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It might be early, but so far the Kings look OK without Ilya Kovalchuk

Oct 20, 2010, 11:31 PM EDT

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On paper, adding Ilya Kovalchuk to the Los Angeles Kings seemed like a no-brainer. I still remember the general consensus: sure, it might make it tougher to retain the team’s second-tier young players (Drew Doughty wasn’t – and isn’t – going anywhere) but sometimes you have to break a few prospect eggs to make a 50-goal scorer omelet, right?

While I count(ed) myself among the few who considered Kovalchuk a risky gamble, even I thought that the high-scoring winger made some sense for the Kings. Well, as you probably know, the Kings lost out to the New Jersey Devils in the protracted “Kovalchuk Sweepstakes” and changed direction by adding wounded but talented shutdown defenseman Willie Mitchell as their Free Agent Plan B.

It might be a bit hasty to draw too many conclusions from the first couple weeks of the regular season, but Craig Custance of the Sporting News points out that the Kings are doing well (3-1 record, tied 1-1 with the Carolina Hurricanes as of this moment) while the Devils are dealing with a troubling start.

While the struggling Devils try to figure out where to fit all their high-end left wingers — not to mention maneuver around their impossibly tight salary cap situation — the Kings have quietly started the season 3-1.

They’re winning because Jonathan Quick arrived at camp in better shape, ready to fight off the talented Jonathan Bernier as the Kings’ starting goalie. So far, Quick is 3-0-0, with a 0.97 goals-against average and .963 save percentage.

They’re also winning because Plan B in the post-Kovalchuk recruitment might be better than Plan A.

Custance points out the perks of having Mitchell: it gives the Kings the opportunity to pair one, ultra-responsible stay-at-home defenseman with one gifted young blueliner on their top two D pairs. (Mitchell often skates with Drew Doughty while 2009 free agent signing Rob Scuderi usually watches Jack Johnson’s back.)

Of course, it’s not all as sunny as the weather in Los Angeles. There’s a reason the Kings targeted Kovalchuk, after all: their offensive depth is lacking. Beyond the underrated ace Anze Kopitar, the team sports some works in progress such as Wayne Simmonds, solid but unspectacular pieces including Dustin Brown and frequent IR inhabitants like Justin Williams.

On the bright side, Custance points out that the Kings possess something that makes them rare among predicted Cup contenders: cap space (I’d say around $6 million as their situation is a little muddy on CapGeek.com right now).

They’ll surely be in on the Brad Richards trade talk if the Dallas Stars decide they can’t afford to pay their center, who suddenly is being called the premier 2011 potential unrestricted free agent.

And if Jarome Iginla ever becomes available in Calgary? He might be the perfect fit.

It would be an awfully bitter pill for the Stars to swallow if they traded Richards to a division rival, especially if they continue their (slightly improbable?) playoff pace. Then again, in this cold money-driven/ cap-driven world, the Kings might be able to offer the best package of prospects. My guess is that Kings GM Dean Lombardi would want to sign Richards to a medium-sized contract extension if he decided to go that route, though.

Iginla would be an easier but probably lower-end “get” for the Kings at this point in his career, although his leadership would be nice in the locker room and his personality would be a great fit for the market. The problem with Iginla is that if his downward trend continues, he still has two more seasons and $14 million left on his contract (or $7 million per season through 2012-13).

Regardless, weighing the pros and cons of adding an aging star during the trade deadline is certainly a happier situation than wondering how you’re possibly going to get under the salary cap. It’s still early, but so far, it seems like Lombardi’s mostly slow-and-steady approach is paying dividends … even if Lombardi clearly wanted to compromise that tortoise pace for a hare who left him the dust for New Jersey.

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