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A Quiet Off-Season Turned Busy

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

This could have been a quiet summer for the Kings. General manager Dean Lombardi could have sat back and trusted that his young team, coming off back-to-back playoff seasons, would show improvement simply through maturation and experience.

Instead, Lombardi lit a proverbial firecracker and made things quite interesting.

In a 10-day span in late June and early July, Lombardi completely remodeled the Kings’ group of forwards. Out? Ryan Smyth, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn. In? Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, after a high-profile run at top free agent Brad Richards.

Ryan Smyth celebrates a goal with Drew Doughty in Edmonton last year.  Smyth requested a trade to the Oilers to be closer to his home, and the Kings are still in negotiations with Doughty, a restricted free agent.
There’s still work to be done, as restricted free agents Drew Doughty, Brad Richardson, Trevor Lewis and others must be signed to new contracts, but it’s already been an eventful summer for the Kings, one that started with a surprising phone call.

Two weeks after the end of the season, Lombardi took a call from Smyth’s agent. Smyth, a team-first, hard-working veteran who waived his no-trade clause to come to Los Angeles two summers ago, wanted to leave and play closer to his Canadian home.

The call floored Lombardi, who had been counting on Smyth as a veteran anchor for his top six. After mulling the request for a few days, Lombardi agreed to grant it, but that only led to more questions: Where? How? And who would replace Smyth?

The Kings, by all conventional wisdom, already needed to add one top-six forward to a group that seemed thin last season, particularly when inevitable injuries popped up.

Taking Smyth out of the equation doubled Lombardi’s problem. With the free-agent market expected to be relatively thin on top-level forwards, the task wasn’t easy.

Mike Richards, now with the Kings, dives for the puck as Jack Johnson and Justin Williams look on during the second period onThursday, Dec. 30, 2010. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Not surprisingly, Lombardi looked to Philadelphia. After all, he had looked there plenty of times before. He plucked assistant GM Ron Hextall out of the Flyers’ front office. He plucked coach Terry Murray from behind the Flyers’ bench. Players such as Justin Williams, Michal Handzus and Randy Jones laced their skates in Phialdelphia.

This time, the Flyers, in search of salary-cap space to sign a goalie and, perhaps, looking to shake up their locker-room dynamic, were looking to deal. The Kings had what the Flyers sought, namely young, relatively inexpensive talent.

On June 23, the Flyers made two league-rocking trades, as they sent Jeff Carter to Columbus and then sent Mike Richards to the Kings in exchange for Simmonds, Schenn and a second-round draft pick.

The trade completed a long-held Lombardi desire, to get a strong No. 2 center to back up Anze Kopitar, and also represented a major step for Lombardi in that he gave up a prospect -- Schenn -- who had been highly coveted in trade talks for the past year.

Privately, the Kings insisted they were done trying to acquire top-level players. In interviews, Lombardi talked about finding a ``mid-range’’ player to replace Smyth, who eventually was traded to Edmonton on June 27 for Colin Fraser and a draft pick.

The Kings tried hard to sign Dallas Stars free agent Brad Richards on July 1.  The next day Simon Gagne signed in Los Angeles instead.
Behind the scenes, though, the Kings had been working on a high-profile push for Brad Richards. They kept enough salary-cap space open to make a competitive offer to Richards, and they worked on a presentation to recruit Richards once the free-agent signing period started on July 1.

That morning, eight members of the Kings’ front office and coaching staff showed up at the office of Richards’ agent and, by all accounts, made an impressive pitch, but the next day Richards announced he would sign with the New York Rangers.

Unlike the previous summer, though, when the Kings’ pursuit of top free agent Ilya Kovalchuk went on for weeks, and left them without a viable backup plan, the Kings moved quickly once Richards chose East Coast over West Coast.

On July 1, as they pursued Richards, the Kings also let Gagne know he was near the top of their list. Lombardi took a bit of a chance, hoping Gagne would not sign before Richards made his decision, and the gamble paid off.

On July 2, the Kings signed Gagne to a two-year contract and added him to a group of forwards that now includes Kopitar, Richards, Justin Williams, Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner, all of whom have recorded at least one 30-goal season in their NHL careers.

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