LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi Is Dodging Bullets

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi has been dodging a lot of bullets lately.

Whether they are being fired by the media or by Kings fans, Lombardi has been taking heavy fire since June 22, the first day of the 2007 National Hockey League Entry Draft, when he defied conventional wisdom by selecting defenseman Thomas Hickey with the fourth overall pick.

The selection of Hickey, who was not among the top ten prospects according to all the major scouting services, was widely panned by the media and fans alike.

And then on July 1, the first day that NHL teams could sign unrestricted free agents, Lombardi once again drew heavy criticism from fans for his failure to sign any of the attractive free agents that day, including forwards Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez.

Impatience by Kings fans is understandable, given the Kings’ almost comical history filled with one blunder after another, both on and off the ice. But since the Dean Lombardi Era began in April, 2006, the Kings have been on a completely different path than the franchise has ever been on in its forty-year history and, at least up to now, there is evidence that Lombardi is sticking to his rebuilding plan.

“Rebuilding.” That is a bad word for many Kings fans because the franchise has given lip service to rebuilding many times, especially since the Anschutz Entertainment Group took over the ownership reins in the mid-1990’s. However, until Lombardi was hired, it was something the Kings had never actually done. But now, with two drafts under Lombardi’s belt, with four free agents signed on July 2, and another the following day, evidence suggests that the heavy artillery being fired at Lombardi is undeserved.

To be sure, Lombardi’s selection of Hickey with the fourth overall pick in the draft a couple of weeks ago stunned the hockey media and angered many Kings fans. As stated earlier, they saw that Hickey was not ranked among the top ten prospects by the major scouting services and immediately believed that Lombardi blew it in a big way.

Indeed, these armchair general managers were blasting away at Lombardi left and right. It began at the Kings draft party for their season ticket holders in Hollywood on June 22, and grew to a fever pitch on the Internet.

But Lombardi is not the only one who is singing Hickey’s praises. Indeed, Hickey had a solid 2006-07 with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League and turned some heads along the way.

After selecting Hickey, Lombardi could not stop talking about his skating ability, stating that he was the kind of fast, mobile defenseman who was well-suited to the “new NHL.”

Russ Farwell, general manager and part-owner of the Thunderbirds agreed, but said that in addition to helping Hickey on offense, it makes him a solid defender as well.

“His skating also lets him be very effective as a defender,” Farwell told Pat Schroeder of the Online Kingdom. “He can get good body position, which allows him to be very effective. He’s not a giant. He doesn’t reach out and stop you…which is a good thing now because of the game and the way it’s called. But he’s a good skater. He always keeps real good body position and so he is very effective both coming out of the corners or trying to gain our zone.”

“He’s a good hitter, he’s a physical player,” Farwell added. “He doesn’t have any trouble with anyone he’s playing against regardless of their size, because he’s a strong, solid guy and he skates so well. But that’s the biggest plus in his game.”

Farwell went on to confirm Lombardi’s assessment of Hickey in that he still has a lot of untapped potential. He also praised Hickey’s leadership abilities.

“He’s an exceptional player, and there’s no limit to how much he’s going to grow in the game, because he thinks the game at a top level,” said Farwell. “He’s a very influential guy. He can travel in both circles. He was one of our older guys and one of our key guys, and yet he never left the group that he came in with—the young guys that he went to high school with and stuff who were just, you know, probably the mid-level guys on our team. He was very popular in both groups. He’s an exceptional kid all the way around and I think will make him a real leader down the road as a pro.”

No one knows for sure if Hickey will become a solid NHL player or if he will be yet another draft bust for the Kings, at least not for a few years. To look at the fact that he was not ranked in the top ten by the major scouting services and then immediately declare the selection to be a blunder of epic proportions right off the bat, especially in light of Farwell’s assessment, is premature, to say the least. After all, some prospects who were ranked even lower or were selected in the later rounds have gone on to become stars in the NHL. As such, it certainly seems that having patience is, at the very least, the wise approach.

But the selection of Hickey in the draft was not the only reason Lombardi was taking heavy fire.

When Lombardi failed to sign any of the top unrestricted free agents on July 1, the armchair general managers brought out even heavier artillery and began firing round after round at Lombardi for his failure to improve the Kings within the first 24 hours of unrestricted free agency.

But the question is: since when was there a rule stating that teams were required to sign free agents on July 1?

Of course, the very best of the unrestricted free agents are usually signed on the first day. But that is not always the case, and signing the best and most expensive free agents is not always a wise move for a team, and that is the situation the Kings are in at the present time.

Although players like Briere, Drury and Gomez could help any team—a Stanley Cup contender or one that is rebuilding—signing ultra-high-priced unrestricted free agents would not have been a smart move for the Kings because it would have hamstrung Lombardi in future contract negotiations with his young core players.

Briere, Drury and Gomez received contracts valued at $6.5 million or more per season and each signed for seven years or more.

At those sky-high prices, Lombardi, who reportedly made offers to Drury and Gomez, was wise to walk away from the negotiating table. If he had signed one or more of these players at those prices, the Kings would have serious trouble trying to re-sign its young core players such as Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov, Michael Cammalleri, Dustin Brown and Jack Johnson when their contracts are due to expire over the next two seasons.

Losing your core players is not a good way to rebuild a team, and that is exactly the reason Lombardi decided to walk away.

“We certainly have the flexibility of going forward after this year,” said Lombardi. “I’m sitting here and I’m looking at cap space in [2008 and 2009]. We’ll see how this plays out. Our young players get a chance to grow in the minors. [Anze] Kopitar and [Jack] Johnson can grow and then next year we’re sitting here, and I’m staring at the numbers in years two and three. That’s what I’m keeping my eye on. We’ve got to fill some more [spots] before we get really aggressive and strike. We’ve got to be in position for it.”

After walking away from the negotiating table on July 1, Lombardi quickly moved to Plan B, and the very next day, he made a huge splash, signing four unrestricted free agents, left wing Kyle Calder, center Michal Handzus, left wing Ladislav Nagy and defenseman Tom Preissing.

Calder signed a two-year deal worth $5.5 million, and Handzus was signed to a four-year deal valued at $16 million, while Nagy signed a one-year contract worth $3.75 million, and Preissing signed a four-year deal valued at $11 million.

And then on July 3, Lombardi signed 27-year-old defenseman Brad Stuart to a one-year deal worth $3.5 million.

Lombardi said that Handzus, 30, was key player among the five.

“The key guy was the center,” Lombardi explained. “Obviously, we know Michal very well from Philadelphia. He’s a really good, underrated player.”

“This is one of those where you have an advantage. When you see a player every day, like we did with him in Philadelphia…he’s a real pro, and this is exactly the type of guy that you want kids to emulate. Handzus did everything. He played hurt.”

Lombardi and Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall both came to the Kings from the Philadelphia Flyers.

“When you look at our first year there, when Philly went to the conference finals, we had a real deep middle,” said Lombardi. “He could fill any role the coach asked him to and he did it without complaining. He was behind [Keith] Primeau and [Alexei] Zhamnov and [Jeremy] Roenick and he was able to play everywhere.”

“What was really attractive was, when you’re there you really get to know a player’s character,” added Lombardi. “That was a pretty tough team. There were good players on that team and some old-fashioned players. I remember that he was playing through an injury and the trainer said, ‘This is by far the toughest Flyer.’ And that’s a statement. He’s a real dependable player. Then last year, he goes to Chicago and he plays on the top line and he’s putting up numbers, and then obviously he had his injury.”

Indeed, the 6-5, 217-pound native of Banska Bystrica, Slovakia played in just eight games for the Chicago Blackhawks, scoring three goals with five assists for eight points before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

If all this rings a bell, think of Kings center Alyn McCauley, who suffered a serious knee injury while with the San Jose Sharks before Lombardi signed him as an unrestricted free agent prior to the 2006-07 season.

McCauley wound up missing 72 games last season. He never fully recovered from his injury and subsequent surgery, and the Kings wound up buying out his contract in late June.

And the year before, the Kings under then-general manager Dave Taylor signed free agent forward Valeri Bure, who suffered an injury during a pre-season game and never played in a game that counted for the Kings.

Given all that, signing Handzus would seem to be quite the risk.

“There’s something on a web site that shows [Handzus] working out,” said Lombardi. “Obviously, we had all the doctors exchanging information.”

“There’s going to be a little time but Michal was never the [fastest] skater with his size,” added Lombardi. “He’s a guy who, if you’re around the rink, you’re going to appreciate as a pro’s pro. But there will probably be a little adjustment period at the beginning.”

Clearly, Lombardi seems to be confident with his gamble.

“He’s a real versatile player and he gives us size down the middle too,” he said. “When you’ve got [Anze] Kopitar and Handzus, that’s a pretty big middle with two pretty good hockey players. That allows us some flexibility on the wing, and one thing too is that a lot of our young players coming through the system are wingers, and I think it’s easier to break them in when you have two quality guys like him and Kopitar.”

More important, it gives the Kings a legitimate second-line center, something they did not have last season.

“Now it drops [Derek Armstrong] into another slot,” said Lombardi. “It’s good. Michal might not be the sexy name, so to speak, but people who know hockey really appreciate this guy. He’s similar to [Lubomir] Visnovsky. They always come focused and prepared.”

Handzus and Nagy are also familiar with each other, and that evidently played a role in the Kings signing both players.

“With Nagy, we put him on a one-year deal,” Lombardi explained. “It kind of made sense to do this. Handzus and Nagy were really good in St. Louis when they were first breaking in. We played them in the playoffs when I was with San Jose and they were really good.”

“A lot of times, when players know each other and can push each other, it’s a pretty good gamble,” Lombardi added. “Nagy’s a good hockey player. With what’s happened in the last couple years, he’s got to rebound, but when you have a guy like Handzus to push him, and since they have played together so well, it kind of made sense.”

“Particularly since Nagy was willing to come in on a one-year deal, it gives you two-thirds of a line there, so you feel pretty good about that. Nagy knows he has to rebound here and I think with Visnovsky and Handzus here, they’ll be able to push him.”

With the addition of Handzus, 30, Nagy and Calder, both 28 years of age, one has to think the Kings will be at least a little better offensively.

“We’ve got, right now, the makings of two scoring lines and a third line that actually can put up some numbers also,” said Lombardi. “You’ve got size down the middle and you’ve got [Alexander] Frolov and [Dustin] Brown with some jam down the wings.”

“Calder plays that Mike Ricci-type game that I love so much,” added Lombardi. “He’s another one that needs to rebound, but given the price and the terms, it was worth it. This guy is a good hockey player too, and he needs to rebound. These guys all come under that second layer today and we moved quickly. I think we were ready, once the big boys went, so to speak, and I’m glad we did. I got a few calls saying that other people were in on these guys, so I’m glad we moved quickly.”

Almost forgotten was Preissing, 28, who Lombardi says will help the Kings move the puck up ice better.

“What he brings is something I think we’re lacking,” said Lombardi. “He makes plays. He’s a right[-hand] shot, that I think will help us with our puck movement.”

Many will continue to criticize Lombardi, contending that he was a fool to choose Hickey fourth overall in the draft, that he blew it by not signing Briere, Drury or Gomez on day one of unrestricted free agency, or that the five free agents signed since then are not enough to improve the team and make them a Stanley Cup contender.

But those critics need to take a step back and see what is really going on here.

As stated in this space back in March, the Kings are rebuilding, and all evidence continues to indicate that they are, for the first time in franchise history, serious about it and not merely giving us all lip service.

That being the case, it is going to take time to rebuild the Kings into a consistent winner and Cup contender, and the moves Lombardi has made to date, including the signing of perennial pylon-in-his-own-zone Jaroslav Modry to a one-year contract, is consistent with the rebuilding plan.

Clearly, Modry is an inexpensive placeholder while defensemen prospects such as Peter Harrold and Richard Petiot develop. And even better, the Kings have added Preissing and Stuart to improve their back line.

Up front, the addition of Handzus, Nagy and Calder will give the Kings more offensive talent, and will allow young forwards such as Lauri Tukonen to spend another year at Manchester, honing their skills.

These additions will not make the Kings a Stanley Cup contender in 2007-08. But no one should have expected that.

Indeed, it is not going to happen overnight, nor is it going to happen after just one year, or even two. In fact, the Kings will not start to really make any noise until the 2008-09 season, at the earliest.

As difficult as it may be, especially for all the long-suffering Kings fans out there, patience is a virtue.

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