EL SEGUNDO, CA — After the Los Angeles Kings won the 2012 Stanley Cup Championship, President/General Manager Dean Lombardi made good on his promise to bring back all of his players back for the 2013 National Hockey League season, giving them a solid chance to defend their championship.
One year later, the Kings advanced as far as the Western Conference Final, but only to be stopped in their tracks by the Chicago Blackhawks. But now, Lombardi is faced with that same challenge of trying to keep his team intact.
But can he? A huge obstacle in his path is the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which calls for a $64.3 million salary cap in 2013-14, considerably lower than the current $70.2 million.
“It’s unfortunate, the way this Collective Bargaining Agreement worked for us,” Lombardi lamented. “One of the by-products of going slowly was to be able to build this thing, and keep it together. We were clearly on that path, with $6 million in cap space this year, and we brought the whole team back.”
Going into the 2013-14 season, Lombardi has eleven players with expiring contacts, but just $11.84 million in available salary cap space. Eight players are restricted free agents, and three are unrestricted free agents.
“There’s a bit of a vise here,” said Lombardi. “Certainly, you couldn’t have projected that number of contracts are up, and the cap comes down. Unlike the [National Football League], for some reason, I’m not allowed to use that space I had this year to [sign] a guy early. If [I could], I would’ve started this process six months ago, [thinking that], ‘I’ve got $6 million in cap space. I’m not going to acquire anyone, but let’s get some of these guys done now.’ Can’t do it. Not allowed. Not sure why, but not allowed.”
Even though the numbers appear to stacked heavily against him, Lombardi said that he believes he can bring everyone back.
“We’ve got a challenge here, but I’m confident that we can meet it,” he indicated. “It’s something that’s unfortunate.”
Does Lombardi really believe that he can bring everyone back with $11.84 million in salary cap space? When you look at the reality of the situation, and knowing that he is a very wise, shrewd general manager, one can only assume that he does not.
The key figure in that $11.84 million of salary cap space is the hefty raise that defenseman Slava Voynov is likely to receive. Indeed, if Voynov gets the $4-5 million per season that many believe he will, that will throw a huge wrench into Lombardi’s plans, leaving just $6.84 million to $7.84 million to work with.
Another factor is that it is almost a certainty that goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who will be a restricted free agent this summer, will be traded, perhaps as soon as the NHL Draft on June 30, giving him a chance to be a number one netminder somewhere. A reliable backup goaltender would have to come back in the deal since the Kings do not have an NHL-ready goaltender in their system to fill the backup role, adding to the salary uncertainty.
Among the Kings who will be unrestricted free agents this summer, the big one is veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi, who could easily get a nice raise from another team, but would almost certainly have to take a significant pay cut if he wants to stay with the Kings.
Veteran left wing Dustin Penner, also eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer, could easily find himself looking for another team, especially given the Kings’ glaring lack of production from the left wing position.
Forward Brad Richardson, also due to be an unrestricted free agent, could also be on the way out.
Already, reports have surfaced in recent days saying that Voynov was about to re-sign with the Kings, even though he received an offer from KHL team back home in Russia, and that Kings forward prospect Bud Holloway, who has been playing in Sweden the last few seasons, is considering a return to the Kings—he could be brought in to replace Richardson.
But all depends on the Voynov deal. Only if Lombardi can pull off signing him to a shorter term bridge deal valued under $3 million per season can he hope to bring back Scuderi, and then re-sign his restricted free agents—forwards Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis and Jordan Nolan, along with defensemen Keaton Ellerby, Alec Martinez, and Jake Muzzin.
Given that Martinez pretty much lost his job to rookie Jake Muzzin this past season, he could be on the trading block, and would probably fetch a mid-to-late round draft pick, and would free up a bit of salary cap space.
Ellerby, who was also in and out of the lineup, could also be a trade target.
No matter how you slice it, Lombardi has his work cut out for him.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get guys in [including Penner],” he said. “I’m going to try everything I can to bring the pieces back, like I did last year. It’s just going to be a little more difficult.”
“We’ll figure it out, and I think we can do it,” he added. “But it’s a challenge, and this is a little different, too. When you see one guy get [signed], you can’t work on one guy, in isolation. This is a very different challenge from anything, personally, that I have faced, where if you give some here, this guy takes this, so you’ve got a domino effect.”
“These last two to three months, when I saw what was happening here, and then, losing Willie Mitchell—I’ve talked about having chemistry projects in the back room before. We’ve taken this to nuclear science now, in terms of how you put these equations together.”
Of course, after winning the 2012 Stanley Cup Championship, Lombardi now has an ace up his sleeve, both in terms of attracting free agents, and in keeping players in the fold.
“The other thing you’ve got here: there’s no question that this is a very tight group, and there’s no question that we’ve solved the issue of [location],” said Lombardi. “This is one of the best places in the country to live. But now we’ve got the most important part: we’ve got a good team, a good bunch of guys, and now, that environment takes over ten-fold.”
“I think we’re there now, where the most important thing is that players want to be here because it’s a good team, and they can win,” he added. “Now we take advantage of the fact that this is one of the best places in the world to live, and I think we’ve kind of got that, so I’m confident that these guys want to stay together, without depriving their families of being taken care of.”
His beliefs and confidence, not to mention the attractiveness of playing for the Kings notwithstanding, unless Lombardi somehow pulls a rabbit out of his hat, the 2013-14 Los Angeles Kings are going to look at least a bit different than they have the last two seasons.
Stick tap to LA Kings Insider Jon Rosen, who contributed to this story.
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After “keeping the team together” last year and failing to address the glaring needs, I sincerely hope Lombardi shakes things up a bit. I love Penner, but he’s not the guy to fill the LW hole.
After signing Voynov to a six-year deal with a $4.17 million/year cap hit today, he won’t have a choice.
If they get rid of Penner and Richardson (and trade Bernier), does that free enough space to re-sign the rest?
Possibly. Depends on who comes back in a deal involving Bernier, so there is a lot of uncertainty.