It's been another disappointing season for fans of the Los Angeles Kings.
Despite the early promises from first-year general manager Dean Lombardi that the Kings would be competitive this season, the club will miss the NHL playoffs for the fourth straight year, causing some disgruntled Kings fans to question Lombardi's management skills.
The former Sharks GM made a few controversial trades, dealing away scoring forward Pavol Demitra and long-time defenseman and team captain Mattias Norstrom, and acquiring injury-prone goalie Dan Cloutier, who would miss most of the 2006-07 season.
However, his critics have overlooked Lombardi's better moves this season, including the acquisition of highly-touted defense prospect Jack Johnson from the Carolina Hurricanes, dumping the salary of struggling veteran center Craig Conroy, moving problem-child forward Sean Avery and re-signing gritty leader Derek Armstrong.
Part of the return for Demitra was promising — if occasionally erratic — young forward Patrick O'Sullivan, who has the potential to be an important part of the team's future.
Lombardi caught some flak for bringing back defenseman Rob Blake by signing him to a two-year, $12 million contract, but his leadership and experience could prove invaluable, particularly if Johnson should make his NHL debut next season. He also wisely retained blueliner Lubomir Visnovsky, who's on pace for another 60-point season.
Lombardi also cleared up considerable cap space for next season. With just over $25 million committed to his 2007-08 payroll, he has room to re-sign a key restricted free agent like forward Mike Cammalleri and still have available cash to bolster his roster via unrestricted free agency.
The problem areas to be addressed are in goal and on the blueline.
Cloutier will return healthy next season, but Lombardi will have to decide if he'll re-sign Mathieu Garon, call up Jason LaBarbera or sign a veteran UFA netminder as Cloutier's backup.
Goaltending was the Kings' main weak point this season. Cloutier's recent injury history should be cause for concern, so it'll be very important for Lombardi to have a capable, healthy backup.
The defense corps also struggled this season, and with Norstrom and Brent Sopel traded and Aaron Miller eligible for UFA status, plugging the gaps on the blueline is a priority.
Jaroslav Modry and Jamie Heward were two trade-deadline acquisitions who may or may not stick with the team after this season. Even if they do, Lombardi will need to bring in at least another high-caliber defenseman.
The youngster Johnson could help, but it may be putting too much pressure on him to step up and play a major role as a rookie.
Thus, Lombardi's could turn to this summer's UFA market in pursuit of one or two skilled defensemen. Those potentially available include Nashville's Kimmo Timonen, New Jersey's Bryan Rafalski, Montreal's Sheldon Souray or Andrei Markov, Vancouver's Sami Salo and Calgary's Brad Stuart, whom Lombardi drafted when he was the GM of the Sharks.