After his players justified his faith in them by launching an eight-game winning streak that turned their season around, Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi felt compelled to reward their efforts.
What could he give them? Flowers wouldn’t cut it. He went one better: He acquired mobile defenseman Andrej Sekera from Carolina, paying an admittedly high price but hopeful the trade will lead to a big payoff this spring.
The deal made sense on many levels -- and there were many levels to consider, including the team chemistry Lombardi prizes so highly and the increasing likelihood that suspended defenseman Slava Voynov will not return this season.
Players had dug their way this far out of a hole to get back into a playoff position, so Lombardi gave them a big, shiny shovel to help them reach the next step in their drive to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
“The one thing about this team, I think from what they’ve accomplished the last three years and the way they appear to be responding here the last couple weeks, the players, I’ve always said, dictate a lot of what you do,” Lombardi said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters. “Given what they’ve accomplished and the way they have responded here you say, ‘Let’s get aggressive and make this better, just as we expect them to make themselves better.’”
Lombardi gave up a first-round draft pick and defense prospect Roland McKeown, the 50th choice in last year’s entry draft. The pick will go to Carolina this year if the Kings make the playoffs this season and would go to the Hurricanes next year if the Kings miss the playoffs this season.
Sekera can become an unrestricted free agent this summer and Lombardi said he had not discussed an extension with the Slovakian defenseman.
That means Sekera could be a rental player. But this was a move Lombardi had to make and Sekera, 28, probably was the best option available without surrendering roster players.
“Yes, it’s a steep price, factoring through the things we had to analyze with Voynov and things,” Lombardi said. “But it comes down to your players. Given how far they’ve gone the last few years and the way they responded to adversity, I think that lends itself to being more aggressive.”
Defense has been a weak spot since Voynov, a top-four defenseman, was suspended by the NHL in October and later charged with a felony count of corporal injury to a spouse with great bodily injury. The absence of Alec Martinez, who suffered a concussion on Feb. 7 and remains out indefinitely, worsened the problem.
Though the Kings were inconsistent through much of the season they’ve recently righted themselves, finding the emotion, defensive discipline and solid goaltending they displayed during their 2012 and 2014 Cup runs but seemed to have lost in a haze of drudgery and fatigue.
“What they’ve accomplished and the way they keep fighting through, it’s almost like you owe it to them,” Lombardi said.
Voynov’s trial was scheduled to begin Monday -- the day of the NHL trading deadline --but it might be moved back a week.
Even if he goes to trial and is found not guilty he faces an investigation by the NHL before he could resume his career. His $4.1-million salary cap hit isn’t counting against the Kings’ cap total but his return would put that amount back into the equation. That limits Lombardi’s ability to take on a big salary.
Sekera, who has a cap hit of $2.75 million and was paired with Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr while both played for the Buffalo Sabres, fit the Kings’ needs strategically and economically.
“No. 1, he’s a competitive guy. We have no issues as far as him fitting in here with this group,” Lombardi said. “No question he’s going to be hungry. I think whenever you look at your back end, it’s a mix-type thing…He’s very mobile, and even though he’s not big, he certainly competes. He’s a smart player.”
Lombardi, who recently re-signed Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan, said he’s likely done dealing. “I don’t see a lot,” he said of the remaining market. “Certainly I would say at this point, unless there are some surprises, this is one of the better defensemen on the market.”
With Sekera on board, with Clifford, Nolan, Dwight King and other young players developing nicely and injured left wing Tanner Pearson progressing well enough to possibly return late in the regular season, Lombardi feels comfortable with the mix he has created. It appears to be a good one.
Good enough for another Stanley Cup parade?
We won’t know for a few months. But the cost for Sekera was reasonable enough for Lombardi to take the chance that his team’s recent rebound will continue long enough to reward both him and them with a championship.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen