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Different approach to free agency by Kings, Ducks

Times Staff Writers

It’s a situation of good news vs. bad news for the Kings entering the start of the NHL free agency signing period, which officially begins today.

The good news is that the Kings are a good fit for many of the top league’s top free agents, from forwards Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to defensemen Sheldon Souray and Roman Hamrlik.

And the bad news? The Kings are not alone. The best players available are also right for a majority of teams in the league.

“When you have the number of holes that we’ve got we’re going to have some Wall Street moments, ‘Buy-Sell, Buy-Sell, Buy-Sell,’ ” Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi said.

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“Ideally, when you enter free agency,” he added, “you don’t have a lot of holes and you get free agents who can add to your core not build your core.”

Unfortunately for the Kings, their core remains a work in progress. The Kings have not appeared in the playoffs since the 2001-02 season and last season, they finished 14 games under .500.

But with the NHL salary cap increased by more than $6 million to $50.3 million, the Kings are expected to be active in the free-agent market.

“Any time that there’s a shake-up, especially the way the Kings did from A to Z, you’re really starting from scratch,” agent Pat Brisson, who represents Briere, said about the Kings’ front-office turnover the last two years. “It takes some time for the new chief to establish his vision and that doesn’t happen overnight.

“With the cap moving up, which gives them even more cap room to work with, I expect the Kings will be cautious players come July 1.”

The Kings, who had a team salary of $40,680,000 last season, have $27 million committed in salary for the 2007-08 season. That means they are $7.3 million shy of the league minimum salary mark and $23.3 million from the ceiling.

“We’re looking for the right player at the right price,” Lombardi said. “Everything you do, you have to map out how that affects you two and three years down the road.”

What concerns Lombardi most is keeping the franchise’s young players, who will have their contracts end over the next three years. And with the price tag steadily climbing on young players like Nathan Horton (six years, $24 million), the Kings will be careful with their spending.

“The market for the young players is taking off way beyond what everybody expected,” Lombardi said. “It makes no sense to us to be very aggressive in terms of free agents. Say we overspend and we start to get better but then one of our young players can walk. That would be spinning your wheels.”

Lombardi, in his second full season with the Kings, acknowledged that he did not get off to a good start last year when he traded for goaltender Dan Cloutier and then signed him to a two-year extension.

“Now that he’s healthy, we’re going to see if he can rebound,” said Lombardi, who did not rule out signing a free-agent goalie this summer. “If the right player is there, it will not stop us from looking to get him. If we can upgrade without giving up our top draft picks or any young players, we’re going to look at that as an option.”

In the end, the key for the Kings will be timing. If they dedicate a great deal of time trying to pursue a big-ticket free agent like Drury, they could miss out on a quality veteran like Michael Peca.

“I’ve had better success with players like Scott Thornton when I signed him for San Jose,” Lombardi said. “Everyone was going after Gary Roberts first and we went to Thornton right away.... When teams that were unable to get Roberts turned to Thornton, he was already gone.

“So there is a strategy here. You don’t always go after the high-priced superstars, sometimes you have to go after the next guy.... That’s worked for me in the past.”

The Ducks don’t figure to make any major news unless superstars Scott Niedermayer or Teemu Selanne announce their plans for the 2007-08 season, which neither appears close to doing.

Currently in his native Finland, Selanne is considering retirement although his agent, Don Baizley, said he doesn’t expect a decision anytime soon. Selanne will turn 37 on Tuesday.

Niedermayer, 33, is also considering retirement after winning his fourth Stanley Cup and first with the Ducks in June.

What either player does will impact General Manager Brian Burke’s role in the free-agent market. The Ducks already have nearly $39 million committed to 18 players and don’t have many holes to plug.

As Burke put it, “We’ll be shopping at Kmart.”

“The only thing that would change that would be if one of them were to tell me something now and I don’t anticipate that happening,” he added.

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lonnie.white@latimes.com

eric.stephens@latimes.com


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