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HELENE ELLIOTT

Kings need to shop free-agent market for a top-tier player

The team has finally crawled ahead to a point where such a player could make a major difference.

July 01, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

Now we'll find out how serious the Kings are about putting your -- and their -- money where their mouths are and adding an impact player who can accelerate their endless evolution.

As the NHL's free agency period starts at 9 a.m. Pacific time today, the Kings are among the league leaders in two areas: the need for a pure scorer and salary cap space.

They're committed to a cap hit of about $42 million next season under a cap of $56.8 million, and to create more options they don't plan to re-sign their own unrestricted free agents, Derek Armstrong, Kyle Calder and Denis Gauthier.

They've finally crawled ahead to a point where a top-tier player could make a major difference. It's time for them to sign that player.

"We all feel a need and a commitment to make the playoffs," said Tim Leiweke, the Kings' governor.

Fine. Now, make it happen.

The premier free agents expected to be available are right winger Marian Gaborik, who scored 85 goals during the last three injury-plagued seasons; Marian Hossa, who has surpassed 30 goals seven times but might fit better as a support player than a carry-the-team-on-his-back player; and twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, whose desire to sign as a duo and for long terms will limit their possibilities.

There will be others a notch below. Right wing Martin Havlat (29 goals, 77 points for Chicago) will draw interest even though last season was his first without significant injuries. Center Michael Cammalleri had 39 goals and 82 points for Calgary, but he's a longshot to return to the Kings, who traded him to the Flames last summer.

The question is which free agents would want to join a team that's intriguing but still developing?

Hossa, 30, might not want to sign here because even the most wildly optimistic guess would put the Kings three years from Cup contention.

Gaborik, 27, has the luxury of time and could grow with a young team. If the Kings are leery of his injury history, which is reasonable, they can offer him a short deal for big bucks and discuss something longer if he gets through the season unscathed.

The Kings could have an edge in the Gaborik hunt because his agent, Ron Salcer, is a South Bay resident and knows what's happening here.

"Living in L.A., for me and observing that team and seeing firsthand what they have, it certainly could be a good fit for them. But he could be a good fit for other teams too," Salcer said.

Salcer, who denied rumors that his client had bought a house in Vancouver in anticipation of joining the Canucks, said Gaborik wouldn't automatically rule out a short deal.

"In free agency everything is on the table," Salcer said, "so we'd have to weigh everything and see what all his options are."

Leiweke hasn't limited General Manager Dean Lombardi's options beyond a three-pronged mandate: First, don't give up the core of players it took so long to assemble. Second, don't make a deal that would make it economically impossible to retain core players if, as expected, the cap shrinks in the future. Third, find a player with strong character.

"And without disturbing the chemistry Dean has built, and that includes the Schenn kid," Leiweke said, referring to first-round draft pick Brayden Schenn.

"Dean and I are talking on a daily basis. We're not going to do something that's going to come back and haunt us in a couple of years."

Those conditions soured the Kings on trading for Dany Heatley, who was reportedly dealt to Edmonton late Tuesday. Ottawa had asked the Kings for their draft pick, a defenseman and Dustin Brown. Heatley, with his request to be traded and his trouble with nearly every coach he has had, didn't fit the Kings guidelines.

That leaves free agency, which means spending money. The Kings have widely been branded as cheap, and not always fairly.

Young players in their first contract are going to cost less than veterans. The Kings have rebuilt around youngsters, so their payroll has been relatively modest the last two seasons. It wouldn't have done them any good to add a top-tier free agent because they were too far from being a contending team. Their long-term obligations are to Brown, Anze Kopitar and Matt Greene, all on the upside of their careers, not to 35-year-olds playing out the string.

One side note:

Fans often link the Kings' past low payrolls to money spent by parent company Anschutz Entertainment Group to bring David Beckham to play for the Galaxy in 2007, launching a soccer takeover that never took. The two ventures were unrelated. The money spent on Beckham didn't eat into the Kings' payroll, and similarly, Leiweke said the Kings' budget won't be dented by losses sister company AEG Live faces after the death last week of singer Michael Jackson.

AEG Live was promoting concerts Jackson was to perform at London's AEG-owned O2 arena, and had invested millions in the staging and rehearsing for six months' worth of shows.

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