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Jason Spezza, Ryan Kesler and Joe Thornton

Jason Spezza, Ryan Kesler and Joe Thornton

Duhatschek: Expect Anaheim to be in the discussion for Spezza, Kesler and Thornton Add to ...

If you’re managing a team squarely in its championship window, you have to pull all the stops to give yourself a chance to win – and if by doing so, you manage to keep your core intact and still funnel a few youngsters into the line-up, well, that’s how you become a finalist for GM of the year.

But win or lose, Lombardi will face a new set of challenges this summer. Philosophically, he is deeply loyal and so will begin by seeing if he can keep all the key pieces together, and still sign Gaborik as an unrestricted free agent.

That was the whole point of getting Gaborik rather than any of the other rentals that were available at the deadline – the belief that Gaborik would welcome a chance to stay on and perhaps resuscitate his career in Los Angeles.

GMs will learn by the end of the month what the salary cap for next year will be. Last December, at the board of governors meetings in Pebble Beach, the belief was that it would rise to the $71-million level – a significant bump from the $64.3-million it was set at for this year.

If it went that high, all of Lombardi’s problems would - if not solved exactly – be a little more manageable.

Commissioner Gary Bettman didn’t get specific about it at his press conference this week, but he did note that the slumping Canadian dollar would likely take a bite of it.

The new projections are in the $69-million range, and if the cap rises even less than that, then the Kings may have a dilemma with regards to Mike Richards, who was effectively playing a fourth line role since March. Most teams cannot afford to pay an average of $5.75-million for a fourth liner (and the actual dollar cost for Richards this year was a cool $7.6-million).

Richards is exactly halfway through the 12-year, $69 million contract he signed with the Flyers and of course, a compliance buyout would be an option. But the structure of Richards’s contract is such that the actual dollars being paid out shrink as the contract moves along – and in the final three years, is quite affordable (a $4.5- million year and then the two final years at $3-million).

Those sorts of contracts can be attractive to teams in the lower half of NHL payrolls. It means they meet their spending obligations under the salary cap – because the system calculates the cap hit, not the actual dollars being paid. In Richards’ s case, if you factor in his winning reputation, he would be a player that the Kings probably could trade for a genuine asset, rather than spending the dollars on the buyout.

Richards is from Kenora, Ont. and the closest NHL team when he was growing up was the Winnipeg Jets.

Winnipeg, trying to develop a culture of winning, after all those years in Atlanta, might benefit enormously from Richards’s presence, if he went there with the right approach.

In a perfect world, the Kings would like to hang on to Richards and sign Gaborik, probably at the expense of allowing Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene to leave as unrestricted free agents. If you took the emotion out of it and made it strictly a financial decision, there’s no way Mike Richards returns to the Kings next year. But if you factor intangibles in, plus Lombardi’s desire to keep core pieces intact, he might just survive.

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