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by Staff Writer / Los Angeles Kings
Chances are, you won't know many of the names the Kings select at the NHL Entry Draft on June 24 in Vancouver.

But with new President/General Manager Dean Lombardi involved in his first draft with the Kings, chances are also pretty good that some day in the not too distant future, you will.

Lombardi will rely heavily on the Kings incumbent scouting staff during his first draft here, since he mostly recently worked as a pro scout with Philadelphia. As the former General Manager of the San Jose Sharks, Lombardi has a history of picking players who go on to make names for themselves. Those names can be found attached to his resume, on NHL rosters, and atop statistical categories.

Vesa Toskala, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo, Mikka Kiprusoff, Ray Whitney, Sandis Ozolinsh, Scott Thornton, and Evgeni Nabokov, are among the impact players Lombardi helped brought into the NHL. A graduate of Tulane Law School, Lombardi adheres to one simple law at an entry draft: always pick the best talent available.

The draft, Lombardi believes, is about solidifying an organization's foundation by collecting assets. The more blue chippers a team can collect, the stronger it becomes; be it on the ice or at the bargaining table.

"Dean's view is similar to how we've viewed the draft in previous years, in that it is about acquiring assets for the organization," said Kings Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray. "Those assets are the best available player in the draft. If they all happen to be forwards and you need defense, you now have somebody that another team would want that you can trade to get the asset you need at a different position."

Many times, it's of matter seeing into the future and not just the present.

"If you pick a player at a position you need and he doesn't pan out," Murray explained, "not only will he not play for you, but nobody will want that player. The best available player doesn't mean the player with the most points. It's the guy that you believe will become the best pro player."

While Lombardi's philosophy is similar to that of previous administrations, his draft history is like few others. Yet despite the strong resume, Lombardi won't hesitate to get input from his staff.

"He'd be the first to tell you that he doesn't have a real good handle on the amateurs this year because he was pro scouting last year," proclaimed Murray. "I know he'll be a lot more involved as we move forward. It's great to have somebody with his track record who can give us his insights and knows what the important attributes of players are."

The St. Louis Blues will draft first this year, with defenseman Erik Johnson (6-foot-4, 225-pounds; Bloomington, Minnesota) rated as the top prospect by NHL Central Scouting.

Drafting 11th overall, Lombardi believes the Kings will get a quality player.

In the new NHL, smaller, more skilled players have become what Lombardi refers to as the "flavor of the month." Having said that, he cites Edmonton's run to the Stanley Cup finals as evidence that winning in the NHL still comes down to a team's competitive nature and grit.

Murray agrees that while draft is still about the more-complex-than-it-sounds task of determining who can, and cannot, play hockey, there is more of a premium placed on skating nowadays.

"It still pretty much comes down to who is a hockey player and who isn't," Murray said. "But the one area you now have to pay attention to is the players who lack skating skills. You have to decide if they have the other intangibles, if they have the competitiveness and the skill level (to compete at the NHL level)."

According to Murray, defensemen can no longer get by without being able to skate.

"The guys who really got hurt by the new rules are defensemen who don't skate that well," Murray said. "You can no longer hook and hold players. You need to be able skate with players or stay in front of them defensively. If you can't skate at the necessary level, you're going to be in the penalty box the whole game."

Like Major League Baseball's annual draft, the NHL Entry Draft revolves around names that are largely unknown; that is to everyone except the scouting departments of NHL teams.

"There are no names that will come up that we won't know about," Murray said. "We may evaluate them differently than other teams but we certainly know who they are."

The NHL draft is also similar to its MLB counterpart in that it is about projecting a player's future development as much as it is about his current capabilities.

"Very few players step out of the NHL draft or the MLB draft and make an impact," Murray said. "You are looking down the road a few years before a player can make an impact, unless it's a Sidney Crosby or and Alexander Ovechkin."

When it comes to seeing the future, an NHL organization can do all its homework and still not know exactly how a prospect will develop.

"It's certainly not an exact science," Murray said. "The good kids at 18 aren't always the good kids when they're 21 and they become millionaires. Money changes people. Lifestyle changes people. Sometimes a player who has never been cut is told to go to the American League to make himself better. He might not handle it well. We try to find out as much about the person as the player so we know who has the character to get through the tough times."

For the players, being tabbed in the first round is no guarantee of success.

"Stats show that 60-65 percent of first round draft picks become regular NHL players," Murray said, "so even in the first round there is a lot of players who aren't able to make it."

According to Murray, this year's draft is characterized by a small group of high-end players.

"There are somewhere between five and 10 players at the top end of the draft," Murray said. "Then you fall down to maybe 30 players that could go in any order. After those players, there's another group of about 50 players that could go in almost any order. There are a lot of similar players in their ability, very few at the top end of the draft."

As the information age has made the world a global village, so too has the hockey community gotten smaller.

"Because teams have played against each other so much lately," Murray said, "North American kids are used to playing on larger ice surfaces, and European kids are playing Major Junior hockey. They play each other at World Juniors, and under-18s, and under-17s. The hockey world is very similar now. It's much more similar on both sides of the ocean than it ever was in the past. You get can find good character kids, and talented guys all over the world now."

Yet, even if the results aren't apparent for several years, the NHL Entry Draft remains one of the most captivating events of the year for a hardcore hockey fan.

"If you understand the way teams are built," Murray said, "it's a very exciting time."

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