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Dean Lombardi: The Time To Make A Big Splash May Be Now

COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS: The following is the first in a series of stories based on an interview with Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. Look for Part 2 later in the week.


Dean Lombardi
Photo: LA Kings

LOS ANGELES — Anyone who follows the National Hockey League knows that Atlanta Thrashers superstar left wing Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract expires on June 30, 2010, and that the Thrashers risk losing him if they are unable to sign him to a contract extension prior to that date.

To this point, the Thrashers have been unable to reach an agreement with Kovalchuk, who many believe is waiting to test the free agent waters in July, and rumor has it that Thrashers general manager Don Waddell is testing the trade waters to try to make sure that if Kovalchuk refuses to sign, that the Thrashers will, at least, get something in return.

That has led to furious, wild speculation in recent days regarding teams that may be in the running for Kovalchuk’s services, and the Los Angeles Kings, with their young, up-and-coming team and enough salary cap room to fit Kovalchuk into their plans, are rumored to be among the favorites.

Many Kings fans are drooling all over themselves, both figuratively and literally, at the thought of seeing Kovalchuk in a Kings jersey. But the question is:

Will Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi pull the trigger?

Before looking specifically at that question, it should be noted that, like any NHL general manager worth his salt, Lombardi always has his eyes and ears open for any deal that will improve his team.

“I’m always looking for the next piece,” Lombardi said in a recent interview. “We’re right on schedule. I met with the owner back in July. We talked about if he was happy with our record. This is the way I saw it, this is my projection on what we’re going to need to be a contender, if everything came together the way I thought. To get to the next level, these are the three things we need to have.”

“So for those things, I’m always on the [lookout],” Lombardi added, even though he would not reveal what those three things were. “But until I saw them do what I think they’re capable of, you’ve got to be sure that what you think you need is [what you actually] need. I’m fairly convinced of that.”

“Those things are always in the back of my mind. It’s not only do I have the identity, but those pieces and I’ve got to make sure I can fit them [salary] cap-wise with this whole thing here.”

Lombardi said that the loss of veteran right wing Justin Williams for at least three months has opened his eyes and ears a bit more, but does not mean that he will make a short-term move that gets in the way of long-term goals.

“With Williams going out, it makes me more active to maybe look for a piece that isn’t necessarily what I really want to take it up, but maybe fill it short-term,” he explained. “But I can’t do that at the expense of losing sight of what I really want to take the team to a whole new level.”

“A Williams-type situation makes me look, possibly, for a short-term fit that won’t get me out of that guy I really want,” he elaborated.

Indeed, like he did with the acquisition of veteran left wing Ryan Smyth, Lombardi is biding his time, waiting for the opportunity to reel in the players he believes are the right ones for his team down the road.

“When you build your plan, you’re always testing yourself,” said Lombardi. “[You] put up the box [indicating a roster spot on the Kings depth chart] and say, ‘this is the box that needs to be filled and here’s what it has to be.’ [Now you send your] scouts out and put a face on it.”

“I can say that part has been verified, based on what I see on the rink,” added Lombardi. “I feel good that if we go after it, it’s the right one. [But] these deals never come about when you want them. You just have to be patient, just like we were with Ryan Smyth. I’ve got to get the right guy.”

As a quick side note, no doubt you’re wondering about those boxes Lombardi mentioned.

Sorry, but you’re out of luck.

“No, I’m not going to tell you what those other three boxes are,” he said.

But you can bet that at least two of those boxes will be filled by a character-type, team-first player.

“Whenever you’re building something, you’ve got to have conviction in what you want to build and the identity you want to build,” Lombardi stressed. “Whether it was those [Mike] Ricci and [Bryan] Marchment [type of] guys, I felt, with these kids, that it was critical that the guy you bring in also represents the type of player you believe in.”

Going back to this past summer, Lombardi chose to remain on the sidelines after unrestricted free agent forward Marian Hossa signed a lucrative twelve-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks—none of the remaining available unrestricted free agents were a good fit.

“That’s why I stayed away from guys who were questionable—and I’m not saying they were bad—but there were questions about their character in terms of their commitment and caring about the team,” said Lombardi.

“We could not afford, and I’ll go back to the original premise, we will not succeed here unless [center Anze] Kopitar, [defensemen Jack] Johnson [and Drew] Doughty, [right wing Wayne] Simmonds and all these [young] guys become the nucleus of the contender,” added Lombardi. “So to bring in a guy who overwhelms that locker room, brings in that selfish, ‘me, me, me’ [attitude] and throws everything under the rug for the guys who need it the most, for me to bring that in the room violates everything I’ve preached to those kids from the day I got here.”

Lombardi is adamant about building a winning culture, something the Kings have rarely had before, if ever, in their 42-year history.

“If we’re going to win here and establish a culture after [42] years, you guys have to learn to be teammates and care about that jersey,” Lombardi emphasized. “That’s easier said than done. Everybody talks about it, but there’s a reason sometimes franchises don’t win. You’ve got a chance to be the first ones and it’s going to start with you looking yourself in the mirror and be the best you can be. Then, look at the guy next to you and then, when you guys can look yourselves in the eye, then we’ve got something going.”

“For me to go out and even take a chance on some high roller who’s going to look good on paper and who might make us a better team right now, would destroy any culture we’re building in there,” Lombardi added.

Lombardi firmly believes that building that culture and identity is absolutely essential for a perennial contender.

“It’s called the ‘Circle of Identity,’” he explained. “The [New York] Yankees did it for years. Whenever you’re building a team, and I got this from a pretty smart general manager, it’s how an identity of a team is built. You can always go back to the Yankees. [After Derek] Jeter and all those guys came from their system, they became the identity of that room. Then you add a Paul O’Neill, then you can even go out and get an idiot because he can’t overtake your room.”

“So the Yankees could even bring in selfish, questionable guys, that is, Alex Rodriguez, as great as he is,” he elaborated. “But the room is established. It’s in the hands of the right people.”

“The [Detroit] Red Wings did it, too. With [Steve] Yzerman and those guys? Those guys know how to win. [They] could take some talented guys [because they aren’t] going to kill [their] room.”

Through this past summer, the Kings’ young leadership core was not strong enough to withstand that kind of negative influence.

“We weren’t at that stage yet,” said Lombardi. “So to say was it hard for me [to watch the unrestricted free agent train pass him by]? No. It was very easy to stay away from some guys who were very popular picks with the fans because I know what [those players] are all about.”

“Ryan Smyth is everything I want those guys to be about,” added Lombardi. “So to sacrifice a little talent to instill in Kopitar what it means to be a pro is worth ten times more than the twenty more goals I could get from some flash-and-dash guy who doesn’t care about his teammates.”

“It was real easy for me to stick to my guns. [Smyth] was the guy we targeted at the trade deadline and for me to walk away from some of those other guys? It was a piece of cake because I know their act and I’m not going to see it happen again in that room, and that’s something fans have a hard time doing [sometimes].”

After 42 years filled with little more than agony and bitter disappointment, Kings fans have earned the right to be impatient. However, Lombardi has taken his team down a path never traveled before. At least, not by the Kings.

In other words, if there was ever a time to be patient, that time is now.

“Fans, at times, confuse athletic ability with character,” Lombardi noted. “They are not mutually inclusive. Trust me. Most of the time, we know what guys really stand for. Ryan Smyth and Rob Scuderi also—they’re character guys, they’re real pros. They’re not going to look great on billboards, but they look good in front of the net, and that’s the other thing, don’t forget, part of the reason we didn’t score [during five-on-five situations last season] was because we didn’t have enough guys going to that tough area. When you see Ryan Smyth go in there, you’d better be embarrassed if you don’t follow his lead.”

As stated earlier, Lombardi has been biding his time, waiting for his opportunity to pounce and nab the right guy who will not destroy the culture and identity of the team.

But that time may be now, or, at least, coming very soon.

“What I see in that room, I’m starting to see that culture, and it’s come a little faster than I thought,” Lombardi noted. “Now I think maybe I can take a little of that risk that I couldn’t take before. So to get the right guy in there—because I’m starting to feel that those guys really care and they’re not going to allow someone to come in and change what they’re starting to care about. So we’re starting to get to that point.”

Nevertheless, no one should expect Lombardi to go after Kovalchuk, or any elite scoring forward, just because they might be available at the time.

“You have to be very careful,” Lombardi warned. “If it’s too early, you can screw it all up because you’re telling those kids in the room—when you go out and bring him in with all the hoopla, and they’re thinking, ‘this is what we’re supposed to be like,’ and he’s a selfish jerk, regardless of how great a player he is? Now he comes in and takes over your circle, and those kids can’t get in the circle. This has to bloom on its own so that those guys never really corrupt [your leadership circle].”

“The question starts out, when I stayed away from [high-priced unrestricted free agents] ‘you stuck to your guns on Ryan Smyth,’” Lombardi added. “That wasn’t hard, because I know what’s going to win. It’s hard if I let perception [takeover], but it was real easy. We [couldn’t] do it.”

“Now, I’m starting to feel that maybe I can take a little bit of a chance because I think those guys are starting to takeover the room, the Kopitars, the Browns. Smyth has been perfect fitting in. There’s that veteran guidance.”


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33 Responses to Dean Lombardi: The Time To Make A Big Splash May Be Now

  1. Pingback: An interview with Lombardi on Gann Matsuda's site - Los Angeles Kings Hockey Fan Forum

  2. james g says:

    Great read! Thanks Gann.

    j

  3. Pingback: Dean Lombardi: The Time To Make A Big Splash May Be Now @ LA Kings Hockey Club Podcast

  4. Mark Llobrera says:

    This is an interesting gut-check for Lombardi – Kovalchuk as a rental wouldn’t turn the Kings into a true contender, but there is value to having lead time to negotiate a long-term contract with him before he hits UFA. I still think Lombardi would only make the deal if the price was fairly low. Now, if Waddell can be convinced to allow Lombardi to talk contract with Kovalchuk pre-trade, then it’s a completely different scenario. I think in that situation a lot of the assets Lombardi has been hoarding will come into play, including some roster players.

  5. Nice Part 1, Gann! I understand and appreciate the need to build a winning culture in a very young dressing room. Unfortunately, it looks like a rental to replace Justin Williams is all we can hope for. Unfortunately, I don’t know if that will be enough.

  6. Mikey Ruiz says:

    I’m only 24. But I think trading for Ilya Kovalchuk would give me a heart attack. Seriously.

  7. AzKing says:

    Great interview. Questions are solid. Lombardi is still kind of the master of saying things but not really saying things.

  8. Gann Matsuda says:

    No, Lombardi said plenty…and there’s more to come. Dave Taylor was the real master of saying things, but not saying things. Great guy, but his style was to keep everything close to the vest. You could talk to him for 30 minutes and still not get anything out of him.

  9. Ocky Playa says:

    Really good insight into DL’s thought process.. I feel good about what he’s doing here in LA.

  10. Chaz says:

    Kovy isn’t Heatley. Trade for him Deano, you have the assets and cap room, not just now but down the road. The team needs him to KEEP their confidence. Quicker and Donuts making Team USA and Team Canada… um ya, The Kings are ahead of their schedule. Trade for Kovy and don’t look back.

  11. KingVern says:

    Can Dustin Brown please be in this trade? As a season ticket holder I watch him shoot 10 pucks from the top of the circle into the goalies logo and whiff on 2 or 3 set-ups a game. Rarely can he hold the puck long enough to make it into a better scoring area. I would trade all of his hits for one shift where he wasn’t a complete spaz with the puck. Trust me people, his game is overrated and his leadership is overrated. He is a third liner who for some reason has people fooled, maybe the Atlanta G.M. is one of those people and can be convinced to take him off our hands.

  12. paul weller says:

    “trust me people, his game is overrated and his leadership is overrated. ”

    I think Lombardi disagrees with you… a lot

  13. captain_inshano says:

    Great article and great interview- I certainly don’t disagree with Lombardi’s philosophy. Adding Kovalchuk would certainly generate enough money and wins that would make his salary worth it without a doubt (as long as we’d get permission to negotiate a contract prior to the trade). Thanks Gann!

  14. KingVern says:

    Yeah Paul, I think Lombardi disagrees with me a lot too. He thinks he’s watching the Dustin Brown of 2 years ago who scored 33 gritty goals in front of the net. Now Dustin thinks hes a sniper? Thinks he’s…….Kovalchuk?

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  16. pautna says:

    Nice work Gann. Thanks and bring on Part II!

  17. quisp says:

    KingVern and Paul –

    Yeah, I actually don’t know who Lombardi thinks he’s watching or what he thinks when he’s watching Brown the last two seasons. But I do recall he wasn’t pleased when brown said what he said about lombardi needing to go get a LW for the top-six. I do think that Lombardi is capable of doing the cold math when necessary. I think ultimately it will come down to whether DL thinks DB is a leader, a success as captain, etc.. But despite Brown’s traditionally “sacred” status, I would just like to point out that two of the last three Kings star players to have sub-par seasons, POS and Visnovsky, were summarily dealt away.

  18. clippers of the nhl says:

    i guess dean lombardi – the genius – believes marion gaborik is some kind of bad dressing room guy ….. give me a break, hes one of the best players in the league and played for a minnesota team that played 90 percent defense and he was a total team guy …. i mean can anybody even name one quality offensive player he played with while he was there …. even one …. and yet gaborik played their for 8 years and was the face of the team ……….. its plain and simple …. lombardi dosent know what he is doing …. gaborik was the perfect fit for this team …. superstar in his prime ….. i said so last march and i say so now … lombardi just completely dropped the ball …. hey drinking the koolaid kings fans – i bet gaboriks 5 year, 7.5 per year salary looks like a bargain now dosent it u dopes

  19. clippers of the nhl says:

    oh and king vern ….. you are the smartest kingsfan i have ever seen in these koolaid driven rooms ….. you are absolutely right ….. dustin brown is a totally overrated piece of junk ….. kudos to your superior intelligence king vern …….. i pray brown is traded for anybody soon …. i know vern … the way he fans wideopen opportunities five feet in front of the goalie endlessly ….. he absolutely has the worst hands i have ever seen ….. terry murray if u put him in the shootout one more time i will assasinate you ……… oh and fellow kings fans …. were all wondering why is ivannis still here when its obvious he is horrible and westgarth is much better and can fill the enofrcer role …….. …. answer – because moron lombardi signed ivannis to a 2 year extension after last season …. thats about as smart as trading for the worst goalie in the league – dan cloutier- and then promptly singing him to a two year extension coming off major knee surgery …… oh yeah and lets not forget givng washed up rob blake 6 million dollars a year – yes 6 MILLION ……. what a joke our gm is … lol u want someone to tudor jack johnson then u can sign any veteran d-guy for like 1.5 million to do that job …. not pay 6 million …. …… things will never change around here …. its a joke man

  20. Mark Llobrera says:

    Gaborik? A team guy? Nobody disputes his talent. But last year he was quoted as saying that he didn’t watch the Wild games while he was on the IR: http://bit.ly/5KeZ6E. That doesn’t seem like a guy who is team-first. I liked Lombardi’s quote: “Fans, at times, confuse athletic ability with character.” It’s easy to get swayed by stats, but Lombardi’s not putting together a fantasy league team.

  21. clippers of the nhl says:

    listen mark …. anybody can take something someone says and twist it to make it look like he dosent care …….. look, im not an nhl player …. i wasnt good enough …. but having played the sport all through my youth …. i know this …. when u are injured, the last thing u want to be doing is watching the games and getting yourself so emotionally involved because its too frustrating ……. because you know how much u can help the team, yet u cant do anything about it because u are injured …. so it becomes very frustrating and depressing …. especially for the superstars – because they know how much they can help …… so i know exactly where he is coming from ….. look gaborik is great …. ive known so for many years and knew he was the perfect player for us …… i was right and dean lombardi was wrong …. its a simple as that and the proof is in the pudding ………… heres the problem with dean lombardis philosphy as a gm ………… he strives to have a character grit team ….. and thats fine …. but those teams are what every team is – parody – any team that dosent have enough talent always describes themselves that way …… the problem is lombardi strives for this identity …. being in the parody parade that is now the nhl …. the nashvilles, the wild , the avs, the ducks …. pick a team and u almost never know what u are going to get from game to game because of all this parody ……. the identity that lombardi should be striving for is what the redwings have been the last 16 or 17 years or so where everyone knows they are the class of the league, regardless if they win the cup or not – not to just be another team in the parody parade ….. win a cup one year then disappear …. and thats what your going to get with lombardis line of thinking ….. a lombardi driven kings team, under its current construction, can finish a season 82-0 or 41-41 or 0-82 ….. u absoultely never know what u are going to get …. strive to be great and strive to be dominant like the wings do ….. character/grit teams will never be this ……. and regarding all the free agents of years past , i didnt want them … there all overrated garbage …. i also didnt want to trade for overrated heatley or sign the leaving his prime hossa ……… no, what i wanted was gaborik …. i knew he was going to be the best free agent in the history of nhl free agency and i have been proven right …… if im such an idiot as many of u think, then how did lil ole me know this, and lombardi the genius didnt ………. once agin, the proof is in the pudding …………….. and lol just think there is nobody on the rangers who even helps gaborik at all …. have u seen their roster ….. hes all by himself out there and still dominates ….. just imagine if he was playing on a line with kopitar as his center ……… unstoppable …….. and beware kings fans regarding kvolchuk …… yes i would definately want him, rather than not having him, but he is nowhere near the well rounded player gaborik is …. he is a cherry picker who disappears in games routinely …….. no, the right guy, the perfect guy, was gaborik ….. and lombardi blew it

  22. Gann Matsuda says:

    Hey clippers, no offense intended and I’m not saying you’re doing this, but you’re right…anyone can twist words…including Mark, myself…and you.

  23. clippers of the nhl says:

    not to mention gaboriks completely reasonable pricetag either …… oooppps i just did ……. oh and before any of you start up with something like …… ”hey the 80s islanders were gritty etc… and they dominated” …… yes they were – and so are these past 17 years redwings, they have been gritty as well as skilled ……. my point is the isles had bossy, trottier, potvin ..etc… they were skilled and gritty ……… having a team full of ryan smyths will not make you a dominant for years franchise …. you have to have the right mix, and skill is just as important as grit … if not more …………………………. and the way this current kings team is constructed there is absolutely no skill whatsoever ……. excluding defensemen, who cant be expected to carry the offense load, the most skilled forward with the best hands is handzus …… of course hes getting older and has always been slow …. kopitar has some speed, but only an average skill level ……. the kings need a total package skill guy – not kopitars legs and handzuss hands …. they need at least one, preferrably two, to make the team have the right mix …………….. right now the mix is bad …. there is no mix …… no skill ……. and i fear it will always be this way under lombardi

  24. clippers of the nhl says:

    gann just saying from personel experience i know where gaborik might be coming from when he made that statment about not watching …… because i know from my experience i didnt want to attend or watch my team play either when i was hurt …. dosent mean i didnt care …. just too frustrating for reasons stated above

  25. Gann Matsuda says:

    Perhaps. But you have no way of knowing if words were twisted, as you put it. Just because you have some personal experience or insight that someone else may not have doesn’t mean your take on the situation in question is correct and everything else must be wrong.

  26. clippers of the nhl says:

    so u actually think marion gaborik dosent care about his team or teammates …. i just find that hard to believe ….. and i know your not saying that is the case …. your saying who knows ….. but if u had to bet … wouldnt u be willing to bet he does ……. most , if not all players do … thats part of being a competetive person …. you want your team to win

  27. clippers of the nhl says:

    well thanx for the convo gann ….. as i am a troll, i never get to talk with anybody so it was nice …. yes i admit i have no life except for this crappy team so thats where all my anger comes from ….. but u seem to treat me fairly so kudos to you ……. peace brother …… i think ill head out for some pollo loco right now before the game …. peace

  28. clippers of the nhl says:

    i know im a year late but i just read the april fools article gann …. kudos u had me big time ….. anyways were up 4-0 right now and from what i saw on the replay is to not watch giguere on the replay of the disputed goal, but i swore i saw number 7 on the ducks drag the puck out of the net after giguere got up …. it takes a while to see but keep your eye on number 7s stick way after the play is over ….. anyways it wouldnt be a clippers post without some negativity …. so here it goes ……. everybodys facination with oscar moller being some kind of up and coming player who deserves first line time ……. no way … the guy is too small and cant carry the puck more than 3 feet without it being rocked away from him ……… sure small guys in the past have succeeded in the nhl ….. but when your that small you need to have a pheonominal skill set – like a cliff ronning, however oscar moller does not have this ……. all he can do is shoot …. no skill at all …. so therfore unless he bulks up over the next few years, i do not believe he will ever make an impact in the nhl whatsoever – on any team …. and get him off the power play – jesus ……. and jared stoll off the point on the power play …. he does not stick handle as well as johnson and doughty …. those should be our two point guys …. along with jones ….. and stoll gives up short handed chances like nobodies business …… i like stoll as a player ….. but on the power play your two best puck handling defensemen should be the guys …. your just asking for trouble with a forward back there ….. shorthanded trouble … kings real sloppy third period here as they usually always do with a big lead …. they are lucky the ducks didnt come back …. the kings never know how to play the time and score ……. with this lead they should know ….. dont take any penalties – its the only way we can lose the game …. yet they come out and play pond hockey like the game is in the bag …. its typical of the kings not knowing how to play the time and score …. but theres only 8 minutes left and the ducks just took a penalty so we should get this must needed win ….. peace people

  29. clippers of the nhl says:

    after they failed on the 5 on 3 the ducks basically gave up and just tried to beat us up, so then they took all the penalties …. but the sloppy play i was referencing was the first half of the period when the kings came out and immediatley got into penalty trouble and even a 5 on 3 …. u just cant do that …. all the bounces went our way tonight … and we were overdue for that ….. its funny, just about all kings fans were predicting a win tonight, including myself, ……… i think its because all the bounces have been going against us the last 3 games , so everybody kinda figured we were due for some breaks and or bounces ………. bye …. lol i promise no more posts tonight ….. unless someone directly talks to me ……….. bye

  30. clippers of the nhl says:

    sorry …. last thing …. michal handzus is a great player … he has great size , great hands – knows how to bury his chances , and can do everything on the ice …. what a great player he is ……… michal handzus in shootouts …. lol, i feel sorry for opposing goaltenders because it will be in the back of the net 75 percent of the time ….. what unbelievable poise and hands he has

  31. clippers of the nhl says:

    sorry gann…. i promise ill disappear for a week at least …. but last thing ….. great move by murray …… martinez looks nowhere near ready and is too small ….. and harold looks very very good out there as a defenseman ….. great move

  32. Gann Matsuda says:

    Why do you have to disappear?

  33. clippers of the nhl says:

    because im getting a little off topic talking about the ducks game when this is a lombardi thread ….. and because i know how i can clog it up many times with all my entries

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