Kings GM Lombardi targets re-signing UFA Gaborik

Marian Gaborik willbecome a UFA July 1. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

LOS ANGELES — As hundreds of people streamed around them, drunk in the fervor of celebration on the ice at Staples Center, Dean Lombardi grabbed Alec Martinez by the sweater and shook him forward and back on his skates.

“You were just awesome,” Lombardi yelled over the fray, smacking the defenceman on the shoulder for emphasis. “I swear, you can see the emergence—I couldn’t be more proud of ya.”

It’s about 30 minutes after Martinez scored the double-overtime goal that won the Kings their second Stanley Cup in three years. Sensing an opportunity to capitalize as the game dragged through its 94th minute, Martinez had jumped up into a rush with Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford, bearing down on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Some defencemen don’t have the gall to make that play, in fear of being caught out of position on a counterattack. But when the puck bounced off Lundqvist’s pad from a Toffoli shot, there was Martinez, where none of the Rangers expected him to be, ready to bang home the rebound and etch his name onto the Cup.

It was the kind of aggressive, advantageous play that was a pillar of how the Kings competed throughout the playoffs, where they scored a league-high 88 goals and relied on a blitzkrieg offence to carry them through to a championship. It was a departure from the stout defence the team leaned on to win its last title, in 2012.

“Two years ago we were like the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was all defence when they won their first Super Bowl,” said Lombardi, a noted student of the dynasties in other professional sports. “Then, the next year when they won it again, they integrated the offence of [Lynn] Swann and [John] Stallworth. But they made sure they were good at both ends and never lost that Steel Curtain identity. That’s like us.”

Maybe no one represents that parallel better than Martinez, a defenceman who’s solid in his own end but also scored two crucial game-winners in these playoffs, the Stanley Cup winner against the Rangers and the Game 7 winner against the Blackhawks in the Western Conference final, which was arguably more important considering Chicago was by far the toughest test Los Angeles faced in the playoffs.

Of course, Martinez is also representative of Lombardi’s draft-and-develop philosophy, one that produced a large chunk of the rosters that won him Cups in 2012 and 2014. Martinez is a fourth-round pick (95th overall) who worked hard across parts of three seasons with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs to prove his worth and earn his way to the NHL, where he played a career-high 61 games this season.

He was a part of Lombardi’s second draft class, in 2007, which also produced Dwight King, another fourth-round pick who scored a key goal to get the Kings back in the contest when they were down 4-2 in the second game of the final.

You can sift through those early draft years and find plenty of Lombardi selections that have been developed within the organization and gone on the play crucial depth roles on Stanley Cup-winning teams. There’s Trevor Lewis in 2006, Martinez and King in 2007, Drew Doughty in 2008, Clifford and Jordan Nolan in 2009, and Toffoli in 2010. Lombardi’s first-round pick in 2012, Tanner Pearson, was a revelation for the Kings during the Stanley Cup Final, in this his first NHL season. He was one of the best Kings on the ice during Game 4, taking eight shots, and he earned 21 minutes of ice time in Game 5, taking five more.

Lombardi knows that if his team is going to continue to be successful the way it has been, it will be on the backs of third- and fourth-line role players like King, Clifford and Pearson.

“The ability of this team to continue to grow isn’t going to be from acquisitions—it’s going to be from the inside,” Lombardi said. “There’s a lot more in a lot of our players. They’re not done. So hopefully we can keep them together and they continue to grow.”

This is how Lombardi has built his teams. He’s relied on high draft picks Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty as cornerstones, while drafting and developing a strong core of depth players like Martinez, Clifford and Toffoli behind them, and capitalizing on the opportunity to acquire complementary stars when he can like Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Marian Gaborik.

Much of his nucleus is locked up long-term. Doughty is signed through 2018-19, Brown and Carter are signed through 2021-22, and Jonathan Quick is inked through 2022-23. Richards is also signed long-term—through 2019-20 at $5.75 million a season—although he may be a candidate for a compliance buyout this offseason as Lombardi tries to free up money to re-sign Gaborik, who will be an unrestricted free agent and, eventually, Kopitar, who has one year remaining on his contract.

Gaborik had a remarkable postseason, leading the league in goals (14) and points (26) after scoring 16 points in 19 games for the Kings following his acquisition at the trade deadline. The 32-year-old is coming off a five-year, $37.5-million deal and will likely be looking for something in the ballpark of the $7.5 million per season he’d been earning. He can make a strong case for it, too. Even Lombardi thinks this long postseason—the Kings played an NHL-record 26 games to win the Cup—helped unlock something in the Slovak.

“With Marian, there’s a little bit of Teemu Selanne there. Selanne, when he finally won [a Stanley Cup]—he went to another level,” Lombardi said. “When you experience something like this, you realize sometimes there’s things more important than stats. So we’re certainly hoping he stays.”

What Lombardi is referring to as being more important than stats is Gaborik’s personality off the ice, where he’s been able to fit in seamlessly with the Kings roster, even living with Carter for a spell when he first came to Los Angeles. Lombardi knows it’s hard to find players who fit in so well so quickly, which is something he places value in.

But in order to keep Gaborik, he may have to say goodbye to Richards, and let go of a player he thinks is also an integral part of that organizational makeup. That decision won’t be easy. But it never is.

“One thing that you learn from the last Cup is, you have to prepare for July 1 in a hurry,” Lombardi said. “Because we know Phoenix is gonna be back. San Jose and Anaheim are great teams. Obviously, there’s Chicago and St. Louis. It’s a war in this conference.”

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