Kings' Lombardi: The real hard part is starting now
General Manager Dean Lombardi, fielding questions from an audience of about 300 fans Saturday morning at the Kings’ second annual Hockey Fest event, said the team has begun to develop a lot of the depth and a little bit of the swagger necessary to continue its climb to elite status.
But he cautioned that the next step -- to live up to the expectations created with a 101-point performance last season -- will not be easy.
“You guys have stuck with me,” Lombardi said, referring to his audience at the team’s El Segundo practice facility. “It’s almost like we’ve become a family. We’ve got to get through this part and it’s getting harder. Let’s see where we are the next time we meet.”
He said free-agent Willie Mitchell was “the right fit” and should enhance an already solid defense. Goal-tending should also be a strength, with Jonathan Quick starting training camp next week as the No. 1 goaltender and Jonathan Bernier the likely No. 2.
Adding skill up front remains high on his wish list, though he said he doesn’t expect anything to happen before camp opens. Rookie camp began Saturday with two on-ice practices.
“Our priority was to fix the back,” he said. “The elements are there to improve that.”
Improving their five-on-five play is another priority, he said. “Traditionally it’s the five-on-five goal differential that will signify which are the playoff teams,” he said.
Lombardi also said that, in retrospect, he wished that defenseman Matt Greene would have undergone shoulder surgery earlier in the summer rather than waiting until late July. Greene is expected to miss the first month of the season.
Greene’s spot could be taken by Thomas Hickey, who was drafted fourth overall by the Kings in 2007 but has progressed slowly because of a variety of injuries. Lombardi said he’s as eager as any fan to learn whether Hickey is finally ready for the NHL after finishing last season with Manchester of the American Hockey League.
“Based upon the way he played at the end he’ll be challenging,” Lombardi said.
Ron Hextall, the Kings’ assistant general manager and also general manager of their AHL affiliate, said he was disappointed with Hickey’s season but still has high hopes.
“It’s real hard to judge where he’s going to be in training camp but I expect Thomas to make a great showing in training camp and have a great season at whatever level he ends up,” Hextall said.
Lombardi, Hextall and Jeff Solomon, the Kings’ vice president of hockey operations and legal affairs, also said they’ve had some talks with agents for the three key players who can become restricted free agents next summer -- Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Wayne Simmonds. Their determination to retain those players was a key reason Lombardi gave for not offering $100 million to free agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who turned down an $80-million, 15-year offer from the Kings to sign with New Jersey.
Lombardi joked that four years ago, few Kings fans knew who Solomon was but now that the business end of the game is so prominent they barraged Solomon with questions about the Kings’ payroll and salary cap situation.
“Now we know who’s really important,” Solomon joked.
He told the audience he expects the Kings to be within $2 million to $3 million of the NHL’s $59.4-million salary cap this season, closer than the team has come in recent years. Reports that they have $9 million or more in space are inaccurate, he said.
We’ll have more later from Hockey Fest ’10.
-- Helene Elliott