was somebody that had already gone through and wasn’t an easy pick to make because you passed on the kid earlier. You realize you see a more finished product that is going to put in the work to make himself better.
We have been fortunate that way that we as a group go into rinks and we look for things now that we like, if we covet, whether it be hockey sense, or character or NHL assets. And then you look at things and areas of game that need improvement, we have such a good feeling for what our development team can fix. So we’re more looking for kids that are willing to fix and willing to put in the work because we know the synergy we have with our development teams is off the charts as far as what they can bring and the different parts of the game they can improve upon.
That being said if we look at kids where maybe puck protection is a bit of an issue or their release is a bit of an issue, we just know our development team is going to step in and take charge and I think that’s incredible. It’s the synergy between our amateur staff and handing them over to our development team who works hands on with our AHL staff and works with our college kids and works with our ECHL team.
Our development team is going to be there to help
And then you pass off a more finished product to the big team. This year was a tough learning curve or lesson for all of us. We’ve been very used to the success we’ve had. This year we found out if you’re not as focused off the ice and get distracted, you go through some periods where you’re not at you’re ‘A’ game that this league is too good and you find yourself on the outside looking in the playoffs and I think that has been a huge motivating factor from the day the last game of the season finished and we found ourselves as the outside as ex-champs and realizing how hard we had to work to get back to there.
What is the major difference between picking high and low in a draft year?
I think early we were learning what (general manager) Dean Lombardi expected of us as a staff. Now we completely know and we’ve added our own personalities and additions to what we expect out of our staffs and what we expect out of ourselves. (Co-director of amateur scouting) Mark (Yannetti) and I, Dean threw us together in hope we would bond as friends and it kind of trickles down to how seamless we are at the draft table as far as moving up to moving down and knowing what we like and what Mark likes in a player and what I like and it trickles down to what we expect out of our area guys who have done an incredible job. We’re like a little family within a big family as far as how we communicate. It’s huge because we all like each other, we all respect each other.
Last year with my job and the opportunities that were being set out there for me, it would have been easy for the group to break up and lose its synergy, but we actually got stronger.
Everybody stepped up. I’ve had the ability to be a lot more involved with the big team.
The same levels of work that are expected of our players. When you talk about a player, it’s the same thing. We expect them to put in their work when the teacher’s not in the room. It would be easy for a scout just to work when he has to, and I think that’s what our group does, whether it’s video or interviews, they’re always putting in that extra.
How does one draft character? Especially when a player is super young when you’re picking him. Seems like that's become more important in today's game for various reasons.
I think it’s more about educating. It doesn’t change. If you were to tell me Jarret Stoll doesn’t have character, I know if you look at the history of what he has brought from a leadership standpoint, it’s not questionable what he brings with his work ethic off the ice. I think what we learned is whether you’re veterans, whether you’re Russian, whether you’re American, we really have to educate all of our players. There’s certain areas where we’re pounding puck protection and we’re pounding quick release and heavy pucks and that’s necessary to make a better player. But we have to re-educate everybody on how important it is that no matter what a good hockey player you are, the laws of society apply and you can’t take that for granted. Part of what makes these guys great as players is the character and the work they do show. I think it’s just re-educating and reminding them how important it is that when you leave the rink that same professionalism you bring to the ice has to stay in tact, no matter what you make or who you are or some of the special treatments you might get. It’s a privilege to be an NHL player, not a right. And you can’t abuse that privilege.
When you’re asking a junior kid a question, you’re going to going to get a different answer from a guy who has already signed a $1 million contract, and how they actually respond when they got money and they got fame and they got success. We’re never going to stop working and asking these questions, but the true test is re-educating your guys once they get the money, how important it is to live up to that pride we expect on the ice and never let your guard down and never assume a rule might not apply to you. It’s just re-educating them, not only on the expectations but the consequences when you stray from that.
We didn’t have an isolated incident, we had a couple of instances. It’s embarrassing for the wrong reasons. It’s not going to take away from what these guys accomplished on the ice because they are an incredible group. They didn’t take performance enhancing drugs to help their play. They found a way to get things done and they outplayed people. I’m sure every team has their problems, ours have been well-noted, because of the success we had and because the players got themselves into trouble off the ice. And that’s something we have to be accountable and step up and clean up for but I don’t think you can look at what these guys accomplished and take it by a few unfortunate decisions off the ice.
Your name has been mentioned as a candidate for other GM jobs. What are your thoughts on running your own team one day?
My dream has always been to win a Stanley Cup. We’ve done that. We’ve won that twice. Now clearly you have your personal goals. After Dean pulled me aside after the Vancouver call and he wanted my future to stay here. I felt the same. I had a tremendous relationship with (former Kings assistant GM) Ron Hextall and was in the process of developing the same relationship with (current assistant GM) Rob Blake, who are two of the finest people you’re going to come across in the industry.
For me, it was a big decision. Dean expanded my role and allowing me … I would have been concerned if it was staying in the same position with really no chance to move up or in the industry and just expand your wings and learn more. He kept his word on that. There was a new title involved, a new salary involved and a new commitment to myself and my girls.
When I re-signed my new contract there was a window put in allowing me to advance as the contract wore out. I always requested, because that’s where I was born, to have a window for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Dean, when the Leafs called and asked for permission, allowed me to go meet with them.
When you’re in my position, so tied to the draft with Mark Yannetti, it’s completely understanding that a team would not want to lose you or have you meet with other teams when you have all the internal information that’s so important and critical to our success as an organization.
That being said, I know where I stand with the Los Angeles Kings. It’s the only team I’ve ever been a part of and if it’s the only team I’m ever a part of, I’ll be satisfied.
Working with Rob Blake and the relationship I have with Mark Yannetti. Dean and I have a very unique relationship where there’s a multitude of respect for one another, but we’re also really, really good friends. There’s nothing wrong with staying in the same spot as long as you believe in what you’re doing and as long as you’re being challenged and you’re allowed to expand. I truly believe I’m going to get an opportunity to be a general manager in the NHL. I believe I’m ready for that opportunity but you have to make sure it’s the right opportunity for yourself and your family.
They’ve been great to me here, Dan Beckerman and Luc Robitaille as well, I’m in no hurry to leave here at all. As long as we’re having success and I feel like I’m contributing and my role is increasing there’s really no hurry to find that in another organization.
It’s tough at times because your mind starts racing that that’s the perfect spot for me. Then you do your homework, it has to be right for the other team, it has to be right for me, and most importantly the timing has to be right. When all those things align you’ll know you’re in the right position.
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