COMMENTARY: Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi filled a hole on July 2 with the signing of unrestricted free agent defenseman Rob Scuderi but still has a huge, gaping hole to fill on left wing. Should he have gambled on one of the top free agents on July 1?
LOS ANGELES — After day two of the National Hockey League’s annual feeding frenzy, otherwise known as the first couple of days when teams can sign unrestricted free agents, the Los Angeles Kings have filled a need on their blue line.
On July 2, they agreed to terms with veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi, 30, who just won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, to a four-year deal that is reported to be worth $13.6 million, an average of $3.4 million per season—a nice raise from the $725,000 he earned last season.
The 6-0, 218-pound defenseman scored a goal and added fifteen assists for sixteen points with a +23 plus/minus rating and eighteen penalty minutes in a career-high 81 regular season games last season.
In the playoffs, Scuderi scored a goal and tallied four assists for five points with six penalty minutes in 24 games, averaging 20:29 of ice time.
Scuderi played parts of five seasons with the Penguins, scoring three goals and contributing 36 assists for 39 points with 112 penalty minutes in 300 regular season games. In 49 playoff games, all with the Penguins, he has a goal and seven assists for eight points with ten penalty minutes. He played in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009.
The native of Syosset, New York was selected by the Penguins in the fifth round (134th overall) of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. He was recently invited to attend the 2009 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Orientation Camp, August 17 – 19 in Woodbridge, Illinois. Scuderi joins Dustin Brown, Jack Johnson and Jonathan Quick as the fourth Kings player to be invited to the camp.
Scuderi was hoping to remain with the Stanley Cup champs, but the Kings made him an offer that the Pens could not match.
“After I just won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins I was hoping to stay with Pittsburgh,” Scuderi told LAKings.com. “But after taking a look at the Kings roster and some of the young talent they have, Los Angeles was one of my top choices. And I’m very confident in my choice that we can move ahead and become a better team.”
The Kings, who were looking for a veteran defenseman, were interested in Scuderi from the start of the free agent period.
“[The Kings] were interested from the start and stayed with it and I enjoyed them because they felt I would fit well into their system and what they’re trying to do,” he said. “Like I said, I’m happy with my decision.”
“Right before I agreed to the deal I was talking with [Kings President/General Manager] Dean Lombardi and [Assistant General Manager] Ron Hextall,” he added. “They asked me about the roster and where I thought the Kings were headed. They said they had some of the best young prospects in the league and if you’re looking for a team that’s up-and-coming, which happens quick, then LA would be the place. Once I knew that they seemed like they really knew what they were doing I was on board.”
Signing Scuderi was a good move by Lombardi to add a solid defenseman with some experience to his blue line corps. Nevertheless, after allowing the unrestricted free agent train pass him by on July 1, one has to seriously question if he really knows what he’s doing.
Indeed, after stating that his roster has a hole on left wing and that his team needs a scoring winger to fill it, Lombardi was unable to sign Marian Hossa, who signed a whopping twelve-year deal reported to be worth $63.6 million, an average of $5.3 million/year.
Rich Hammond of the Daily News and Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times have reported that Hossa was the Kings’ primary target and they received permission from the Detroit Red Wings to talk to Hossa prior to July 1 (see Hammond: “Lombardi July 1 Quotes” and Elliott: “Free Agency Games Begin, But The Kings Stay On The Sidelines”).
If the Kings had signed Hossa prior to July 1, the Red Wings would have received compensation from the Kings.
But it was clear that Hossa was looking to go to a team with a good chance to win the Stanley Cup soon and the Kings are clearly not one of those teams—they had absolutely no chance to sign him.
Regardless, something very revealing came to light in the Kings’ pursuit of Hossa—that they were willing to sign him to an expensive, long-term deal, even twelve years.
But once Hossa moved himself out of Lombardi’s reach, Lombardi clearly put his hands in his pockets and left them there, despite the fact that two other players who could have filled that hole on the left side were available…wingers Marian Gaborik and Martin Havlat.
Gaborik, who is a legitimate sniper, should have been Lombardi’s next option, followed by Havlat, who is not quite the scoring threat but is better defensively. But, according to Elliott and Hammond, Lombardi was not willing to offer Gaborik the five-year deal averaging $7.5 million per season that he signed with the New York Rangers because of his long history of injuries.
Lombardi had similar concerns about Havlat, who signed a six-year deal with the Minnesota Wild that is reportedly worth an average of $5 million per season.
Regardless, it was time for Lombardi to take a chance.
In Gaborik’s case, it has been widely reported that his seemingly chronic groin problems were caused by a deficiencies in his hips. He had right hip surgery on December 24, 2008, followed by left hip surgery on January 5 to correct the hip problem (see “Wild’s Gaborik To Have Hip Surgery”).
After returning from the hip surgery, Gaborik practically melted the ice whenever he played, scoring thirteen goals and adding ten assists for 23 points in just seventeen games this past season.
Despite the fact that it is far from certain that the hip surgery will permanently solve Gaborik’s chronic groin issues, Lombardi should have gone after him hard. Gaborik’s speed and scoring ability would have been just what the doctor ordered to fill that roster hole on left wing. More than that, adding such a talent would have helped the Kings’ current stock of young players improve and their chances to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years would have increased considerably—post-season experience is also vital for the development of young NHL players.
Such a move would show the players that management is committed to winning, and to the players. Oh…and to the fans as well.
In light of the fact that Lombardi was willing to go after Hossa and was even willing to offer a long-term deal—he was even willing to consider twelve years—it now appears that money, the salary cap and his ability to re-sign young players such as Drew Doughty, Alexander Frolov and Jack Johnson, may not be the problems Lombardi said they would be in recent interviews.
To be fair, the 2010-11 salary cap is still projected to drop significantly, raising concerns about the ability to sign up-and-coming young players and still remain below the salary cap if they sign a high-priced free agent to a multi-year contract. But if other NHL general managers were concerned about that, they certainly didn’t show it on July 1. Indeed, some of them went on an absolutely insane spending spree, throwing ridiculous amounts of money and long-term contracts at one unrestricted free agent after another and in most cases, it could be said that they paid way too much.
But who cares about the salary cap, right?
Although following in step with the insanity just because everyone else is doing it would be foolhardy, entering the fourth year of his rebuilding process and with a talented core of players already in the fold, the time was ripe for Lombardi to add a sniper up front.
To be sure, Gaborik’s injury problems remain an issue, especially given his long history of groin problems. However, given that the Kings could have afforded to at least match the contract Gaborik received from the Rangers and that the hip surgery was supposed to correct the problems that caused his groin troubles, Gaborik was worth the risk, as was Havlat, and Lombardi should have pursued them aggressively.
Of course, if Gaborik and Havlat simply did not want to play for the Kings because they are among the bottom-feeders in the NHL at present, no one could blame Lombardi. However, as stated above, he did not want to take a chance on them. That places the blame squarely on his shoulders and raises the questions:
If this was not the time to take a chance, when will that time come? Or will it ever come?
To his credit, Lombardi has drafted well and has built a scouting and development staff that is reaping benefits in terms of drafting and developing homegrown players. His commitment to building from within is definitely the way to go.
Indeed, all one has to do look at teams like the Red Wings and New Jersey Devils. These teams have the best scouting and development staffs in the league. It is no coincidence that both teams built their core through the draft and then filled holes here and there via trades and free agency—exactly what Lombardi is trying to do and should continue to do.
Further, Lombardi said in a recent interview that he has a plan and is going to stick with it and only go after players via free agency or trade if they are the right players.
Good. No problem there. After all, that fits right in with his rebuilding plan. However, it sure looks like Gaborik and to a lesser degree, Havlat, were the right players and were available if Lombardi was willing to be bold and take a chance.
Many who follow the Kings are totally outraged by Lombardi’s failure to sign either Gaborik or Havlat, especially when it is evident that money and salary cap issues were apparently not the concerns Lombardi led us to believe they were going into July 1.
But a good portion of those critical of Lombardi have been calling for him to sign top unrestricted free agents since his arrival in Los Angeles back in April, 2006. Their contention is that the Kings should be competitive—a playoff team—and rebuild at the same time.
If that sounds familiar, it should. It is what the Kings have done whenever they talked about rebuilding prior to Lombardi joining the Kings…it is the “hybrid rebuild” that Lombardi has talked about in the past—a half-hearted attempt to try to develop young prospects while keeping the fans happy at the big club level.
To be sure, while that sometimes results in a team that makes the playoffs, the Kings were usually eliminated after the first round. That is not what you call a consistent, perennial winner, let alone a Stanley Cup contender, which is what Lombardi is trying to build.
Indeed, the hybrid rebuild has never worked for the Kings and by the time Lombardi came on board, it was time for a change—the Kings have never, in their nearly 42-year history, rebuilt (or built) their team from the ground up via the draft and the time was long overdue for them to give that a try and stick to it, something that Lombardi has done admirably and should continue to do.
But signing Gaborik or Havlat would not have meant that Lombardi had to deviate from that plan or toss it out with the proverbial bath water. Far from it. Rather, it would have fit into Lombardi’s plan in that he has a young core built and now, all he has to do is fill a couple of holes. He did that by signing Scuderi but he still has a huge, gaping hole on left wing.
Entering the fourth year of that rebuilding process, wasn’t it time to help push the rebuilding process along by adding that skilled winger?
Although Lombardi could still acquire that skilled winger via trade, he might have been able to acquire such a player without having to give up any valuable assets if had only pushed hard for Gaborik or Havlat.
2009-10 will be a crucial year for the Kings and for Lombardi as his team must show significant improvement and make the playoffs, regardless of the player personnel moves he may or may not make this off-season. Indeed, qualifying for the post-season is the next benchmark that the Kings must reach next season (barring a plethora of serious injuries)—they must attain that level of progress or Lombardi could find himself on shaky ground.
No doubt, signing Gaborik or Havlat would have been a bold and risky move. But the time has come for Lombardi to be bold and take a risk—Gaborik or Havlat were well worth it.
In other news…
On July 2, Hockey Canada announced that Kings defenseman Drew Doughty was among 46 players invited to their National Men’s Team orientation camp, scheduled for August 24-27 in Calgary.
These 46 players have been identified as candidates for upcoming international events in the 2009-10 season: the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and 2010 IIHF World Championship.
Also on July 2, the Kings signed restricted free agent right wing enforcer prospect Kevin Westgarth to a three-year contact.
Westgarth, 25, made his Kings/NHL debut this past season and played in nine games. He did not get on the scoresheet but racked up nine penalty minutes.
In 65 games with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate), the 6-5, 241-pound native of Amherstberg, Ontario scored four goals and added six assists for ten points with 165 penalty minutes.
Photo: Dean Lombardi. Courtesy Los Angeles Kings.
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