Dear Mr. Lombardi (cc to Santa Claus) (5/8/2010)

Thank you for such a great season. I can see your hard work beginning to pay off. Solid depth and ability, with such a young average age, makes for a bright future. You have asked the fans to be patient; many of us have been. We are now rewarded for that patience. However, in this salary cap era, I am worried that there may be a risk of “serial rebuilding,” in focusing only on long-term depth and potential by hoarding prospects and draft picks.

I do not presume to know more than you; I am just a fan, spouting off in my laymen’s way. Think of this as my wish list, that I am seeking comfort by putting a few memes into the ether just to ensure they may possibly be noticed.

Amassing so much young talent is wonderful. Yet, when that talent “comes of age” the cap comes into play. If they all become great, they can no longer all be afforded. Already, the pressure from Doughty, Johnson and Simmonds, for example, is manifested in the decisions to be made. We dare not lose them, for they are the core, while at the same time we are limited in the long-term by their appreciation.

My point is that the window of team maturity is short; the time available while they are excellent and affordable is brief. As such, it would be possible to fall into the pattern of constant development, always being competitive but forgiving of the mistakes of youth, having players contributing at most of their potential but losing them when they become fully developed, to be replaced by the next group of talent needing time to learn, and then they, too being lost when becoming seasoned and therefore expensive. (Hey, “seasoned” is a hockey pun. Who knew?)

Perhaps the Kings need to have a slightly higher average age, if that age is raised by a few veterans whose current abilities mesh with the team’s most urgent needs. I am hoping that this will be the summer that the puzzle is solved. I am hoping that you will use some of the assets in the system to acquire proven players, known quantities, valuable and specific pieces that could put this team among the elite contenders.

I view the needs through this prism; the Kings absolutely must have four lines and three viable defense pairs. Depth is everything. Depth is everything.

(1)   The Kings travel more than most other teams. It is a factor.

(2)   The Kings have many very young players, unfamiliar with the length of an NHL season alone, much less the demands of adding two months of playoff intensity after the regular season. A player’s prime comes when he has grown into his “fighting weight” but also includes having developed physical stamina. “Prime” is not just psychological, as with experience; it is also physiological. Players must already have the experience in place to take advantage of the physiological maturity when it comes.

(3)   The great teams have the ability to shut down two lines offensively. The reason that “unlikely playoff heroes” are so common is that games often come down to the 3rd and 4th lines making the difference while the top offensive and defensive lines negate, or balance, each other by system and design.

(4)   Injuries. Slumps. Bad luck and bounces. Nerves. Excellent defensive systems and tight checking. All these things can affect any player on any night. Teams will almost certainly need all 22-plus guys to contribute mightily at some point during a deep playoff run.

For these reasons, depth is everything.

If the Kings need 4 lines, let us define that. Forego the usual 3-lines-and-an-energy-line thinking; for me that is just an excuse used to explain what limited talent is expected to do. In this thinking the 4th line cannot score or defend at a top level, so they are given the job of making the boards rattle, hopefully in the offensive zone. Of course, the top players need to get more ice time, but that is what power plays are for. It is foolish to exhaust the best players out of fear to ice a 4th line.

Teams need a #1 scoring line. Teams need a #1 checking line. It follows that teams would also benefit from having another two viable, skilled lines in each of those roles. One line, call it Scoring #2, could be 60/40 favoring scoring ability over checking in their assigned role, another, call it Checking #2, could be 60/40 in favor of checking over scoring. Each would be a viable threat in both areas; it would be an emphasis on expectations and assignments that define their roles.

There is now much talk about getting a “true sniper”. Marleau, Kovalchuk, a player of that ilk. The Kings would spend 6 – 10 million and get 40 goals, with all that money and commitment tied into one player with an unmanageable and un-trade-able contract. This would be opposite to building depth. Spend the same money, at 3 or 3½ million on two players, and you would get 40 goals but still be able to trade them, move them among lines, and be much less likely to have 6 million dollars worth of asset in a slump, or injured, at the same time.

Goal scorers are streaky. Goal scorers at that salary make impossible 4 lines of quality players. Goal scorers of that salary range do not move well from line to line, changing the emphasis in their assigned role. They are expected to score, and when they inevitably hit a period of reduced production, the team suffers in a vital role that cannot be filled because their huge salary has deprived the team of the diversity needed to do so.

I know you have scouts and the entire organization looking at players. I know some players just do not want to come to L.A., for various reasons. I know you had three check boxes to fill, I wonder if there are still three, or the number has gone up or down.

Admittedly, what I do not know is much; very much. But, what I think is that for the Kings to make the last step toward ultimate success, the Kings need just a few key pieces to augment the roster, with those pieces being:

(1)   A speed line. Scary, back-them-off, breakaway-threat speed. Scoring #2 line needs to be fast.

(2)   Shooters. Not a sniper, per se. And not just a heavy shot from the blue line, either. The Kings would benefit more from the one-time ability off passes at the half-boards, on the dots from diagonal cross-ice passes, etc. The Kings need to be able to get the shot off from passes more quickly to create and/or perpetuate the shooting gallery, scramble mode that gets power plays out of slumps. The Kings need variety in their scoring attack, as well, and having players that can shoot the puck quickly off the pass would make the cycles worth doing when they result in that dangerous, quick shot. Kopi has an effective style, but it does not include the kind of quick hands I am talking about.

(3)   Size. Not overall team size, but at least one key addition. The Kings need one offensive player that is just too big to be ignored. For fighting, yes, but the Kings need a guy that can move a Hal Gill, or a Zdeno Chara, or a Douglas Murray. When you have the match-ups at home, you need to be able to make those guys use some energy either getting hit or avoiding hits. It also helps team perspective seeing the opposition’s alpha male getting knocked back. Top teams have at least one defender that is a rock, and the Kings need to be able to hit that guy and not bounce off of him.

So, here’s my plan. If you accept the desired goal of 4 lines, not 3½, I am sure you could find more players to fill the roles than I can find. But here is one proposed lineup that fits the salary cap short-term in 2010-2011, and allows for salary considerations long-term.

Scoring #1=        Ryan Smyth-Anze Kopitar-Wayne Simmonds

Scoring #2=        Kris Versteeg-Saku Koivu-Brayden Schenn/Oscar Moller/Other

Checking #1=     Derek Boogard-Michal Handzus-Frederik Modin

Checking #2=     Brad Richardson-Jarrett Stoll-Dustin Brown

Defense Pair #1=Drew Doughty-Rob Scuderi

Defense Pair #2=Jack Johnson-Matt Greene

Defense pair #3=Dan Hamhuis-Davis Drewiske

Goalies=             Quick, Bernier

Roster spots=     Peter Harrold, and whichever of Schenn and Moller do not dress.

Versatility is the key to effective depth. If depth is everything, versatility is how you get there in a salary cap era.

Versatility is the key to effective depth.

Essentially, the Kings would be trading the salaries of Alexander Frolov,Justin WilliamsErik Ersberg and Jeff Halpern, significant prospects and one or two draft picks. In return, in 2010-2011 we get Dan Hamhuis, Kris Versteeg, Saku Koivu, Derek Boogard, slightly less significant prospects and one or two draft picks. We would also gain room in 2011-2012 and beyond for cap hits expected to go up for Doughty and Johnson, Simmonds and Richardson. Yes, we trade down slightly, but we shed cap space while better filling roles that suffered this past season.

The Kings could trade Justin Williams for draft picks/prospects. Williams is an UFA after the 2010-2011 season, Kings lose him or sign him then, but now we can get something for him, and he under-performed badly. The Kings could add Kris Versteeg at his current salary. He is a RFA next year (compared to Justin Williams who goes UFA next year) and could be gotten by trading picks/prospects away, which would be replenished by the Williams trade. We probably get slightly less back from Williams compared to what we give for Versteeg, which is fine; prospects can be a crapshoot. Jonathan Bernier replaces Erik Ersberg. Ersberg we trade for picks/prospects, which further makes up the difference lost in the Williams/Versteeg shuffle. Frolov goes due to price, sad but true. Halpern is not worth 2 million. Modin has to accept 2 million, or we buy a free agent for the checking line, not the hardest thing to do.

Kris Versteeg comes from Chicago, and they need to move people out. Maybe the Kings could get Patrick SharpDustin Byfuglien or Kris Versteeg; either would be excellent. The Kings trade prospects and picks and get one of those guys, and I am talking about offering serious talent. Teubert, or Hickey, and a first pick, for example; I have no idea what Chicago would want, but if we are supposedly the deepest in prospects we can afford to give what is needed to get one of these proven players.

I prefer Versteeg; he has been shutting down the Sedin twins on the checking line, and scores 20 goals a season. He is blinding fast, hits well and plays a quicker tempo game than most. He fits perfectly into a speed line, the Scoring #2 line, and he is a left wing, which we will lose in Frolov. Byfuglien would also be a dream player to get, but long-term I fear his contract renewal price.  Sharp takes face-offs really well and is adequately gritty, but he is not the checker that Versteeg is. All are in the 3-4 million range. Versteeg and Sharp one-time with the best, while Byfuglien plays defense and offense. Imagine having a Peter Harrold, except it’s Dustin Byfuglien. Wow.

Saku Koivu is an UFA this year. He wants to stay in So Cal. He is 37 but his play with Anaheim was obviously top-level. He played on the speed line with Sexton and Selanne, and if he can keep up with those guys he can skate with anybody. He is a natural center but can play wing, a former Montreal captain, a penalty killer, and is excellent defensively. The guy does it all. He also can one-time the shot very well, and passes to the shooter for the same thing. Imagine the versatility with Koivu and Versteeg together. Talk about matchup-proof, these two could play against any line. Perfect fit for the Scoring #2 line. He is truly affordable at 3-3½ million.

Dan Hamhuis is an UFA this year. Solid, young, strong, and affordable at an expected 4-4¼ million. Long-term, this guy has everything to make a solid top 4 guy for years, and he already comes from a disciplined defensive system in Nashville.

Derek Boogard skates smarter and stickhandles better than Raitis Ivanans, is an UFA, and makes 875,000. We could have him for probably 1.1 million. If he wanted to hit somebody, they will know it. He is undeniably one of the top three fighters. If anyone questions his defensive worth, please note that he was brought into the league by and played for Jacques Lemaire.

Since versatility is the key to depth, the lineup I proposed must fulfill in that way. I believe it does. Every line has a player that could fit into the corresponding top line, and vice versa. Simmonds can check; he could be flipped for Dustin Brown. Brown could replace Schenn/Moller on the Scoring Line #2, also. Versteeg could be flipped for Richardson. Richardson could also be flipped with Boogard. Koivu could play anywhere. Stoll could be flipped for Koivu. The versatility of this roster would keep even Terry Murray wondering if he could use all the possible combinations. (BTW this is not a dig, I think Murray’s line mixing was genius at work, on many levels)

As well, by taking last year’s numbers, this roster would give 246 goals.  Minimal improvement by rising stars would make it easily 255 goals. However, most importantly, every new acquisition conmtemplated here is from successful defensive systems, even Koivu from his years previous to Anaheim.

The only true question marks in the lineup would be Schenn and Drewiske. Can Drewiske develop the first pass well enough, and can he play “heavy” in the D-zone? I think if he is given a regular shift, he could become the player that the Kings need him to be. I am mindful that you already gave him a 3-year extension; it could be time to let him prove you correct in doing so. Schenn might need another year, but just imagine his spot belonging to whoever has the best camp. Harrold can be kept, his versatility-per-dollar is perfect, and he played well against Vancouver on defense. Team guy, too, perfect platoon man.

I have no idea whether these deals could be made. There are too many variables among players and teams involved. But I do think that this lineup would be cup-ready. I do think that spending too much on any one player is unwise. I am only hoping that you come up with ideas that make mine look silly by comparison. Let these kids have the veterans that can show them the way, and that can steady them during the tough times. The team has earned the right to have 20 full-time players, with teaching moments spread across every shift. My true hope is that the Kings realize that having an embarrassment of riches is a good time to spend. Spend wisely, yes, but spend. Please don’t limit this team to “almost there” conservatism. This team, with just a few additions, can be “there” right now.

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