(Ryan Smyth Trade was announced after article was published. I am so excited to announce the addition of Captain Canada to the Kings lineup)
As a fan of the Los Angeles Kings for over 20 years, I must say I haven't been this excited for the puck to drop in quite some time. I have watched this team from it's high point ('93 Cup Run) to it's low point (man, there have been too many), but this year I feel the winds of change in the air.
Since being hired over three years ago as President and General Manager, Dean Lombardi has made it clear he intends to follow a blueprint to build from within using the draft and developing prospects instead of relying on "quick fix" solutions. He has organized a team around him in the front office to deliver on this plan, and is hopefully now putting the finishing touches in place on the ice to help make this dream a reality in bringing respectability and excitment back to the failing franchise
In missing the playoffs for the past seven seasons (including the lockout), the Kings have played their way to an abundance of high draft picks, in the same vein that have made franchises such as the Chicago Blackhawks and 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins so competitive. By not giving into the pressure of needing to "making the playoffs" (see Atlanta), and sticking to the plan, this gamble appears to be ready to start paying out some large dividends.
July 1st came and went, and Lombardi once again stayed the course and resisted at making the "sexy" pick up from the list of current high powered (and high priced) free agent crop, deciding not to go toe to toe in bidding wars that would saddle his team with contracts that he feels would hinder rather than contribute toward team success. Going into the 2010 season, the Kings are currently stocked with loads of explosive young talent (mostly 25 and younger) at all ends of the ice:
Goaltending: The Kids are Aright? Lombardi has stated he will not acquire a veteran goalie and feels that he is solid between the pipes with his trio of 'tenders. Jonathon Quick was a pleasant surprise last year, playing well in stretches which allowed the Kings to deal away Jason LaBarbera to the Canucks, alleviating the logjam. Along with a solid backup in Erik Ersberg and (heir apparent?) Jonathon Bernier, the Kings first Round selection (11th overall) in the 2006 draft.
Last week's draft saw the Kings add yet another in JF Berube (fourth Round, 95th overall) to give them even more organizational depth between the pipes, something this team has not had for a very long time. Hopefully this year either Quick will build on his success to become a Hollywood leading man, or one of his understudy's will work their way from supporting role to the spotlight.
Defense: The Kings are loaded with an embarrassment of riches on the back end that are quickly becoming the envy of the league. Even though they lost all world players Lubi Visnovsky (Via Trade to Edmonton) and Rob Blake (via free agency to rival San Jose), this group elevated it's play to make an astonishing jump from 28th in Goals Against Average (3.2) and 30th in Penalty Kill Percentage (78%) in 2007-08 to finish seventh and 11th respectively in 2008-09.
Stacked with impressive offensive and defensive talent, this group is anchored by Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson (if re signed) who along with the impressive Kyle Quincey (a steal from the Red Wings, now dealt to Colorado with Tom Preissing for Ryan Smyth), the rock steady Matt Greene, and veteran Sean O'Donnel will be joined this year by 2009 Stanley Cup winner Rob Scuderi, the Kings lone free agent acquisition to date. Along with 2009 Canadian World Junior gold medal winners Thomas Hickey and Colten Teubert, 2008 2nd Rd pick Viateslav Voinov and 2009 third Rd pick Nicolas Deslauriers.
The blue line is currently a little crowded, but with this group, it's a problem a lot of GM's would love to have.
Forwards: With a lineup that boasts five First Round Draft Picks including 2008 All Star and Captain Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov, Justin Williams (who sat on the shelf for most of last year), and the newly acquired Ryan Smyth.
Those talents along with face off specialist Jarret Stoll, Raitis Ivanans, Michael Handzus and sophomores Wayne Simmonds, Teddy Purcell and Oscar Moller is a great mix of speed, grit and skill. Outside of Brown and to a degree Stoll, (and now Ryan Smyth)the forwards desperately lacked that "sandpaper" which the Kings hope they addressed in 2009 first Round Pick (fifth overall) Brayden Schenn and second Rounder Kyle Clifford.
2008 fifth Rd pick Andrei Lotkionov was an offensive force all of last year for the Memorial Cup winning Windsor Spitfires , who along with 2006 first rounder Trevor Lewis should get a good look at upcoming training camp. (Veterans Derek Armstrong and Kyle Calder most likely will not be with the team when they hit camp.)
The Kings have a lot of question marks going into the 2009-10 season. Will the goaltending question finally be answered? Will the kids continue to progress and develop long term chemistry? Will Doughty build on his outstanding rookie season and along with the other second year players avoid the dreaded sophomore slump? Will the carefully concocted blend of youth and experience, grit and goals, speed and skill be the recipe for success? Will Jack Johnson be signed? Will Terry Murray be able to hold it all together behind the bench? Will Lombardi exchange some of his vast youth or depth or dip into free agency (RFA or UFA) to provide the Kings with that elite game breaker they have lacked for so long?
With years of patiently waiting, and carefully constructing, this team seems to be finally readu to turn the corner that seperates "pretenders" from "contenders". Lombardi must be very proud to sit back and watch as the pieces of the puzzle of his "master plan" start to finally fall into place. With all the talent on and off the ice, the very bright future of the franchise appears to be in great hands, to kindly reward the long suffering, dedicated fans of hockey in Hollywood.