As night fell on the launch of the NHL's annual exercise in throwing money at problems, the Kings had not signed free-agent left wing Ilya Kovalchuk, the marquee player and prolific scorer they need and had targeted.
They have the resources and cap space and face little competition for the two-time 50-goal scorer. But they didn't reach an agreement Thursday and General Manager Dean Lombardi, through a team spokesman, declined to comment on the state of the talks.
Word from various corners of the hockey universe was that Kovalchuk is aiming high — think $10 million a year for 10 to 12 years — and the Kings are uncomfortable with that. The deal isn't dead, but its pulse could be less than robust. The New Jersey Devils might be hovering, ready to remind Kovalchuk that travel in the East is less taxing on the body and worth taking a slightly lower payday.
It's not fatal to miss out on prime free agents. It's not as if it hasn't happened to the Kings before.
Defenseman Zdeno Chara said no a few years ago, when the Kings were awful, because they were years away from being competitive and he didn't want to leave the East. Winger Marian Hossa said no a year ago, when they were better but not a Stanley Cup contender.
After three tries he got it right, signing with the Chicago Blackhawks. The Kings then overpaid free agent defenseman Rob Scuderi and traded for Ryan Smyth, who's a good influence but not a long-term core player.
Some decent-to-outstanding defensemen found new teams Thursday — some overpaid but some reasonable — but the Kings couldn't close a deal with any of them. Dan Hamhuis will make Western Conference rival Vancouver better. Veteran Toni Lydman was a solid choice for the Ducks.
"He's a real solid, two-way defenseman, which we needed desperately," said Ducks General Manager Bob Murray, who snared the former Buffalo Sabres stalwart for $9 million over three years and also re-signed center Saku Koivu for two years and $5 million.
The Kings made no offer to Sean O'Donnell, whom they considered no longer capable of playing top-six minutes, and he took a one-year, $1-million deal plus bonuses from the Philadelphia Flyers.
"No hard feelings," he said, though he had hoped to stay and mentor his younger teammates. "I still thought especially in the situation here in L.A., I still had more left in me than what Dean felt I had."
The Kings also let Randy Jones go. No great loss. Same for enforcer Raitis Ivanans, who got a two-year deal from Calgary worth a reported $575,000 per year despite playing 61 games without scoring a point. Kevin Westgarth can do what he does and chip in offensively once in a while.
The Kings were rumored to have been in the hunt for Paul Martin and maybe one or two other defensemen. Now, they're left to pick through the rubble or go the trade route for an experienced defenseman with the speed and mobility that Scuderi and Matt Greene lack.
Youngsters Thomas Hickey, Alec Martinez, Colten Teubert, and Davis Drewiske will get chances to win a job, but none has been impressive. Jake Muzzin, impressive as an overage junior player, will get a shot, too.
To remedy their offensive shortcomings, the Kings could also present an offer to a restricted free agent such as Ducks winger Bobby Ryan. But that could haunt them later if Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Wayne Simmonds become restricted free agents and a team pursues them, driving up their price tag.
Speaking of Ryan, all is far from rosy between him and the Ducks. Murray said Ryan rejected a five-year, $25-million offer and that he's "done for a while" in upping the ante. Murray doesn't want to pay Ryan more than the $5.325 million that Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry each earn annually.
"Basically the situation is nowhere," Murray said.
Not so for Teemu Selanne, who is more likely to return with friend and linemate Koivu under contract. Selanne, who had 27 goals in 54 games last season, will be 40 on Saturday, and friends say he hasn't decided his future. Murray planned to talk to him Friday.
"We're going to see what Teemu does and if the numbers come into line a little better, we'll get another defenseman," Murray said.
The Kings still need a defenseman and a winger or two. Kovalchuk would accelerate their progression from playoff qualifier to Stanley Cup contender. If Lombardi can't sign Kovalchuk, he'd better have some significant trade plans in place. As far as they've come in this endless rebuilding process, it still isn't nearly far enough.