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Lombardi: Kings are on the right track

March 31, 2009|Billy Witz

For the Kings to reach the postseason, it would take a Miracle on Manchester-like intervention. But even if the Kings are going to be home for the sixth consecutive postseason, they appear to finally be going places.

They've built a core of talented young players -- goaltender Jonathan Quick, defensemen Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Kyle Quincey, and forwards Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown are all 24 or younger. The defense has been tightened up under first-year Coach Terry Murray -- and so has the dressing room.

"It's a totally different vibe this year," said Brown, the Kings' 24-year-old captain.

Though the Kings have won only six of their last 19 games, and returned home Sunday from a 2-3-1 trip that virtually ended their postseason hopes, General Manager Dean Lombardi said Monday in an interview that the third year of his rebuilding project has shown clear signs that it is on the right track.

The most visible will be in the off-season, when the Kings are finally in a position to jump to playoff contenders.

There are few in-house decisions for Lombardi to make. Forwards Kyle Calder and Derek Armstrong, and defenseman Denis Gauthier are the only unrestricted free agents, none considered indispensable. Forwards Brian Boyle and Kevin Westgarth, goalie Daniel Taylor and Johnson are restricted free agents whose offers can be matched.

Meanwhile, the Kings have stockpiled 13 picks in the NHL's seven-round draft and sit a league-high $12.3 million under the salary cap. They also have replenished their farm system.

"We're starting to have the cards to play," Lombardi said. "Before, I never could have traded a first-rounder. It didn't make sense. Now, I'm not immune to it if it's the right player. Now, it's not getting off track to look at things like this and try to get help."

It's clear where the Kings' area of need is -- a goal scorer, preferably a left wing.

The Kings are 26th in the league in scoring and one of their two wins on the recent trip came without scoring a goal -- a 1-0 shootout victory over Dallas.

But the lack of offense is something Lombardi and Murray could live with this season, as the new coach went about implementing a system that was predicated on defensive responsibility. The Kings, after giving up 32 shots a game last season -- 28th in the league -- have reduced that to 27.6, second in the NHL.

"Last year, there was no accountability," Brown said. "Our practice habits are way better. Our effort is better. That's something that's changed."

Exhibit A is Kopitar. His offensive production has dropped from 32 goals and 77 points a season ago to 25 and 62 this season, but his game has improved, Lombardi said.

"He's a microcosm of the team," Lombardi said. "Kopi had a little bit of that, for lack of a better term, cheating. He was scoring last year, but he was solely concerned with scoring. He wasn't playing both ends of the ice. But he's learning at 20 what Steve Yzerman learned in Detroit at 26. If you don't play that way, there's no way you can win a Cup."

The Kings appear to have solved their goaltending problems with the emergence of Quick, a steady backup in Erik Ersberg, and the late-season improvement of former No. 1 pick Jonathan Bernier in the minor leagues. Their defense looks promising too, with veterans Matt Greene and Sean O'Donnell complementing Johnson, Quincey and rookies Doughty and Davis Drewiske.

But when Lombardi goes searching for a scorer, it'll be one that fits in the dressing room as well. He cautioned that he'll look for such types when scouring the trade and free-agent markets, warning about the danger of bringing in "mercenaries."

But if that's one of his concerns, then it may be the greatest sign of where the Kings are positioned.

"It's one thing to exceed our points of the last two years," Lombardi said. "But what's very different is this team has the hope to get better."

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billywitz@yahoo.com

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