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Cap will be fit for Kings

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / September 6, 2008
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Have no fear, says Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi, the Kings will make it to the NHL's salary "floor" of $40.7 million in player payroll before opening night.

However, the financial formula will not include, contrary to rumors in recent weeks, taking high-priced goalie Nikolai Khabibulin off Chicago's hands, or dealing away budding superstar forward Anze Kopitar.

"Some of the stuff that goes around is just crazy," said Lombardi. "Like Kopitar. We're going to trade our best young player to get to the floor? If the people who start that stuff would put just two cents worth of brains into thinking about it first . . .

"But that's the kind of stuff that gets out there, and then we had to respond to it, just to quell the masses."

The Kings, who decided in the second half of last season that it was time to go full-bore with a youth movement, have $31.3 million committed in payroll as of Sunday. The league's new max cap is $56.7 million, with a "floor" of $40.7 million.

With opening night a month away, the Bay State-raised Lombardi has at least $9 million worth of shopping to do before he sends new coach Terry Murray and crew out for the faceoff.

The focus right now, said Lombardi, is adding a defenseman.

"We're going to be going with a number of kids back there, maybe as many as three, and that can be risky," said Lombardi. "You have to be careful. You can look back at guys like [Chris] Chelios, [Chris] Pronger, and [Ed] Jovanovski - guys who maybe had to carry too much of a load too soon and eventually had to move elsewhere.

"We want to play our kids, but at the same time, we want to protect them, and ideally I'd like to find an experienced, lefthanded defenseman."

The obvious name out there is ex-Mount St. Charles standout Mathieu Schneider, now 39 years old and simply too pricey ($5.75 million) to remain on an Anaheim payroll that Sunday is more than $1 million over the cap. By shedding Schneider, Ducks GM Brian Burke would get under the payroll cap and have room to bring back veteran winger Teemu Selanne. The Finnish Flash returned to workouts in Anaheim last week, making it clear he was ready to play at least another year. Connect the dots: Selanne is back and Schneider is gone, perhaps without the need of changing residences.

Lombardi wouldn't confirm his interest in Schneider but noted, "I am a fairly popular guy with all this cap space."

The bet here is that Schneider is a King, possibly by the end of this week, but other suitors include the Islanders and Canucks. Schneider remains a Duck, in part, because of Mats Sundin's indecision over whether to play again in 2008-09. Sundin has become the summer's Big Hiccup, with upwards of a half-dozen clubs wanting to add the star pivot, and therefore ill at ease to execute other deals until they know his answer.

"I'd say, yes, I've run into some of that," said Lombardi. "I don't know how much, but some. I ran into some of that with [Lubomir] Visnovsky and [Dan] Boyle, too."

Lombardi ended up dealing defenseman Visnovsky to Edmonton, for the likes of Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene. Tampa was shopping another pricey blue liner and needed time to move Boyle to San Jose.

When all the roster filling shakes out, said Lombardi, he hopes former BC Eagles Brian Boyle (F) and Peter Harrold (D) are wearing the royal sweater for all of 2008-09.

"Both had good, strong years in the minors," he said. "Nothing is promised here to either of them, but for the year they had, and what we're trying to accomplish here, I believe the jobs are here for them to take."

The goaltending job most likely will fall to Jason LaBarbera and Erik Ersberg. If not, Lombardi might look around for a journeyman No. 2, allowing some promising kids such as prized pick Jonathan Bernier and one-time UMass backstop Jonathan Quick extra time to develop.

"In our 40-year history, this is a franchise that has yet to develop its own goalie," said Lombardi. "When I was in San Jose, we ended up developing three - Kipper [Miikka Kiprusoff], Vesa [Toskala], and [Evgeni] Nabokov. And they all had time in the minors, but we hit on all three.

"If you can get one bona fide NHL goalie, hey, you're dancing on feathers."

NHL equipment manufacturers, handed new design specifications for goalie gear over the summer, recently delivered the new goods to the rank-and-file puckstoppers. Boston's Tim Thomas received his from Nike Bauer last Monday.

"Much ado about nothing," said Thomas, who figures the modifications will have little, if any, impact on scoring. "The biggest change for me was that they removed a leg channel - an inside cushion in each pad that makes it easier on your knees if you're dropping down 200 times a day to stop shots. But that's about comfort, and not about size."

The league and the Players Association met in June with the idea that, once and for all, the era of the overstuffed Michelin Man goalie would come to an end. When all the smoke, ice chips, and horsehair cleared, the sides agreed to cut back on the size of clavicle protectors and knee flaps atop the leg pads.

The focus, everyone agreed, was on giving shooters more room to fire pucks into the net, while not sacrificing the netminders' safety.

Thomas, for one, feels safety has not been compromised, but he also doubts that scoring will change significantly.

"My answer would be no," said Thomas. "I don't think it will have any impact whatsoever."

Of far greater impact, said Thomas, would be for the league to be more dogged in keeping watch over the netminders, and how they wear and use their equipment, during the season. Because of varying body sizes throughout the brotherhood, he said, limiting equipment size can make for a tricky fit.

More monitors and less measurement?

"It's what I think," said Thomas, "and therein lies the answer."

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The ex files: Amid rumors that they were on the verge of signing ex-Bruins winger Glen Murray, the Senators opted for another ex-Bruin forward in Brad Isbister (he who cannot pot a geranium). If he can stick with the Ottawa roster, Isbister will make $650,000, but only $100,000 if he gets ditched to the minors. Isbister, 31, who spent last season with Vancouver (56 games/23 points), is with his fifth NHL club in five seasons. Meanwhile, Murray, bought out here in July, remains without work. If he's up for it, maybe Muzz can get himself an invite/tryout with San Jose, banking on a resurgence with ol' pal Jumbo Joe Thornton dishing him the puck. Both the Ducks and Kings likely would be willing to extend Murray a guarantee, too. Take it to the limit: After picking up Stephane Yelle for extra depth at wing and center, have the Bruins finished their roster building? "I think so," said GM Peter Chiarelli, "unless we make a trade." Truth is, the Bruins are left with only the slightest bit of wiggle room against the cap. With Yelle aboard at a guaranteed $750,000, their 2008-09 commitments stand at approximately $55.5 million, offering almost no maneuverability should the pieces not dovetail properly when the puck drops. The player who could be feeling the most heat: Peter Schaefer. He has a couple of more years left at $2.3 million per, and he did little last year with the top-six minutes he was fed by coach Claude Julien. The bet here is that Julien/Chiarelli won't be as patient this time around, especially with the emphasis on playing a more up-tempo style.

Killer instincts: Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward spent the early years of his career in Detroit, allowing him a good look at Yelle in those oft-heated Wings-Avalanche matchups. "He can do a lot of things," said Ward, "and he's been somewhat of a PK [penalty-killing] specialist, and that's something we can utilize because that's an area we're looking to improve, for sure." For similar players, Ward thinks ex-Canadien Mike Keane is a fair comp. "You know, a guy willing to sacrifice his body to block a shot," said Ward.

Loose pucks: Agent Jay Fee reports that Bruins defenseman Bobby Allen, hindered by back problems over the second half of last season, remains on the shelf with two herniated disks. "Really a shame," said Fee. "He had seven clubs inquiring all summer long, but right now, there's not much he can do. He's in a lot of pain." . . . Who would have believed that hockey's national profile would be such a prominent part of the GOP convention? But Alaska's own Sarah Palin gave the Xcel Energy Center crowd a real jolt in St. Paul when she told the world that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was - pregnant pause - "lipstick." And then there was Palin's soon-to-be son-in-law, 18-year-old Levi Johnston, often mentioned as the star of the Wasilla Warriors hockey team. Your faithful puck scribe was covered in goose bumps. At every turn, hockey, hockey, and more hockey. Without a doubt, if the McCain-Palin ticket prevails, a Zamboni will lead the motorcade down Pennyslvania Avenue. Now that's reform, folks.

Russian front: Consider yourself a serious, serious puck chaser if you already knew that Evgeny Tsaregorodtsev and Alexander Fomichev will be the masked gents battling ex-Bruin John Grahame for the No. 1 job with Avangard Omsk (in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League). Omsk's captain is Jaromir Jagr. But you knew that. This is a second twirl with the Advance Guards for Jagr, who spent time on the Omsk roster during the 2004-05 lockout, sometimes trading passes with Andrei Kovalenko, formerly "The Empty Tank" of Causeway Street.

Ripple effect: As noted here a couple of weeks ago, the NHL Players Association intends to notify league owners in January whether it intends to terminate the CBA following the season. Although that's well ahead of the May deadline, waiting until January no doubt will have an impact on some roster configurations, especially for clubs with payrolls near the $56.7 million limit. Here in Boston, for instance, Phil Kessel's base pay is $850,000, but he carries a hefty cap hit of $2.2 million. If the Bruins needed some financial relief, they could push Kessel to the minors without the need for him to clear waivers. However, according to a league source, once Kessel has played but three NHL games in 2008-09, he would be subject to waivers if the Bruins wanted to demote him. Rather than risk that kind of bind, the Bruins, or any club with a young player in similar circumstances, might simply opt to designate him to the minors at the start of the season. All this would be rendered moot if the NHLPA notified the league promptly that it will not terminate the CBA, and therefore extend the current deal by a minimum of three seasons. Absent that notification, GMs have little choice but to plan as if 2008-09 will mark the end of the labor agreement - potentially leading to a disastrous labor stalemate next summer.

No comparison: Upon swinging the deal last week to bring Bryan McCabe to the Panthers, Florida GM Jacques Martin noted that Larry Murphy was similarly ushered out of Toronto by the media. "He went to Detroit," said Martin, "and was a pretty effective player." He was also a much better player than the soft, erratic McCabe, who isn't destined to join Murphy in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Murphy had just turned 36 when he was flipped to Detroit at the March 1997 trade deadline, and he aided greatly in the Wings winning back-to-back Cups. The Maple Leafs sent McCabe and a fourth-round pick (2010) to the Panthers for defenseman Mike Van Ryn and opened up $11.45 million in cap room over the next three years.

Loose pucks: According to former player agent Bryant McBride, onetime Bruins captain Jason Allison recently remarried and owns and operates a horse farm north of Toronto. And onetime Boston goalie Lord Byron Dafoe is financing a residential subdivision in British Columbia and also dabbling in commercial real estate . . . Cam Neely and some of his fine-fisted friends, including fellow ex-Bruins Jay Miller, Lyndon Byers, and Chris Nilan, will be on hand Saturday, noon-2 p.m., for the opening of the new Sportsworld store on Route 1 in Saugus (the old Caruso's site, a mile north of Kowloon). If they're not slamming each other into display cases, they'll be available for autographs. .content>

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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