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A Seat at the Kings Draft Table

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
At the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, the Kings had the No. 52 pick and liked both Oscar Moller and Wayne Simmonds.

The Kings were faced with a conundrum during the second round of the 2007 NHL Draft.

Their instincts told them one thing, but studious preparation suggested something else.

As their pick, No. 52 overall, approached, the Kings were surprised to find Oscar Moller available, as they figured he would have been selected much earlier. A slam-dunk pick, right? Not so fast, because the Kings’ draft list was telling them to pick someone else.

Months of draft preparation had led the Kings to rank Moller behind a gangly, unheralded youngster named Wayne Simmonds, a prospect so marginal that some draft publications didn’t even bother ranking him. But the Kings thought very highly of him.

What to do? The Kings also held the No. 61 pick, but if they obeyed their list and picked Simmonds at No. 52, it was highly unlikely that Moller would be available at No. 61. But by picking Moller, general manager Dean Lombardi would be varying from his draft list, a Halley’s Comet moment for a GM who deeply believes in structure and order.

This drama didn’t play out in a quiet, sterile boardroom, and it didn’t receive the benefit of hours of debate. It played out on a crowded arena floor in Columbus, Ohio, and the decision had to be made by a handful of Kings executives in a matter of minutes.

Welcome to the draft table, that mysterious territory seen only from a distance. When the NHL Draft starts this afternoon at STAPLES Center, the brain trust of each of the 30 teams will huddle around a table and hunker down for seven rounds of intensity.

Who to pick? When to pick him? Trade up? Trade down? Trade picks for veteran players? Vice versa? A countless number of scenarios can pop up during the draft, and split-second decisions can leave a GM feeling enthused or angry.

"All you can do, in advance, is practice," Lombardi said this week, while preparing for his fifth draft as Kings GM. "You can't go through every scenario, but it's about practicing their minds. 'What would you do here?' It's no different than training yourself physically, because you have to think quickly on your feet. So we'll run these hypotheticals. Before the draft, you're in the office until 11 at night practicing."

The Kings’ draft table will feature some of Lombardi’s closest advisers, including assistant GM Ron Hextall, co-directors of amateur scouting Michael Futa and Mark Yannetti, special assistant Jack Ferreira and the team’s scouts, all of whom have spent months preparing and familiarizing themselves with a couple hundred players.

Along with Lombardi, the core of the draft team are Futa and Yannetti, who were hired in June 2007 and quickly became Lombardi’s right-hand men in all things draft-related.

At some point, a tough decision will need to be made. Lombardi will turn to Futa and Yannetti and expect a quick, decisive and accurate opinion. By that point, the staff will have spent hours, if not days, in the team’s El Segundo offices, drilling and cramming like a teenager preparing for a Calculus final. Sometimes that work pays off.

Take, for instance, the Moller/Simmonds scenario. Two players, two picks (Nos. 52 and 61). The Kings had Simmonds ranked higher on their list, but felt certain that Moller would be gone at No. 61. They rolled the dice, took Moller at No. 52 and held their breath through the next eight picks. Simmonds was still there, and became a King.

"With Moller, we were shocked that he was there," Lombardi said this week. "We thought we had no chance at him. The thing was, we wanted Simmonds. Then we went, 'Oh boy,' because we were worried about losing Simmonds, but there's Moller. So the strategy changed, and it was risky. I remember Jack (Ferreira) was really upset that we might pass on Simmonds if we got greedy. We weren't going to get Moller much later. He was a much higher-profile guy. So your list might not change, but you might bump a guy because you know he's got a low profile.

"So, for instance, Simmonds was very high on our list, and Moller was fairly high, but because Simmonds had gone through two drafts (without being picked), we knew there was a chance he was going to drop, and Moller wasn't. So when Moller was falling, we made a change. That's a change based on how it falls."

And it’s a decision the Kings had to make and execute within 10, maybe 15 minutes.

The key is communication, and trust.

Entering the draft, the Kings will work from a complete list of draft-eligible players, ranked by their preference. It’s never as simple, though, as waiting for your turn and seeing who is available. On the contrary, it’s about identifying a player as a realistic option and determining whether there’s a need to move up or down to get that player.

Lombardi is considered one of the more prominent chess players in that area. This week, he described a scenario from two years ago, when the Kings had a pick in the middle of the fourth round. They had identified the player they wanted to take, but scouts told Lombardi that another team might pick that player ahead of the Kings.

"So then that's when I start working the phones, looking at teams and trying to move up," Lombardi said. "I'll usually start doing it three picks behind whoever is picking. It's, 'OK, I'm 15 spots behind you. Would you trade that pick for my pick and my seventh,' or something like that. The tighter that gap is, the less you have to give up, obviously. So if they tell me I have to move up, I'll start working the phones from about three picks back, and just keep going until somebody will make that deal or until (the player) goes.

"So that's the way that works. I've got (pick number) 135, and on the board right now is 115. So if there's a team three spots ahead of us that I'm worried about, I'll start trying to get ahead of them right away. I'll call the team at 118. 'Do you want to do this?' They say no. Then it's 119, 120, and keep on working, until (the player) goes or you luck out and it's there."

Sometimes, the tables get turned. Late in the first round of the 2008 draft, Lombardi was on a conference call with reporters, talking about the Kings’ selections of defensemen Drew Doughty and Colten Teubert in the first round.

Suddenly distracted, Lombardi said, "I’ve got to go." A few minutes later, the Phoenix Coyotes traded up into the No. 28 spot and picked Viktor Tikhonov. The Kings, who had pick No. 32, were set to take Tikhonov.

"That's frustrating, but that's good work by Phoenix," Lombardi said. "They probably knew we were interested in him. They moved up because they had the extra picks. They paid a steep price to move up. I was pissed, but the only thing you can say as a GM is, 'OK, would I have made that deal to move up?' In the end, the only thing I'm glad about is that they paid a pretty steep price to move up. The thing that really makes you mad is, afterward, thinking, 'I could have done this and paid that price.'

"But stuff where you make mistakes, and the inexperience shows up, you only know if you're sitting at the draft table. The fans would never know. We would have discussions afterward and say, 'Hey boys, this can't happen again.' Unless you're at that table, and understanding what we're trying to do, an outsider would have no clue. There was a point when I knew we weren't sharp, and I said, 'We're not sharp. We've got to be quicker. You've got to have this in order.' Things can happen. This staff, no question they work hard. They've got a good mind."

The Kings enter the draft with nine picks. Chances are, they’ll end up with more or fewer. Certainly, during the seven rounds, nerves will be tested and decisions will be made. Then a few weeks later, the process will start all over again, as preparations are made for the 2011 draft.

In between, though, there is some time for reflection.

"After the draft, we'll have meetings and go through it," Lombardi said. "For a couple days everyone will relax, and then during the development camp, we'll sit down and review every potential situation we had, the moves we made and the ones we didn't make, and we'll say, 'OK, where did we screw up? What did we do well? What didn't we do well?' Then it's, 'What did we learn from it?' We had one gaffe last year, and I don't think it will happen again."

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