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HELENE ELLIOTT

Kings should score with a draft-day power play

June 19, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

The question is natural for anyone who is familiar with the Kings' horrendous draft history and has followed them through more than one rebuilding process and two general managers.

The Kings have the second pick Friday in an exceptionally deep entry draft. How will they mess this up?

"Boy, you're positive," General Manager Dean Lombardi said, laughing.

"Let's trade it."

Let's rephrase the question.

How do you not mess up this chance to accelerate a tedious overhaul that has frustrated your most loyal fans -- a group that, though dwindling, is larger than expected for a team that's 0 for 41 years?

"Probably not trade it," Lombardi said. "That's the first thing, the first test in the situation we're in."

And those tests will just keep on coming.

The Kings are at a crucial moment in their history, holding a pick that could have the biggest impact on the franchise since Wayne Gretzky arrived nearly 20 years ago.

In dumping coach Marc Crawford the Kings affirmed their intent to build from the defense outward. The cornerstones will be Jack Johnson, 2007 No. 4 pick Thomas Hickey and the player they'll take Friday in Ottawa.

They were slow to realize Crawford lacked the patience to help kids make the huge leap from junior or college hockey to playing defense in the NHL. Decent coaches are plentiful. Gifted, puck-moving defensemen are rare, but every Stanley Cup-winning team in recent memory has had one or more.

Lombardi will keep the pick, though his phone will ring until the Kings' turn comes up. He can see the rationale for trading it for immediate help and letting someone else take Drew Doughty or Zach Bogosian, but he can't take that chance now.

"In the end there's no right or wrong answer," he said. "But it would be a change of course, and that's not the orders I was given."

His mandate is to build around kids who could be Kings for a long time and won't have to leave to get their names etched on the Cup, as homegrown Kings Rob Blake and Luc Robitaille did.

It's not the cheap way to do things. If those kids shine, they will command significant salaries.

It's the only way that makes sense in a salary cap world and a way Lombardi believes will create the winning tradition that enveloped him when he scouted for the Philadelphia Flyers and he saw among the New Jersey Devils while watching from close range.

"One thing we have to ensure is we don't have to have our best young players leave the franchise to win the Cup," Lombardi said.

"That affects you. Certainly it wasn't their fault. The challenge is the kids we have now. They've got to win it here."

That's still several years away by even the most wildly optimistic estimates.

They have three good and different forwards in Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Patrick O'Sullivan, and it's time for Alexander Frolov to find consistency. They must sort out their goaltending and continue to develop players for the ninth through 12th forward slots, minimizing the need to Dumpster dive for marginal free agents.

Robitaille said he looks at Detroit's long-term success as a model.

"Or Washington, where it's just beginning, where you can say the team is competitive every year," he said.

The Kings' road will be perilous because their fumbles have hurt their finances and their fan base.

The season ticket base is in the low 11,000s after 83% to 85% of season-ticket holders renewed by last Friday's deadline, according to Chris McGowan, the Kings' chief marketing officer.

In addition, they claim they lost more money last season than any season before the lockout, which then-president Tim Leiweke backed because of the "cost certainty" promised by Commissioner Gary Bettman.

McGowan was reluctant to discuss the red ink. "As an organization we're getting away from talking about it," he said. "It's not important going forward. It's not what we're about."

Fans should care because ticket price hikes are the usual remedy for deficits. The Kings have kept prices lower than most other teams, but they've also delivered less than most other teams. They raised some prices for next season despite a fifth consecutive non-playoff finish. Just think what they'll do if they have some success to sell.

Getting to that point is Lombardi's job. Lombardi, always responsive to fans, last week met with six season-ticket holders who were undecided about renewing. They agreed with his strategy, applauded his candor and nodded when he filled players' names in boxes on an erase board, he said, but finally a fan had his fill.

"This one guy is banging on the table and saying, 'I see what you're saying but I can't take it. At the end of the season you can fill three boxes but we're still not in the playoffs,' " Lombardi said.

"I knew this was there. I guess I didn't understand the depth of it. I can't disagree with you. But then you go back to this is the way I believe you have to build teams. There's no guarantees, but we're going to do everything we can to do it right this time."

That starts with not blowing that pick Friday.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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NHL ENTRY DRAFT

First-round selections

Friday, 4 p.m. PDT (Versus)

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