Loaded Kings might be ready for royal season

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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This should be the season it all comes together for the Kings.

In theory anyway, because this is the fifth one for Los Angeles under general manager Dean Lombardi and Year 5 is usually supposed to be the peak of a rebuilding plan.

'I guess it's exciting to take on the next challenge, but it's not easy,' GM Dean Lombardi says. (Getty Images)  
'I guess it's exciting to take on the next challenge, but it's not easy,' GM Dean Lombardi says. (Getty Images)  
In practice though, the former Sharks general manager has never actually tied himself to a timetable. Maybe that's because since taking over Los Angeles one year into the post-lockout world, Lombardi has shunned any attempt at spending big bucks on quick fixes, basically letting the franchise take quite a few lumps on the ice.

Still he has stockpiled and made very good use out of draft picks in essence, following the patient development formula from his days in San Jose. And so we head into the new season with the Kings perhaps ready to challenge his old team for supremacy in the Pacific Division, if not more.

If nothing else, the Kings are on everybody's radar because they are a multi-talented young team that, like the Penguins in 2007 and the Blackhawks in 2009, may have signaled some serious breakout potential last season.

And that has Los Angeles one of the league's interesting stories. Very Hollywood, too. The script has talented young players who moved up through the system mixing with those added through trades or free agency. All of them suddenly finding themselves in sync and they turn a team that had missed the previous six playoffs into something of an overnight sensation.

Has box office potential for sure.

The reality is that Los Angeles came out of nowhere last season, riding a fast start that had the Kings tied with Pacific Division leader San Jose heading into Christmas week before finishing with 101 points. The Kings then gave heavy favorite Vancouver all it could handle in the opening round, losing a six-game series they had definite chances to win.

And it was probably the lesson that hockey's conventional wisdom says is necessary. The one that says teams, especially young ones, have to learn to lose before learning to win.

No doubt there was something to be gained from the experience by the Kings, especially since the overall season surge was triggered to a large degree by several players who were younger than 24 years of age. Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and goalie Jonathan Quick and a strong supporting cast took their games to the next level, and with so many young players jelling at the same time, the earmarks are there for Los Angeles to deliver much more.

2010-11 Season Preview

At least a lot of people now think so, which is probably a good thing for the NHL because the market can be so critical, and interestingly from Lombardi's perspective as well. In fact he told Toronto radio station The Fan 590 this week that he believed the real measure of a good team is how it is able to deal with expectations, something he suggested wasn't really there during last season for the Kings.

Truth is Los Angeles really wasn't widely considered a playoff candidate when last season began, and in the early going, probably managed to sneak up on a lot of teams. This season it won't because if a lack of a second half fade didn't make it clear this team is for real, then the playoff effort likely did.

That leaves the little matter of what the Kings do for the follow up.

"I guess it's exciting to go to the next level or take on the next challenge, but it's not easy," Lombardi said. "It's a lot easier playing a Cinderella with no expectations, but it's another stage in the maturation process and I think this group is ready for it."

That might help explain why the Kings GM sounded almost relieved not to have signed sniper Ilya Kovalchuk over the summer. Los Angeles managed only one free-agent signing when it came to terms with physical defenseman Willie Mitchell, but with a need for a prolific goal scorer and plenty of cap space, the Kings were in the game by default for the LeBron James of NHL free agency for more than a month.

It was a difficult process and for the Kings to take on the kind of salary Kovalchuk was looking for, it would have meant upsetting the apple cart by parachuting in an expensive outside talent. Lombardi said the team folded when the numbers reached the stratosphere.

"We're talking about building a winning culture to last, so the price has to make sense," Lombardi said. "You're sending a huge message to your room that this is what the Kings stand for.

"I have a room that is very close. They've grown immensely and they're ready for this challenge. Sooner than I would have expected given the youth, I'm a little surprised."

Chances are no one else will be.

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