At heart Dean Lombardi is a draft geek, as animated while praising the hands of a seventh-round pick as when he’s gushing over the raw skill of a first-round choice.
Having reaped the benefits of selecting early in the last half-dozen NHL entry drafts, the Kings’ general manager decided to keep those benefits to himself for a few days before unveiling them to the world.
It seemed curious when the Kings announced a few weeks ago that their development camp would last only three days, ending Sunday. Previous camps had gone a week or more, and heaven knows those unsuspecting kids needed every moment to learn about what they were getting into.
In truth, this year’s camp started several days before the Kings opened the doors of their El Segundo rink to fans Friday and it will continue a few days past Sunday’s final game, contested before several hundred enthusiastic fans in the chilly practice rink.
Players began arriving in stages last weekend for drills, tutoring and conditioning, though they were on public view only the last few days.
Why such secrecy?
“NFL teams don’t open up their camps. Baseball, it’s ridiculous,” Lombardi said Sunday. “We do three days for the fans and that’s when the combined groups come in. The other four days they’re here to work.
“They’ve got to be focused. They’re here to work and get better, not entertain, and they’ve been really good.”
Let’s not forget that it’s July, when heat can impair clear thinking and the Kings are undefeated. Nearly every kid looks like a potential All-Star and every goalie is a candidate to plug the decades-old black hole between the pipes.
But the effort at this camp by the coaches and 30 or so draftees and free agents reflected a new level of seriousness by the entire organization.
It also acknowledged that after years of collecting good material, the Kings know they flat-out can’t screw this up.
Lombardi is committed to rebuilding on the backs of Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown, all Kings draft picks. This camp probably doesn’t have a Doughty, who made a remarkable jump from junior hockey to top-four NHL defenseman last season, but it might be a springboard for a few players to accelerate the trek back to the promised land of the playoffs.
“This is the funnest part of the job, when they’re all trying to get better,” Lombardi said, “and they’re all getting better at this stage, some of them hour by hour.”
Fifth overall pick Brayden Schenn, a center who had 32 goals and 88 points in 70 games last season for Brandon of the Western Hockey League, worked as hard as anyone to improve during the week, even on the rare occasions he had to labor.
Lombardi recalled a first-day drill in which instructor Nelson Emerson was explaining a point Schenn couldn’t grasp.
“A lot of kids today when they’re first-rounders, if they can’t do a drill they’ll fluff it off. Or take it like this isn’t important. You get that Joe Cool attitude,” Lombardi said.
“He put his head down and kept doing it and doing it and now he’s really starting to get it. What that told me is exactly what we saw in his character when we drafted him.”
Lombardi said Schenn “is a better player now than he was six days ago,” showing receptiveness in addition to the competitiveness and physicality the Kings had liked.
“You can just see he’s going to be a very good hockey player,” Coach Terry Murray said. “He has a nice skill level and very good determination. A lot of character. A gritty player. These are middle-of-July scrimmages and he’s playing the game every bit as hard as in the wintertime.”
Schenn isn’t likely to be with the Kings when the season opens, but it’s not impossible. Due to fly home to Saskatoon today with a new workout schedule in hand, Schenn was too busy the last week to think of where he might fit in.
“I just got the experience of my first pro camp and I can’t look too far ahead,” said Schenn, whose quickness and first few strides still need work.
“I still have a long summer ahead of me to get better, and for the most part right now the focus for me is working on the areas of my game that need to get better. Once I come into September, I’ll worry about trying to make this team.”
The situation is different for defensemen Thomas Hickey and Colten Teubert, who turned pro late last season. Hickey was a controversial No. 4 pick in 2007 and Teubert was 13th in 2008.
“They’ll have a chance. They’ll get a very good look,” Murray said. “They’ll probably end up playing all six exhibition games. . . . Both are now ready. They’ve finished their time in junior and it’s time to step up and see where they’re at.”
Hickey, who sat out last year’s development camp while recovering from ankle surgery, said the last week helped him learn where he stands.
“Every year you get a better idea and I think they do too,” he said. “It’s come a long way since the first one. There’s new stuff off the ice and different things on the ice we’ve done that I feel are making me better.”
Those lessons must kick in for Hickey and everyone else who will convene at El Segundo for training camp in September. It’s time to turn potential into results. No need to hide behind closed doors.