EL SEGUNDO, CA — On June 10, when the Los Angeles Kings fired head coach Marc Crawford, they clearly indicated a major course change in the direction of the franchise…
…that is, if you believe what many of the pundits and some fans are saying in the aftermath of the firing of the Kings’ 21st head coach.
But don’t you believe it, not for one minute.
Indeed, it seems far more likely that, if anything, the Kings are staying the course that President/General Manager Dean Lombardi set when he was hired more than two seasons ago.
Crawford Out Due To “Fit”
Crawford was hired on May 22, 2006, and earned a 59-84-21 record with the Kings. He was best available option at the time of his hiring, to be sure, he was the “biggest name” available. But his fiery, in-your-face style does not work well with today’s National Hockey League players, especially the youngsters.
“The young players that are in the draft, and as we see more prevalent coming through the system—this is one of the advantages of going out on the road, meeting kids myself, meeting parents—I think the ability to communicate and build trust with young players is critical because the fear factor with young people is not there anymore as it was in the past,” said Lombardi.
“So the question is…is it change your ways or is it adapt to the people we’re dealing with? I think we’ve all had to do that. Even [assistant general manager] Ron Hextall says it’s very different from when he came up through the ranks when dealing with players, the impact the agents now have—these kids have agents at 14 years old. They learn in junior hockey now that if you don’t like going somewhere, you can manipulate the team you want to play for.”
The team plummeting out of playoff contention by mid-December also did not help matters, even though Lombardi said that was not the most important factor in the decision.
“If you’re only going to evaluate it on the past, the season ends disappointingly, sure,” Lombardi explained. “We weren’t as good as we thought. I think we should’ve been better. But is that enough to make a change? I didn’t really think so, particularly with a coach who had a good track record with other organizations. But then you look again, just like a player, where does he fit into your overall plan?
“We’re talking about a guy with a lot of wins,” Lombardi continued. “But this is different from Colorado or Vancouver. This is not an easy team to coach when you have to go out and get bridge free agents to bide time for your young players and build something through the draft and through your system.”
“You have to be realistic in terms of your expectations because you’re not able to build the camaraderie. I go back to free agency back on July 4. Six or seven guys—not the way to go and that’s a harder team to coach. I don’t think Marc ever confronted that type of building scenario, even though he had a wealth of experience. When you’re in that situation, the bridge towards the build, I don’t think he had to face that yet.”
Indeed, Lombardi must share much of the blame, even though he did not have much choice for his actions, for Crawford’s situation last season. Given the fact that Lombardi handed him a roster made up of young, inexperienced talent at the top end and not much else outside of over-the-hill or drastically underperforming veteran players, it is quite clear that Crawford really did not have much to work with—he was going to be hard-pressed to keep his team in the playoff hunt, although his team should have been able to stay afloat until at least the All-Star break and should have been able to stay out of the basement of the league standings (the Kings ended the season tied in points with last place Tampa Bay).
In any case, for the rebuilding Kings, it is clear that Crawford is not the right man for the job going forward as the Kings dive deeper into their youth movement, which is the real story here.
Staying The Course
To be sure, the firing of head coach Marc Crawford, although a big story in relation to the Kings, was really not the biggest story to surface from the Kings on Tuesday. Rather, it was the revelation that the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), who owns the Kings, is supportive of Lombardi’s efforts and vision for the future of the team and is not interfering in hockey-related decisions as they used to do from the time they took over as owners through Dave Taylor’s run as general manager.
“There’s no doubt we’re committed to the way we’re going after my meeting with ownership this week,” said Lombardi. “It’s more evident than ever that they’re committed to building a young core—for the lack of a better term, the old-fashioned way.”
“Ultimately, it comes down to a meeting with ownership and their commitment to staying with this plan, because in the end, their philosophy is what dictates the plan, and they’re not changing the course in terms of building a young core the old-fashioned way,” added Lombardi. “It’s safe to say that we might be accelerating it, so there’s more of a commitment than ever to doing it this way.”
This news is probably shocking to many long-time Kings fans who are skeptical of AEG and their motives.
“The only thing I wanted to hear from ownership was a commitment to stay with the idea of building with young players,” said Lombardi. “That was it. Seeing where some of these young players might be in terms of using them, there is a school of thought that says that, in a perfect world, you completely back off instead of trying to play a 21-year-old or a 19-year-old and use your minor league time to its fullest. That’s not totally irrational, but it’s also not practical at times.”
“When I put all these plans together, the only thing I want to hear from ownership is are you still committed to building through the draft and with young players? If anything, they’re stronger on that now than they were when I got here. The challenge now is to not only get the young players but to keep them because of the way the money is going.”
Lombardi added that many organizations become skittish after a horrendous season like the one the Kings just had.
“The thing you see from organizations time and time again, when it gets a little hard, it’s easy to switch course,” he explained. “When you’re in these situations, ownership has a right to say, ‘this is not what we expected,’ or, ‘we have to make an adjustment here.’ Or the easy thing is to do a hybrid and then get caught in between trying to put together the muscle to win a Cup and ‘let’s try and do it, but let’s do this that might hurt us down the road.’”
“All I heard was, ‘no, you continue on this route to put together a core that’s going to make us a contender,’” he elaborated. “They said to stay with this and, if anything, go even harder at it.”
For a team that has only talked about rebuilding prior to hiring Lombardi but never actually went through with it, rather, going the “hybrid” route that Lombardi described, this is significant. It is a powerful indication that they are committed to rebuilding and, even more important, allowing their hockey people to make the decisions and run the show, something they never allowed before.
And about that rebuilding movement…many hockey pundits and long-time fans are saying that the Kings are switching gears by heading into a total youth movement.
BZZZT! Wrong! Try again!
Clearly, Lombardi has had the Kings on a rebuilding plan since he arrived on the scene on April 21, 2006, and even though he said that here in Southern California, tearing down a team and totally rebuilding it won’t work, it is quite clear that despite what he said two years ago, a total rebuild is exactly what he has been doing all along.
Indeed, if you look at the young core of the team, which includes forwards Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Patrick O’Sullivan, Alexander Frolov and, if he is not traded soon, Michael Cammalleri, they range in age from 20 to 26 years of age—all still young by NHL standards.
In goal, the Kings were horrible once again last season, although Erik Ersberg gave fans a glimmer of hope near the end of the season. Yet unproven, Ersberg could wind up as the Kings’ top goalie while the Kings wait for blue chip prospect Jonathan Bernier to develop further in his first year with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate).
Where the Kings need the most help is on the blue line, where they are still relatively old.
“We have the illusion of being young because our better players are young,” Lombardi explained. “But in terms of our overall make-up, particularly on the back end, there’s a transition that has to take place where we, in fact, become a young team.”
Indeed, with elder statesman Rob Blake likely still in the Kings’ plans and with holes to fill while waiting for young defenseman prospects to develop down on the farm, the Kings’ blue line corps will not be getting a lot younger just yet, even with the likely selection of a high-potential defenseman prospect in the 2008 National Hockey League Entry Draft on June 20.
The Kings clearly have had huge holes on defense and on their third and fourth lines. So what did Lombardi do to fill them? He signed unrestricted free agents such as Scott Thornton, Brian Willsie, Kyle Calder, Ladislav Nagy and Michael Handzus. And knowing that goaltending was a problem, he took a shot in the dark with Dan Cloutier. Lombardi also signed defenseman Rob Blake for a whopping $6 million per year for two seasons.
To be quite sure, trading for Cloutier and then signing him to a contract extension was a blunder of epic proportions, and Blake and Handzus have been major disappointments. The rest were really nothing more than inexpensive placeholders—filling a roster spot, biding time for young prospects to develop and eventually fill those roster spots.
That time is upon us, as a few prospects will undoubtedly move into those roster spots next season.
“We’ve had time, since the playoffs ended in Manchester, to evaluate where those kids are in terms of being in our lineup,” said Lombardi.
And with fifteen selections in the 2008 draft, including the second overall pick, the Kings development system will get a big boost just over a week from now. Indeed, the train that is the Kings’ youth movement is about to hit top speed.
With that second pick, the Kings just might land a youngster who is ready to play at the NHL level already.
“You look at the draft picks that are out there—I spent a lot of time in Toronto and down the stretch trying to gauge whether one or two of these players could be ready [for the NHL],” said Lombardi.
Lombardi Will Take His Time On New Head Coach
Don’t expect the Kings to name a new head coach very soon, as it appears that they are going to be quite deliberate in their search.
“We haven’t had time to look at candidates at this stage,” said Lombardi. “For the most part, we’ll start our search after today and look for what you hope will be the right fit as you project your roster. That’s the hard part that started to become clearer to us in the last month or so—the direction we were going with the timing of the youth, so to speak.”
“We’re not going to rush into anything,” added Lombardi. “This is a critical hire. We’ll get through Development Camp in July and hopefully, make the right gut call in the end. We’re going to take our time, go through the process and hopefully, get the right guy.”
Lombardi indicated that associate coach Mike Johnston was the only one of the current assistant/associate coaches who would be considered.
“There’s two things there,” said Lombardi. “I haven’t had a chance to meet with them yet. I want to talk to Mike Johnston about the possibility of being considered for this role.”
“I think right now we’ve committed to considering Mike Johnston,” added Lombardi. “I think he’s pretty well-respected in the industry and I think that’s where we’re leaning right now, but that doesn’t mean we won’t open it up.”
With big-name head coaches such as Joel Quenneville and John Tortorella out there, presumably looking for new jobs, Lombardi explained the situation that candidates will face.
“Guys that have options—they have to decide which challenge they want,” he explained. “It’s not only a guy who fits with where your team is and where you want to go. But that candidate has a different landscape for every organization.”
“If you go to San Jose or Ottawa, for instance, there’s no question those teams should be Cup contenders.” he elaborated. “Everything’s been built, the infrastructure is in place. Now go ahead, ride everything to the top. Or do you want to get on the ground floor, build with young players, help establish a culture, and maybe go through the hard times but have the satisfaction of starting something from the ground up?”
“The hockey people are starting to look and say ‘hmm…there might be something pretty good there if they can get the back end [established] and keep the youth up front, that could be a good place to go and grow with,’” Lombardi stressed. “That’s important because every [team] brings its own challenge, and that individual has to want that challenge or you don’t want him.”
Lombardi also said that previous experience as an NHL head coach would not necessarily be a requirement.
“I’m not married to [NHL] experience,” he said. “I’m not afraid to hire inexperience if I feel its the right guy and he wants this type of challenge.”
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