Reporting from Columbus, Ohio — The Kings are a prime contender to acquire high-scoring left wing Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta, but they're competing with Vancouver, Boston and another Eastern team for the two-time 50-goal scorer, according to hockey sources who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The Bruins could offer one of the first-round draft picks they got from Toronto for Phil Kessel, while the Canucks and Kings have youngsters whose salaries would suit the cash-pinched Thrashers. The Kings' depth on defense gives them bargaining chips, though they're unlikely to part with core defensemen Jack Johnson, Drew Doughty, Matt Greene and Rob Scuderi. They also have tradable assets in goal behind Jonathan Quick, in Jonathan Bernier and Jeff Zatkoff.
Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi wouldn't discuss Kovalchuk, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency July 1. Lombardi said Wednesday in Columbus, however, he is exploring ways to upgrade his roster and trading for a "rental" player is a possibility.
"I think I can safely say we are actively trying to improve this team. For the first time as a general manager you kind of get excited," Lombardi said.
Lombardi also said while he has enough salary cap space to afford a superstar, his team might benefit more if he adds two mid-level players instead of one marquee player.
"Seven million dollars goes fast," he said. "We're sitting 25th in the league in cash and cap space, but you look at one big dog and boy, it's gone."
Kovalchuk has been unable to agree with the Thrashers on a new contract and reportedly wants upward of $10 million a year for 10 years. Teams that hoped to talk to him to gauge his interest in signing a long-term deal reportedly have been rebuffed by Thrashers GM Don Waddell.
Lombardi's alternative of acquiring two mid-level players instead of one star also has pitfalls. So many teams are within reach of a playoff spot that general managers are reluctant to concede the season and trade useful players.
Carolina is willing to move winger Ray Whitney and center Matt Cullen, and Edmonton is likely to start retrenching by trading defenseman Sheldon Souray. Whitney or Cullen might help the Kings but Souray, with a $5.4-million cap hit each of the next two seasons, isn't an ideal fit.
The Kings, who will face the Blue Jackets today at Nationwide Arena, rank sixth in the West. They have 30 wins in 52 games, the third-fastest to 30 wins in club history.
Lombardi said he was persuaded that the team had reached a crucial stage in its evolution when it rallied to beat Detroit, 3-2, last Saturday. That told him the character and grit he infused had taken root, but he would have to fill the remaining gaps to get the Kings to the next level.
"I don't want to overemphasize a game, but there's certain games when you're watching your team grow when they show you something," Lombardi said. "I said, 'They're really showing it. It's time to really start looking and seeing what we can do for them.'
"I have a lot of confidence in our guys, but if you're asking if I would be active in trying to get some help, I would."
The NHL will be under an Olympic trade freeze from Feb. 12 through Feb. 28, and Lombardi said he expects a flurry of moves when it's lifted. "You're able to size up exactly where you are," he said. "The Olympic break takes the emotions out of it."