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by Thomas LaRocca / Los Angeles Kings
For 16 National Hockey League teams, this time of year is spent in pursuit of hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.

For the remaining 14, this period is typically spent evaluating the concluded season and defining areas of the team that need to improve, assessing the free agent market to see if someone can fit those needs and taking stock of your own players with vigorous scouting.

“Scouting is the first step,” Kings Assistant General Manager Ron Hextall said. “You identify the potential of a player and then you have to make a decision whether you want to sign him.

“It is a lengthy process and there is a lot of information to gather from your scouts and from your staff and from talking to people to make your own evaluation.”

Since the Kings have signed seven prospects since mid March, about one per week, the front office has been extraordinarily busy the last few months, studying countless hours of film and traveling to see as many AHL, ECHL, WHL, OHL, QMJHL and ‘insert letters here’ HL playoff games as they possibly can take in.

“You rely on your scouts, but you also want to see what they are seeing,” Hextall said. “We had to actually see these players.”

Thus, it is highly unlikely that any member of the Kings front office found time to see Spider Man 3 this weekend as apparently there is nothing off about the off season.

This wave of signings began in mid-March, with two undrafted free agents from the college ranks in Princeton forward Kevin Westgarth and University of Wisconsin defenseman Joe Piskula. Westgarth played in 33 games for the Tigers, scoring eight goals with 16 assists for 24 points.

“Westgarth is an energy player with good size that finishes checks,” Hextall said. “He is a big, strong guy and we felt we had a need there.”

The 6-5, 240-pound Westgarth was assigned to Manchester and scored 1-2=3 in 14 games with the Monarchs.

Piskula, meanwhile, saw action in five games with the Kings going scoreless after playing in 38 games with the Badgers and scoring five points (1-4=5) with 34 penalty minutes and a plus-2 rating.

“He is a defensive defenseman with good size who skates well and is a very simple player that needs to become a safe, solid defenseman,” Hextall said of the 6-3, 210-pound Piskula.

Six days later, General Manager Dean Lombardi announced the signing of highly-touted defenseman Jack Johnson, whom the Kings obtained the rights to along with defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky in exchange for center Eric Belanger and defenseman Tim Gleason on Sept. 29, 2006.

Johnson made his debut on March 29 vs. Vancouver and skated in five games as well with the Crown shirts.

“When you come out of college, it is a huge jump,” Hextall said. “It is one thing to go to the American League, which is a jump in itself, but to take the two steps to the NHL is huge. Overall, I think Jack was exactly what we thought he would be as he has an awful lot of skill and a lot of energy and plays the game with a lot of passion.

“He needs some experience in the league, but overall we were very happy with his performance and we have high hopes for him.”

A day after the debut of Johnson, Lombardi signed goaltending prospect Jon Quick, whom the Kings had selected in the third round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

“Quick is very athletic and after playing a couple years in college and having a great year this year - especially the second half - we just felt that it was best for him to get on with his pro career at this point,” Hextall said.

“He is very athletic and quick, no pun intended.”

The Kings and Monarchs then signed Trevor Lewis to an ATO on April 3. Lewis, who was selected by the Kings 17th overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, paid immediate dividends, scoring four goals and adding two assists in eight games with the Monarchs.

On April 9, the Kings signed center Marc-Andre Cliche, who was obtained in the Sean Avery deal with New York. Cliche played in 52 games this season for Lewiston of the QMJHL and had 54 points (24-30=54), a plus-27 rating while being honored with the Guy-Carbonneau Trophy, which goes to the QMJHL's "Best Defensive Forward."

“Cliche is a rugged, hard-nosed player that plays a well-rounded game,” Hextall said. “He is very good in his own end and has some skill offensively and some speed.

“But I think he is a heart and soul player and an energy player that will be well rounded. He is a coach’s dream from what I heard.”

It is also fair to say that coaches probably dream about 6-7 skaters that can play as a forward and on defense as the Kings then penned their third pick of the first round from the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, in Brian Boyle, a 6-foot-7, 250-pound center/defenseman out of Boston College.

Boyle finished his senior campaign with 50 points (17-33=50) and 96 penalty minutes in 38 games before playing in just two games with the Monarchs during the regular season. Boyle, however, has been a beast in the Calder Cup playoffs, posting 2-5=7 in eight post season games, including a double-OT series-clinching goal in the Monarchs opening round win over the Sharks, playing primarily as a pivot.

“A hockey person never underestimates a player’s defensive ability and one thing with Brian is that he has huge range with his long arms, his long body and his long stick for defensive zone coverage,” Hextall said. “He doesn’t get knocked off of pucks and doesn’t get out-muscled down low.

“As a defenseman, he might be more valuable for us, but that is something we will talk about this summer to see where he fits in.”

Finally, the club signed free agent forward Teddy Purcell out of the University of Maine, where he had 43 points (16-27=43) in 40 games.

“Teddy has pretty good size and we think he is going to get bigger,” Hextall said. “He has good hands and is a scorer and a team can always use that.”

All of these Kings prospects will report to El Segundo this summer for the Kings Prospect Camp and some may even get a shot at joining the club for training camp.

“In a perfect world, there is value for every player to spend some time in the American Hockey League, but obviously, we do not live in a perfect world.

“Some of these guys will get a look. My guess is that we will have a few positions open and we will see what we have and see where they fit in.”

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