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No rest for the champions

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

At this point, the Kings have barely had time to carry the empty champagne bottles out to the recycling bin. The NHL clock doesn’t stop turning, though, even for the champions, who went back to work this week.

Fresh off their Stanley Cup championship, the Kings have transitioned into preparation for this week’s draft and the start of the free-agent signing period on July 1. The first round of the draft will take place on Friday in Pittsburgh, only 11 days after the Kings beat New Jersey in Game 6 and claimed the Cup.

The Kings are scheduled to make the 30th (and final) pick of the first round on Friday, but then don’t have another pick until the fourth round. The Kings have a total of seven picks in the draft.

So while the draft is always important to Lombardi and his staff, the major work of this week might be spent negotiating with the team’s soon-to-be free agents. Three key contributors, Colin Fraser, Dustin Penner and Jarret Stoll, are due to become unrestricted free agents on July 1.

The Kings greatly valued their depth at center this season, making it highly likely that they will look to retain Fraser and Stoll. Penner is a different matter. He has expressed interest in returning, but the Kings need to determine whether his improved play in the playoffs was a fluke or a true turnaround.

Lombardi finds himself in an unusual, but enviable position. With only three free agents, he has the opportunity to keep a championship team intact. The question is, is that the correct thing to do?

``There is a school of thought that says you've got to make changes and not get stale,’’ Lombardi said. ``I'm not sure about that. On one hand I could say maybe, but we're a young team. It's not like there's old guys that need to go, who had a last hurrah. Secondly, it's a very tight group. You can say, `Well, chemistry changes when you've had success,' and that's true. I don't think these are things we could sit down and analyze and come up with a definitive answer.

``These are things that have to be discussed. I don't have those answers now, but I've already done some surveying and I intend to do a lot more. Clearly I've been around a little while now, and I'm getting old, but I'm learning things I never thought of before.’’

Lombardi’s ``surveying’’ has included discussions with front-office members from championship teams, both inside the NHL and in other professional sports. Lombardi is savoring this championship, but his long-stated goal has been to build a long-term winning team, and he doesn’t want to take a step backward next season.

To that end, Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter have already started informally strategizing about the coming training camp and how hard to push players after their shortened summer. And of course, before that, Lombardi must decide what the makeup of his roster will be next season.

Among the 23 players who appeared in at least one playoff game this year, 12 were drafted, eight were traded for and only three were signed as free agents. It’s a team that has been slowly and carefully constructed, primarily through the draft and by using draft picks in trades. Simon Gagne, Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi were the only players on the final roster who were free-agent signings.

``The big dog, in free agency, is tough,’’ Lombardi said. ``Usually when you want to use free agency, it's for getting good players who fit. And that's clearly what those guys represent, good players who fit with what we had within the system, like a Mitchell with Voynov and Scuderi with Doughty. I remember saying that when we were using free agency just to get bodies in here six years ago. That's not my cup of tea. There's nothing wrong with going after a big dog, but in most cases, the best free agents are the ones that fit., and those guys certainly fit that.’’

First on the schedule, though, is the draft. For a Kings front-office team that, in recent years, has spent weeks dedicated to draft preparation, the condensed offseason might seem challenging.

Rather than spending countless hours sitting around a conference-room table, watching video and debating the merits of prospects, Lombardi and his scouts have been invested in the playoff run, traveling to Vancouver, St. Louis, Phoenix and Newark to experience the Kings’ wild playoff ride.

Along the way, though, Lombardi kept one eye on the draft and tried to maintain as much normalcy as possible, in terms of preparation.

``Actually, in a way the scouts didn't miss a beat,’’ Lombardi said. ``It was important for them to be here (for the Finals), so they were able to be together probably more than for just the meetings we usually have. So they were able to chip away at it. Obviously it's a little hard, because they get jacked up too, but they went pretty hard there. They started coming in for the first and second (playoff) rounds, and obviously through it. I don't think we missed a beat in terms of putting in the necessary time.

``They guys worked their butts off and, like I said, because they were here for the playoffs, they were able to chip away at more than they usually would.''

Cup or no Cup, this would be an unusual draft for the Kings. The Kings have their first-round pick -- Columbus has the option to take it, as part of the Jeff Carter trade, but probably won’t -- but then don’t pick again until the fourth round.

The Kings sent their second-round pick to Philadelphia as part of the Mike Richards trade, and their third-round pick to Edmonton as part of the Penner trade. Overall, the Kings have only seven picks in the draft, and only one among the first 120 picks.

``I don't want to make a habit of that but, you know, people always said, `He's in love with his draft picks.' Well, at the time, we were, but sometimes you have to move them to improve the team,’’ Lombardi said. ``Obviously if you're going to have a down year with (number of) picks, this is probably the one, but in no circumstances do we want to make a habit of this.

``But it isn't like we used them for old players. That's the other consolation. If they're going into a Richards deal and a Carter deal, you're still dealing with guys that are 26, 27 years old. Again, that said, I don't want to make a habit of this.''

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