Top 10 prospects
When a team spends almost the entire season at the bottom of the league standings, to speak of their needs is as endless an endeavor as calculating the final digit of pi. For this Kings team, the best place to begin is with the net and work our way out. While they have plenty of candidates at goaltender, they still do not have the perennial wall in net that has eluded the organization since inception. Jason LaBarbera and Erik Ersberg showed promise, but neither is widely believed to be capable of leading a franchise. Dan Cloutier is still an anchor around the Kings neck, but is likely to be cut from the roster before the start of the season. Prospects Jonathan Bernier, Jeff Zatkoff, Jonathan Quick and Daniel Taylor fill out the four minor-league goaltender positions, leaving no room for additions. While the prospects, led by Bernier, each show great promise in their own right, all require further development before pushing LaBarbera and Ersberg for significant playing time. What this boils down to is that the duo of LaBarbera and Ersberg are likely to be back-stopping the Kings this season, which does not bode well unless the defense makes enormous strides in protecting them from their short-comings.
The Kings defense as it is currently constituted is not in a position to lend much protective support to the goaltender. The continued exodus of veteran defensemen from the roster will result in a number of open roster positions for prospects and possibly the Kings first-round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft. Brad Stuart and Jaroslav Modry were dealt at the trade deadline, and Rob Blake is an unrestricted free agent and only likely to return to the Kings if he accepts a hometown discount deal. This leaves Jack Johnson, Lubomir Visnovsky and Tom Preissing as the only veteran defensemen under contract. The roster is almost devoid of a shutdown defenseman and penalty-killing specialist. General Manager Dean Lombardi indicated during a June 10 conference call with members of the media that the team is going even younger than before. Peter Harrold will likely secure one of the open roster spots on the blueline. Thomas Hickey will be given an opportunity to earn playing time as well as whichever defenseman the Kings select in the upcoming draft. Sparsely used Kevin Dallman might be brought back to help bridge the gap between the current roster and the time when some of the AHL prospects are ready to take the next step. If Lombardi does not sign any additional veteran defensemen, the trade of a forward, prospects and/or picks might yield the elite defenseman in his mid-20’s that the GM has been coveting since arriving in Los Angeles.
While goaltending and defense are glaring needs for the Kings, the offense is a nice mix of veteran and fresh talent with ample roster opportunity for prospects to earn playing time. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Mike Cammalleri, Alexander Frolov and Patrick O’Sullivan are all under the age of 27 and legitimate top scorers in the NHL. Veterans Derek Armstrong, Michal Handzus and Kyle Calder supplement the young stars and Raitis Ivanans fills the enforcer role as well as anyone in the NHL. Prospects Brian Boyle, Ted Purcell and Matt Moulson are the lead contenders to fill out the remaining roster spots and all have already received their first taste of the NHL. Brady Murray, John Zeiler and Gabe Gauthier wait in the wings for their opportunity to fill in as role-players. With so much depth up front, it is highly unlikely that the Kings will look to the 2008 Entry Draft for immediate help but instead will add the next wave of talent to replace those graduating to the NHL roster.
The depth at forward that the Kings have gathered over the past decade is now starting to pay dividends at the NHL level. The Kings graduated yet another top forward in Patrick O’Sullivan and have high hopes for Brian Boyle and Ted Purcell to join the other young scorers on the Kings. More forward prospects continue to work their way through the system and with 15 picks in the upcoming draft, more are sure to follow. In recent seasons, the Kings packed their minor league teams with a number of fringe prospect goaltenders. While the forward corps is flowing with young talent, now so is the goaltending pipeline. Bernier will spend his first full professional season with Manchester in 2008-09 and is not far from pushing for back-up playing time with the Kings. At the same time, top prospects Quick, Zatkoff and the emerging Taylor also pack the minor-league rosters. If these four continue to develop, Los Angeles will have the pick of the litter in terms of a future goaltender and use the others as trade bait to fill other holes on the roster.
On the flip side, the Kings are still waiting for their defensive prospects to catch up with their counterparts at forward and in net. While the addition of Jack Johnson has been a tremendous success, the remainder of the prospect pool on the blueline collectively faltered. The defensemen in the AHL failed to live up to expectations, leaving Lombardi with a massive hole between what is currently on the NHL roster and what is ready to step in. The main focus for the Kings during the draft should and will be on defense. Whether the Kings use all 15 selections or include them in trade packages, it almost assuredly will result in one or even several defensemen who will jump to the top of the organizational depth charts in terms of talent on the blueline.
Not since 1975 have the Kings had 15 selections in a single draft, and that draft yielded organizational icon Dave Taylor in the 15th round. With so many prospects already in the system, it is hard to believe that Lombardi will make it to the podium all 15 times. So what will he do with all these selections?
If there is one characteristic that Lombardi has become known for, it is that he plays his cards close to his chest and is not afraid to go after his guy regardless of what the rest of the hockey world suggests would be prudent. He is a poker player not afraid to take calculated risks. Trained as an attorney and establishing himself in the NHL as a player agent, Lombardi has the intelligence and wits to play opposing parties off of each other while at the same time using the media to dispense propaganda to camouflage his true intentions. While his attempt to move down during the 2007 draft and still select Hickey was thwarted by a lack of a trading partner, the ultimate selection of Hickey demonstrated how adept Lombardi is at hiding his cards as even Hickey was shocked at the selection. There is a very good chance that Lombardi will attempt to trade down again and allow other teams to overvalue the second overall selection where Lombardi grades several prospects relatively evenly and will be just as happy picking up “his guy” later down the line. Often, his guy is the one with the higher potential over the safer bets.
Lombardi views draft picks as a form of currency that he can use to move up in the draft or shift to future drafts. Do not rule out the trade of a package of picks for a soon to be restricted free agent another organization is looking to move instead of getting in an ugly contract negotiation. Of the 15 picks, eight are in the first three rounds. Additionally, the Kings have multiple picks in every round but the fifth, stockpiled over the last couple of years in trades of veteran players at the deadline.
Instead of taking the conservative route and attempting to prognosticate the sensible pick from one of the most independent general mangers in the NHL – something that has burned mock drafts since Lombardi came to town – we attempt to emerge through the smoke screens put out by the Kings and predict the defenseman with the highest overall potential goes to Los Angeles, albeit likely after a trade down.