Lombardi’s Rebuilding Plan Making Unexpected Progress
January 6, 2009 37 Comments
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – PART 3: Frozen Royalty is back with Part 3 from an exclusive interview with Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. In this, the third and final installment, Lombardi discusses the Kings’ player development and evaluation infrastructure and the progress made in his rebuilding plan. And in case you missed parts one and two, you can read them here. Part 1: Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi Excited About Defense and Part 2: Lombardi Talks About Goaltending, Top Defenseman Prospects.
LOS ANGELES — For long-time fans of the Los Angeles Kings, the wait has been interminable.
Aside from one run to the Stanley Cup Finals led by Wayne Gretzky in 1992-93, the Kings have been a big disappointment, qualifying for the playoffs just twenty-two times in their forty-plus seasons in the National Hockey League but advancing past the second round just once.
To be sure, that is a rather dismal record filled with mediocrity.
A big reason for that long history of mostly lousy hockey has been their propensity for trading away first round draft picks for way-over-the-hill NHL stars who gave the Kings next to nothing. Meanwhile, the traded away draft picks were used to select future NHL stars such as defenseman Raymond Bourque, to name just one out of way too many who went on to lead their teams to great success, including a number of Stanley Cup championships.
To make matters worse, even when the Kings held onto their draft picks they either selected poorly or they were often unable to develop those prospects into solid NHL players. To illustrate, a quick review of their draft history from 1967-2003 (later draft years are likely too recent to be evaluated yet) reveals a relatively miniscule handful of players drafted and developed by the Kings:
Butch Goring (center; fifth round, 51st overall, 1969 NHL Entry Draft)
Don Kozak (right wing; second round, 20th overall, 1972)
Mario Lessard (goalie; ninth round, 154th overall, 1974)
Dave Taylor (right wing; 15th round, 210th overall, 1975)
Jay Wells (defenseman; first round, 16th overall, 1979)
Mark Hardy (defenseman; second round, 30th overall, 1979)
Larry Murphy (defenseman; first round, fourth overall, 1980)
Jim Fox (right wing, first round, tenth overall, 1980)
Bernie Nicholls (center; fourth round, 73rd overall, 1980)
Garry Galley (defenseman; fifth round, 103rd overall, 1982)
Luc Robitaille (left wing; ninth round, 171st overall, 1984)
Jimmy Carson (center; first round, third overall, 1986)
Rob Blake (defenseman; fourth round, 70th overall, 1988)
Eric Belanger (center; fourth round, 96th overall, 1996)
Alexander Frolov (winger; first round, 20th overall, 2000)
Lubomir Visnovsky (defenseman; fourth round, 118th overall, 2000)
Michael Cammalleri (center; second round, 49th overall, 2001)
Dustin Brown (right wing; first round, 13th overall, 2003)
In case you’re counting, that is just eighteen players drafted by the Kings over thirty-six years who came up through their system to play for the big club and leave a mark, some bigger than others.
But wait…it gets worse, as the Kings have also traded away the likes of Billy Smith, Larry Murphy, Kevin Stevens, Alexei Zhitnik, Kimmo Timonen, Olli Jokinen, Cristobal Huet—homegrown players who the Kings gave up on sooner rather than later and then watched as they went on to become stars elsewhere—Smith and Murphy are honored members of the Hockey Hall of Fame with their time in a Kings jersey as close to being totally irrelevant to their induction as you could get.
Talk about a dreadful, pathetic history of drafting, developing and evaluating young players. It is difficult to imagine another franchise having a record worse than that.
But that may be changing.
With serious question marks in goal and a considerable number of young players expected to be in the lineup going into the 2008-09 season, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi figured, like just about everyone else, that his team was not among the top sixteen teams in the league.
“If you look at it on an objective basis, usually the quality of your team—you look at your seven-man core,” Lombardi explained prior to his team’s contest against the Columbus Blue Jackets on December 29. “You’re always looking at your competitors to see where you’ve got to go. One of the exercises you do is put up your core against the other thirty teams and say ‘OK boys…where do we rank?’ So try and take off your rose-colored glasses and evaluate your players objectively and see where you rank.”
“[Before the season began], our team was not in the top eight or sixteen teams,” Lombardi elaborated. “Does that mean you’re not going to [make the playoffs] or try [to make the playoffs]? No. But the one thing I liked about our core was that it was finally young, so at least it had upside. So maybe you’re ranked twentieth [and it should improve] as opposed to being twentieth and having a bunch of forty-year-olds.”
Despite having a young team, the Kings are still in the hunt for a playoff spot almost halfway through the season, even though virtually everyone (including this writer) predicted that the Kings would be near the bottom of the league pretty much throughout the season. Indeed, the Kings find themselves just three points behind eighth-place Minnesota going to action on January 6.
In stark contrast, last season, the Kings were way out of playoff contention by mid-December—they could have started scheduling their spring and summer tee times on the golf course before Christmas.
Sure, one could argue that the Kings are also just five points out of the Western Conference cellar. But that would be ignoring the stingy team defense that leads the league in shots allowed per game along with solid goaltending from Erik Ersberg and now rookie Jonathan Quick—the defense and goaltending has the Kings in the top ten in the NHL in goals allowed per game. Add to that some rather surprising contributions from some even younger players—these are major factors in the team’s obvious improvement.
“The goals against [has improved dramatically],” said Lombardi. “I think I like it when you hear, ‘Boy you guys play hard.’ We’re starting to get to where we’re not easy to play against and most nights, after thirty-five games in, other than probably three or four games, I’d say they’ve given the best they could.”
Playing their best most nights has made it easier for Lombardi to evaluate what he’s got.
“When you’re building and evaluating your holes, it’s really hard if your team isn’t playing the best they can,” he said. “If you’re playing at the top of your game, it’s easier for us to sit there and say, ‘There’s a hole, there’s a hole. We’ve got to address this.’ It’s frustrating for a general manager if you don’t think your team is playing as well or as hard as it can. You’re saying, ‘I’m not sure that’s a problem because he should be doing more.’”
Indeed, the young Kings appear to be trending upward and their atrocious record of drafting, developing and evaluating young prospects appears to finally be changing for the better as there is solid evidence of a scouting and player development program that is on the rise.
Already, young forwards Wayne Simmonds and Oscar Moller, along with standout rookie defenseman Drew Doughty—all made the team straight out of junior hockey—are making an impact with the Kings this season.
“The goaltending issue is still—coming into camp was a variable, and arguably still is, although it looks like Ersberg kind of stepped up,” said Lombardi. “But the biggest thing I was looking at was how the young kids progressed.”
“Whenever you’ve got young players, you’ve just got to take it day-to-day,” added Lombardi. “I’ve seen it work the other way. The New York Islanders threw all those kids in the lineup and said ‘we’re going to make the playoffs’ and they didn’t make it right away and they ended up trading them all.”
Despite the upward trend, Lombardi warned against raising expectations too high because there is still a long way to go.
“There’s so many things that have to go into building a team,” Lombardi cautioned. “If you try and go too far, you’re going to go crazy and do stupid things. That’s kind of my motto. You’ve got to get better every day and eventually, if you keep doing that, you’re going to get to the top. That might sound like bull, but that’s the only way I think you keep your sanity when you’re going on a total rebuilding program like we’re doing.”
Nevertheless, Lombardi is not completely surprised at the progress his team has made.
“I can go the other side and say ‘Well, does this totally surprise me,’” he said. “No. But to say did I expect it? Well, I said this before. A smart guy told me a long time ago that when you’re building a team like you’re trying to build it, you just have to try to get better every day, whether it’s making a scout better or making a young player train harder.”
Lombardi took a big risk by keeping young players such as Moller and Simmonds, and to a lesser degree, Doughty, up with the big club. If the Kings continued to lose games in bunches as they did last season, their development could have been jeopardized. But the gamble has paid off so far.
“If you go back early in your career, if you start in the summer putting kids in your lineup who’ve never played in the league, you’re setting yourself up for failure and setting the kid up for failure,” said Lombardi. “What we were trying to do is cover ourselves, make sure we had veterans there, but if the kid made the team there was a job there, they weren’t going to get boxed out.”
“They made the team and actually, they went ahead of [right wing prospect Teddy] Purcell, [center prospect Brian] Boyle and [left wing prospect Matt] Moulson, who had been in the minors who I expected, ‘OK…now’s your time. You’ve done what I wanted, you paid your dues. You’ve done everything we asked and now grab the job,’ and technically, they didn’t. [Moller and Simmonds] came in and beat’em out.”
Indeed, Boyle, Purcell and Moulson were prospects that Lombardi identified during training camp as having jobs to lose with the big club and each of them did just that, although both Boyle and Purcell have returned to the Kings as of this writing.
“We’ll see if these guys regroup—Boyle [was] playing really well [with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate] and sometimes these guys have to go through that,” Lombardi stressed. “They need to be sent back and we say, ‘OK, we’re serious, but you’ve got to do it. We’re not going to hand it to you.’ Same with Purcell. He got sent down and he’s been much better since he’s been back.”
“But those other two kids? They came in and grabbed the job,” Lombardi added. “I wish I could say, ‘Oh yeah. I saw this coming.’ But no. You just take it day-to-day.”
Lombardi cautioned against raising expectations too high for any of the Kings’ young prospects.
“The thing you have to be careful with when they’re at that stage too, the learning curve doesn’t go straight up,” he emphasized. “What’ll happen with these guys—they’re showing they can play in the league, but what I tell them all the time and what they’re reminded of is that there’s a big difference between playing in the league and winning in the league.”
“So you prove to me you can play on a bad team or a non-playoff team,” he elaborated. “That don’t count. You’ve got to keep getting better because you have to show us that you can play on a playoff team then you can play on a contender. So this ain’t good enough.”
But that is where player development comes in and the infrastructure Lombardi has built and continues to build towards that end appears to be moving into high gear.
“We’re fine with [the players] who are nineteen and twenty years old, but If we don’t do our job and continue to develop them and push them, then you’re just young for the sake of being young,” said Lombardi.
When prospects are sent back to the minors, there is often an adjustment period where the young player has to get over the frustration and disappointment of not sticking with the big club, and Kings prospects have been no exception. But Lombardi’s development system is working to quickly alleviate such problems and get the player back on track.
“They all go though that,” said Lombardi. “There’s the pouting for a couple of weeks, ‘Oh I got screwed.’ But you know what, this is all part of the infrastructure I’ve been talking about. [Kings Coordinator of Player Development and Systems Integration] Nelson Emerson with our development—he goes right back down there with them and he goes over it with them and shows them, ‘OK, this is what you didn’t do.’”
“Everything is shown to them about why you weren’t sticking here,” added Lombardi. “Now you’re going to go down there and you’re going do it right and then when the time comes we’re going to give you another chance. So you can sit here and sulk or you can work on the things we’re showing you.”
“If you do it the right way and you show the kid and, like I said, Nelson goes down there and so they get the coaches down there and they get Nelson flying back and forth to make sure they’re in synch with what’s going on up here, now they start believing, ‘Oh, OK. I see it.’ “If you just throw them down there and say [they need] to work harder, that’s not good enough. We have to work harder to give you the tools to work harder.”
A quality development program is essential to the success of a franchise and Lombardi’s program appears to be generating results. But it is not yet where he would like it to be.
“We’re finally getting close to where you can see the infrastructure start to develop symmetry,” he said. “It’s getting closer every day and that’s key to what I’m talking about. When you bring in thirty [new] people, [things don’t mesh immediately]. People have to feel their roles. The development book starts to get built. People [start] to feel comfortable. The dialogue—remember, you have dialogue with the minor league coaches, you have dialogue here, you have Mike O’Connell (handles Pro Development and Special Assignments) who’s there working with the defensemen, you have junior [hockey]—it all has to stay in synch.”
“By moving Nelson to that area and having Mike on the East Coast, I’d say we’re where I was in San Jose now, in terms of that development program that I envisioned,” he added. “We’ve got to continue to make it better, but at least now we’re at the stage where the way we operate now is pretty close to the way I had it in San Jose.”
“I still think we can do better in terms of—I always use that baseball analogy where baseball’s attention to detail is incredible and probably the next is football,” Lombardi explained. “Baseball can technically do it because people think it’s more of a stagnant game. But it’s something I always believed in when I started this in San Jose that so is hockey if you stop the tape. All of these things can be broken down. A cut-off man is no different from your net coverage. It’s being in the right place at the right time and reading the play, but it’s a lot harder and a lot more time consuming and requires a lot more correlating.”
Much of that correlation is now done through the use of video.
“The video—the one thing that gets integrated—LA never did any video scouting,” said Lombardi. “We completely built that. That machine is running at full bore. Being able to take that now and put it into your development camps so that every guy is broken down exactly into the areas he needs.”
“The problem you’ve got, and there’s three phases, when they’re young, they probably need a little bit of everything,” added Lombardi. “But…like for Teddy Purcell, for him to either make or break or become a good player, he’s down to three or four things at the most and he needs to focus solely on that. To still get to the point where you can say ‘OK…here’s where it is and here’s ten to fifteen clips and we’re following up on these,’ that’s really micro-managing and you can do that now and I think we’re close to where I was in San Jose and now the technology is so much better we should be able to go well beyond. But if you don’t have the people it don’t matter. You can have all these gadgets—guys buying stuff right and left, but if you don’t use it, what the hell good is it? It’s like having 500 TV channels.”
Now in his third season with the Kings, Lombardi said that it has been a huge challenge to get his hockey operations infrastructure to where it is now.
“We’re still not where we could be, but the long and the short of it is after three years, I didn’t realize how hard this was because I took it for granted in San Jose,” he explained. “But now I see where we are and the boys [the hockey operations staff, including scouts, coaches, etc.] see it now, too. We’re getting in synch, everyone’s having fun, you start to get chemistry. It’s like the [players]. They have to get along in the room. You’ve got thirty guys in the trenches and they’ve got to get along or you’re never going to succeed.”
So where does that improved development program have the Kings in terms of their rebuilding plan?
“Phase two, in some parts already phase three and in some parts, phase four,” said Lombardi. “If you had to break it down, if you had to synthesize it, the first thing was just to put talent in the system. That’s number one, that’s why we had all those draft picks. I think we’ve clearly done that. We had fifteen picks last year, we were loaded with picks. That’s part of building the reserve list. Regardless, we had to add talent to that reserve list. I think in the last twenty-four months, we’ve done pretty good there. I would’ve like to have hit a few more times, but I think that part has come along.”
“The development part—phase two—we’ve already talked about (see above),” added Lombardi. “Phase three is getting them in the league and some are already here. So that part [has come along] quicker.”
The final phase just might be the hardest of them all, but there is even progress in that area.
“The fourth part is learning to win and that’s the ultimate thing and we’ve already heard this with a lot of the games this year when we’ve lost games in the third period,” Lombardi emphasized. “A lot of that is being in those pressure situations and learning to win. And you already hear [left wing Patrick] O’Sullivan, ‘We’re tired of hearing about learning. We have to win now.’ That part is already phase four.”
“If you break it down like that, that’s usually the phases it goes,” Lombardi elaborated. “Some parts are already starting to get done beyond phase one that are [mental]. When you see some of those guys already saying, ‘We should’ve beat Detroit the other night,’ that’s a very different feeling. You just went into Detroit and you’re pissed off? That’s a good thing. It’s not a good thing you lost, but just the fact that you’re pissed off is progress.”
“You have to go through that turmoil and lose and then the next time say, ‘This ain’t happening again.’ Just like you’re hoping the next time they get a lead in Detroit you know what’s gonna go through their minds. Their either going to say, ‘Oh my gosh, let’s not blow it,’ or, ‘This ain’t happening again.’ It’s very different and when those guys are sitting there looking at each other, yeah, we’re going to think back to what happened. But we’re going to say ‘This ain’t freakin’ happening again,’ and they go out and do something about it. You see another team that’s not ready, they’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re gonna blow it again.’ When that team crosses that other threshold, now you’ve got it.”
A big reason for the progress has been the team leadership.
“There’s a difference between ‘We played well,’ the moral victories and that’s usually where you’re at [at this point], but they’re already there,” said Lombardi. “That’s part of the leadership in [the dressing room]. [Right wing and team captain Dustin] Brown really cares about this team. [Center and assistant captain Anze] Kopitar is starting to learn that. We’ve got some good guys. [Defenseman and assistant captain Matt] Greene came from Edmonton but it’s already clear he has adopted this as his team.”
So…just to be crystal-clear, where are the Kings in their rebuilding program?
“I think phase one we’ve kind of almost completed in a short time with all those picks,” Lombardi said. “We’re moving in some areas rapidly in phases three and four, but we’ve still got to finish [phase] two.”
But in these times of severe economic malaise, the question comes to mind: with a significant number of empty seats at Staples Center for the majority of their home games this season, will the Anschutz Entertainment Group, owners of the Kings, continue to allow Lombardi to invest in scouting and player development?
It would seem rather unwise for Kings to go back to their old ways by not investing enough in those areas and Lombardi would be the first person to tell you that.
“I have a meeting [with ownership] coming up, and I don’t want to give up on [infrastructure],” Lombardi stressed. “It’s like any company—research and development—the tendency sometimes is to cut ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ and I think that’s really shortsighted as we’re already showing with our own young players as opposed to going out and getting all those free agents.”
“I hope we do stick with that because that was the whole thing when I came in here,” Lombardi added. “I don’t need the biggest payroll, but I want to invest in scouting and development. No cutting corners there. I don’t mean to be wasteful, but that has to be done if you’re ever going to build this right. I’m hoping that we don’t have to go that route for sure.”
A clear sign of how misguided it would be to cut back on their development program is another dividend of that investment: the development of a team identity and soul.
“I’m starting to see a soul and this is why I’ve been harping on this,” Lombardi stressed. “You’re not going to develop a soul in this franchise unless it comes from within your system. I’m starting to feel that, that these guys care.”
“Everybody thinks, all these guys jumping around and everything, it’s the old saying, ‘Everybody likes to win. You’ve got to get twenty guys who hate to lose,’” Lombardi added. “There ain’t nobody who doesn’t like to win! Everybody likes to win. What a bunch of crap! You get twenty guys who hate to lose and the only way you develop ‘hate to lose’ is, I’m convinced, is those little things—coming through the minors, the way Dustin Brown asked about [defenseman prospects Thomas] Hickey and [Colten] Teubert at the [2009 World Junior (Under-20) Championships]. This only happens when kids come through your system.”
Lombardi said the development system is biggest reason that his team is moving closer to being able to answer the question, “What is a King?”
“It’s a feeling,” said Lombardi. “You can’t define it. I had John Ferguson with me in San Jose. He won five Stanley Cups. He talked all the time about what it meant to be a [Montreal] Canadien. You knew right away.”
“I’ve always said, ‘What’s a King?’ What has been the Kings identity for forty years? You can look back in history and think of what the [Philadelphia] Flyers stood for, what the [Boston] Bruins stood for,” added Lombardi. “Montreal. What about the Kings? The first thing that comes to mind is Gretzky. But in reality, it was a three-year run. So again, the only thing we can do is go back to scratch. They have to come up together and care and I’m starting to see that. It’s a feeling you get.”
“Murph [Kings head coach Terry Murray] has been around, You don’t fool Murph. He’s seen a lot and he’s no friggin’ politician. When he says, ‘You know what, these guys are coming together quicker than you think. They’re good kids and they care, they’ve got a lot to learn.’ That’s what I’ve always said. A franchise needs a soul and I’m starting to feel that. It’s got a long way to go. But you’re getting a little of that feeling.”
If Lombardi’s rebuilding plan continues to progress at its current pace, the light at the end of the tunnel will be far more than a tiny glimmer a lot sooner than anyone thought, finally giving Kings fans something to really cheer about after a long, long history of misery.
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