Dean Lombardi: Kings ‘pushed the envelope’ to pursue Kovalchuk and retain core players

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Here’s more from the conversation I had with Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi after free agent Ilya Kovalchuk announced he had chosen the Devils’ 17-year, $102-million offer over the Kings’ 15-year, $80-million offer.

There was a widespread perception in the hockey community that Tim Leiweke, the Kings’ governor and chief executive of their parent company, AEG, wanted Kovalchuk here more than Lombardi did.

Kovalchuk would have added the electricity and what’s-he-gonna-do-now element of wonder that pure scorers bring, and he might have helped raise the Kings’ profile in the L.A. market. That’s a valid consideration -- not the only one, but a valid one.

“I’m not going to respond to that,” Lombardi said. “I think there’s a business side and a hockey side to everything and the key is to make it all mesh. There are relative degrees of ‘want.’ I’m not going to worry about that.”


Lombardi did say he liked Kovalchuk “much better” after the Russian winger visited Los Angeles last Sunday night through midday Tuesday.

“You’re talking about an $80-million investment. We certainly did a lot of due diligence prior to the draft, spoke to contacts in hockey. Ultimately it’s looking him in the eye and seeing how he reacts to certain questions,” Lombardi said.

“And so in terms of you’re only dealing with hearsay until you get to meet him, I was more impressed with him. I felt much better about him after I met him. I thought he held up. When you’re talking the investment we’re talking I don’t think softball questions are the order of the day. We walked away, I felt more comfortable in terms of what we were pursuing.”

It was yet another pursuit that didn’t end with the Kings getting the top-tier free agent they wanted.

“Obviously it’s been a grueling process but I think what we put out there was certainly respectable and pushed the envelope as far as meeting all those interests. If you go beyond that, you will pay someday in terms of this whole thing,” Lombardi said, referring to his insistence on retaining cap space to keep core players and make some additions.

“With a cap everything has to fit. And particularly if you’re talking about a deal of this length. It’s got to work from all quarters. And that’s it. In the end your job is to put your best offer out there and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If you just compete with other offers you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”

What now for the Kings?

Left wing Simon Gagne isn’t an option anymore because he was traded to Tampa Bay. Could center/winger Patrick Sharp, who had 22 points in 22 playoff games during Chicago’s Stanley Cup run, be in their plans? It’s an intriguing idea because the Blackhawks must shed salary to get under the cap and he has had four consecutive seasons of 20 goals or more.

Lombardi wouldn’t be specific on who he’s looking at.

“We’ll see. The thing you don’t do is panic and go out and grab somebody,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned we’re still right on schedule. We talked about being a couple players away — somebody else will come up. It will be there eventually.

“The interesting thing about this for me is what I felt in my gut when I talked about the kids would start to take over the room, I would have expected it to happen this coming year and I saw it start to happen last year and thought, ‘Boy, these kids are coming quicker than I thought.’ Which allows me in my own mind to think OK, let’s accelerate this process.

“I think that core is coming together quicker than I thought. You use free agency when you already have that core and your culture is established. It happened a little quicker. So here’s a player of that caliber who has attributes that are attractive and we decided to push it along quicker. And so as far as I’m concerned we’re still ahead of where I thought that core in that room would be and we’re just not going to be able to push it quicker than we thought. I see some of those kids down there, they’re going to push for jobs and I have no doubt about their character.

“In the meantime we’ll see. Whenever you go through a process like this as an organization, it’s never a waste when you grind it out like this because the next time you’ll be better equipped to do the process even better. It’s not only what you do, it’s how you do things, and this has been an incredible grind but if you step back, you learn from it, we’re going to be even better the next time when the next one comes around. Quite frankly I think our team will be even more solidified in terms of that core.

“The disappointment mostly comes from all the work that goes into it. In the end we can still benefit from it as an organization. We’re not a team that has to do this because our window is close. If your window is closing or you’ve got a top guy that’s got a year left, or whatever, then that’s different. That is not our issue. Our window is not closing. Not at all.”

He said some of the Kings’ prospects like left wing Kyle Clifford will be given chances to win jobs, and look for Brayden Schenn to get a chance to win the second-line center role.

“We’ve got some other options too. At some of the positions some of the kids may need to step up or we may need to open up our marketplace. Something eventually will come up if we just stick with it and go back to what we do.”

--Helene Elliott