STATE OF THE UNION
Ever the pragmatist, Los Angeles Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi is keeping himself grounded while the excitement builds around him. Hope abounds, as it usually does this time of the year, though Lombardi is quick to offer the reality check that his team hasn't won anything yet.
But for the first time in years, there is excitement about hockey in Los Angeles -- and it seems real and feels real. At the end of August, the Kings are looking to capitalize on that excitement with a three-day fan extravaganza called "Hockey Fest '09" that brings together the present-day team with the club's stars from the past.
"When I first got here, not one player stayed here over the summer and worked out," said Lombardi, who's entering his fourth season as GM. "Here we were in the most beautiful place to play and not one player stayed, which is abnormal.
"This year, we had bunch of guys here at the end of June not only working out but pushing themselves, which is a huge step in building a culture here, building an identity."
It has been seven years since a Stanley Cup Playoff game has taken place in Los Angeles. Kings fans have remained loyal -- but they've had to endure a lot of losing, particularly in the last three seasons as Lombardi convinced parent company AEG that a true rebuilding plan was needed.
Lombardi's vision of creating long-term success seems to be gaining followers. The Kings, under first-year coach Terry Murray, improved by eight points over 2007-08, but the foundation is stronger heading into 2009-10 as they figure to ice 13 players with NHL experience that are 27 years or younger.
Among that group are players the Kings are counting on to be building blocks -- Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Alexander Frolov, Matt Greene and Jonathan Quick. Youngsters such as Oscar Moller, Wayne Simmonds, Peter Harrold and Teddy Purcell will be expected to take another step in their development. If they don't, there's more NHL-caliber talent waiting in the wings in the minors.
The youngsters will be supported by the returning presence of veterans Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, Sean O'Donnell and Michal Handzus. But if there's one player Lombardi has a laser-like focus on heading into the season, it's the Slovenian-born Kopitar who's averaged 26 goals and 68 points in his first three NHL seasons -- but has been a double-digit minus player in each of them.
"When I first got here, not one player stayed here over the summer and worked out. Here we were in the most beautiful place to play and not one player stayed, which is abnormal. This year, we had bunch of guys here at the end of June not only working out but pushing themselves, which is a huge step in building a culture here, building an identity."
-- Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi
"It's time we start pushing the envelope with our young players. I think Kopi's getting it. I saw him this summer and he looks 10 times better than last September."
For three years running, Lombardi has resisted every inclination to use one of his young assets to get a proven veteran and fast forward the rebuilding process. But as he did during his tenure in San Jose, the veteran executive also knew when it was time to fortify the roster and reward the faith of others in his plan.
Lombardi added a veteran presence on the blue line by signing Rob Scuderi to a four-year, $13.6 million contract after the 30-year-old stay-at-home defenseman played a large role in the Pittsburgh Penguins' Stanley Cup victory against the Detroit Red Wings.
With Doughty and Johnson expected to handle the top power-play roles, Scuderi wasn't brought in to put up points. His main role is to keep opponents from scoring, something he famously did in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final when he made two late blocks on Johan Franzen to protect a 2-1 lead while Marc-Andre Fleury was scrambling in the net.
After striking out on an attempt to land prized free agent Marian Hossa and unwilling to commit a long-term deal to either Marian Gaborik and Martin Havlat, Lombardi landed the scoring winger he and the Kings coveted when he got Ryan Smyth from Colorado in exchange for defensemen Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing along with a draft pick.
Smyth, 33, has long been regarded as one of the NHL's best at winning battles in front of the net -- a skill he's used to reach 30 goals four times and find the net 310 times in his 13 NHL seasons. Lombardi hopes the gritty play of "Captain Canada" will rub off on his new teammates.
"The decision you have to make is when is it the right time," Lombardi said. "There were teams I tried to do deals with at the trade deadline but it had to make sense. Clearly, coming into the summer, we were trying to add a quality player."
A painful rebuilding process has started to bear fruit. Drew Doughty was a Calder Trophy finalist last spring, Wayne Simmonds played in all 82 games on the checking line while Oscar Moller was another surprise in earning a regular role before an injury sidelined him.
All three are now front and center in the parent club's plans for 2009-10 while Teddy Purcell is another intriguing talent who split time with the Kings and their minor-league affiliate in Manchester, N.H. Purcell, a big scorer at the AHL level, is expected to be given every chance to take a spot.
The difference now is there is more quality in the pipeline that's knocking on the door, something that hasn't always been in the case in L.A.
"[Kings scout] Jack Ferreira said to me, 'This is the most young talent that I've seen since I've been in the game,'" Lombardi said of a recent conversation with his mentor, the former GM with Minnesota, Anaheim and San Jose. "It's not the best talent but it's the sheer volume of it.
"The development of our prospects is starting to pay off. You now have assets and you can start filling the holes."
Here's a look at the Kings' five best prospects entering the 2009-10 season:
Thomas Hickey -- Hickey, the No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft, has carved out a reputation as a well-rounded defenseman with tremendous leadership skills, having served as captain of Canada's gold-medal winning team in the 2009 World Junior Championships and the WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds. He'll be with AHL Manchester or with the Kings on opening night.
Jonathan Bernier -- Bernier suffered through inconsistency after watching Jonathan Quick move past him on the Kings' goaltending depth chart and play well with the big club. But L.A. is still high on the athletic native of Laval, Quebec, though it's time for the 2006 first-round pick to put together a strong season and impresses club officials.
Colten Teubert -- Teubert, the Kings' second first-rounder in the 2008 draft, got a look-see with the ECHL's Ontario Reign after finishing his fourth season with the WHL's Regina Pats, where he contributed 12 goals and 25 assists to go along with 136 penalty minutes. Balancing toughness with discipline will be Teubert's focus in 2009-10. The Kings envision him as a shutdown defenseman.
Vyacheslav Voinov -- Just 19, Voinov earned a regular role at Manchester in 2008-09 and tied for the team lead in scoring for a defenseman with 23 points, including 8 goals. An offensively gifted puck mover, the Russian blueliner wants to be in the NHL and could be in line for a call-up during the season.
Trevor Lewis -- Lewis began to show some of the promise the Kings saw in him when they took the Utah native in the first round (No. 17) in the 2006 draft. The 6-foot-1, 192-pound winger, who had a goal and 2 assists in a six-game NHL stint last season, is still maturing and could position himself for another look in 2009-10.
GM Dean Lombardi was one of the more closely watched executives on the draft floor in Montreal. Many wondered whether he'd deal the fifth pick in the 2009 Entry Draft.
It was clear that Lombardi wanted a goal-scorer, but it wasn't as clear how far he was willing to go to get one. So when the attempts at a big deal didn't materialize, he simply held onto the pick and further bolstered the Kings' talent base.
Lombardi used the No. 5 pick to take Brandon Wheat Kings center Brayden Schenn, keeping him out of his good friend Brian Burke's hands. Having watched Brayden's brother Luke have a strong rookie season with the Maple Leafs, the Toronto GM coveted the younger Schenn, known for his gritty play and penchant for scoring big goals in the WHL. Instead, Brayden is heading for L.A.
Here's a look at the 10 players chosen by Los Angeles at the 2009 Entry Draft:
Brayden Schenn -- Schenn turns 18 on Aug. 22, but he already has a reputation as an excellent two-way center who can score enough to be top-six material down the road while playing responsibly in his own end. Think of a young Chris Drury. Look for him in 2011 or 2012.
Kyle Clifford -- The selection of Clifford in the second round (No. 35) reiterated a message that Lombardi wanted to deliver – the Kings want forwards who won't back down. Clifford racked up 133 penalty minutes with the OHL's Barrie Colts. He also had 16 goals and 28 points in 60 games.
Nicolas Deslauriers -- Deslauriers, the Kings' third-round pick, will head back to the QMJHL's Rouyn-Noranda Huskies to further hone his skills, but the 18-year-old is an emerging blue-line talent with a high ceiling. He scored 11 goals and had 30 points last season.
Jean-Francois Berube -- Berube, taken in the fourth round (No. 95) is a long-term project -- he's currently a backup with the QMJHL's Montreal Juniors. But the Kings like the athleticism and upside of this classic butterfly netminder.
Linden Vey -- Not very big at 5-foot-11 and 176 pounds, the Saskatchewan native was taken in the fourth round (No. 96) after scoring 24 goals and 72 points in 71 games with the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers.
David Kolomatis -- The 20-year-old former U.S. National Under-18 team defenseman was taken in the fifth round after three years with Owen Sound of the OHL. He should bolster the blue line in Manchester.
Michael Pelech -- Another pick who should provide depth in the system, Pelech has good size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and grit, though there is some question about this sixth-rounder's offensive upside. He scored 19 goals and finished with 65 points and 121 PIM for Mississauga St. Michael's Majors in the OHL.
Brandon Kozun -- Small in stature (5-foot-8 and 162 pounds) but big on talent, Kozun racked up 40 goals and 108 points for a loaded hometown Calgary Hitmen squad in 2008-09. The sixth-round pick grew up in the L.A. suburb of Chatsworth, Calif., before moving to Canada at age 10.
Jordan Nolan -- The son of former NHL coach Ted Nolan, taken in the seventh round (No. 186), fulfills Lombardi's toughness quota, having racked up 158 penalty minutes with Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL last season.
Nic Dowd -- Not too many draft picks hail from Huntsville, Ala., but the Kings took a seventh-round flier on Dowd, a center who's bound for St. Cloud State in the fall.