The following is the first in a series about Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, his rebuilding plan and how it is being received by fans.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — The 2008 off-season has been a relatively quiet one for the Los Angeles Kings. To be sure, outside of the 2008 National Hockey League Entry Draft in June in which they selected, according to most pundits and hockey media outlets, one of the strongest draft classes, the Kings have been virtually silent in terms of free agent signings and trades.
Indeed, the Kings have a defensive corps that has just three veteran players in Tom Preissing, Denis Gauthier and Matt Greene, with the rest being very young players, including Jack Johnson and Peter Harrold. Add to that the fact that the number six and seven spots could be filled from a crop of young prospects, including Drew Doughty and Thomas Hickey, and it becomes clear that experience is not going to be the strong suit of the Kings’ defensive unit in the coming season.
Clearly, unless the Kings can add another veteran defenseman to that mix—they are definitely in the market—they will be awfully inexperienced, not to mention that while some have a boatload of potential, none of the blue liners currently in the lineup jump out at you as being top-notch defensemen on a team that gave up goals in bunches last season.
The fact that the Kings do not have what many would consider to be an NHL-caliber blue line corps at present is among the many reasons Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi has had to don a flak jacket and helmet while trying to dodge heavy incoming fire from a very vocal segment of fans who are absolutely livid about the current state of the franchise, and that would be putting it mildly.
Another reason for the heavy criticism is the overall lack of veteran talent throughout the lineup as of this writing.
“Too high risk,” said Santa Barbara and Bakersfield, California resident Michael Simpson about Lombardi’s plan to go with a youth movement. “He once said that the team should have a combination from young players to old veterans. He seems to be fully committed to young players, who may or may not be successful.”
“The Kings do not have [Evgeni] Malkin or [Sidney] Crosby, where you can bet everything,” added Simpson, 50, a season ticket holder since 2000 who did not renew his seats for the coming season in protest. “[Anze] Kopitar is good, but not even close to the [Pittsburgh] Penguins players. Unfortunately, Crosby is a one-in-a-generation player, so the Penguins can make a strategy that won’t work for the Kings. But it really looks like Lombardi is copying him.”
“Only a novice would go one hundred percent youth and have no NHL quality veterans to guide them in their development,” said Tustin Ranch, California resident Charles Emerson, 39, who has been a Kings fan for 31 years. “No team relies one hundred percent on the development of their youth in order to achieve some future success. There has to be a balance and it is ridiculous if the Kings and Lombardi expect any fans with a clue who have watched this disaster of a team for years, [to] buy into this latest idea without showing at least some sort of commitment to the current team.”
And after years and years of mediocrity, the Kings also have a credibility problem.
“I am not convinced that Lombardi is doing anything to improve the product on the ice currently and this strategy he is implementing is risky in that there is no balance between current and future talent,” Emerson lamented. “Fans are expected to just sit and hope the prospects pan out and if they don’t then we will have to cross that bridge when we get there?”
“That is asking a lot from a loyal fan base that has seen this team do nothing of note for years and talk is cheap,” Emerson fumed. “Why should we believe them when they have flip-flopped over and over again? What’s to say they won’t do it again in two years if this strategy doesn’t pan out?”
Indeed, because of the credibility issue, some fans want to see more transparency, especially with the team floundering.
“[Lombardi’s] biggest gaff since coming to Los Angeles is not trusting Kings fans,” said Bruce Cameron, 60, of Sherman Oaks, California, a Kings fan since 1981. “He’s never been straight with us, and that’s cost him. There ain’t a lot of us, but we few, we happy few are not hockey dolts either. Had he come out and said, ‘look fans, here’s the deal and here’s how we’re gonna get from point A to point K. We’re gonna suck badly for two or three seasons, but with the good kids we’re going after, it’ll be a whole new game on the ice by the end of the process.’ He never did that. I for one, and I can’t be alone in this, resent his distrust a lot.”
“I have found that Lombardi has been less than candid about the road map for the Kings,” said David Willis, 34, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, who has followed the Kings closely for twenty years. “During the weeks following his hiring, he claimed a time frame of three years with a ‘retooling’ process. Now, two years later, it appears that a new philosophy is in place, but Lombardi has not outlined this new approach, nor given a revised time frame. He suggested that the Kings would be competitive in three years. While it is unclear whether he meant competitive during the third year or competitive in year four, it is clear now that the Kings are unlikely to make the playoffs not just in 2008-09, but also in 2009-10.”
“It is hard to ask a fan base who has suffered like the Kings to remain faithful if the general manager cannot articulate a cohesive strategy to build the franchise into a perennial powerhouse.”
As it is with most debates, especially on World Wide Web sites and forums, the disgruntled are far more vocal than the rest, and this is exactly the case for Lombardi and the Kings. Nevertheless, they do have their supporters.
“Now that we are truly in full rebuild mode, I hope the organization sees it through,” said 30-year-old Keith Korneluk of Los Angeles, a season seat holder who is co-host of the popular fan podcast, KingsCast. “The Los Angeles Kings have never done this before. They’ve never stripped the team to the core and try and build something special. If it doesn’t work out, hey, at least we tried it. After this, we will have tried everything.”
“As fans, we have to trust the pro here,” added Korneluk. “We have to believe. That doesn’t mean we cannot express our distaste for poor on-ice performance but I think the fans calling Lombardi an idiot and demanding his resignation before his plan is fully executed are shortsighted fools.”
Some long-time fans are rejoicing in the fact that the Kings are finally rebuilding through the draft.
“I still support Lombardi one hundred percent,” said Patrick Schroeder, 53, of Prescott, Arizona, a Kings fan for 38 years. “No one is perfect, but the future of this franchise has never looked brighter. And I’m talking orders of magnitude. I used to peruse the Kings list of prospects and just shake my head. Now, the list is, in my opinion, the best in all of hockey. Lombardi is controlling and doing very well with the things he can control. He can’t control what, for example, Brooks Orpik is thinking or feeling. If Lombardi is allowed to finish this construction project, LA hockey fans will be the ultimate beneficiaries.”
“I support the youth movement,” added Schroeder. “Historically, most successful franchises have built from within. They have drafted young players and brought them through their systems. Remembering the [Los Angeles] Dodgers, they had a period where they had something like five rookies of the year in succession. That kind of franchise building typically translates to winning, and on occasion, despite all of the variables, the brass ring.”
“I think that the Kings have never really been serious about rebuilding or even developing their young prospects,” said season seat holder Benjamin Ing, 46, of Los Angeles. “Too many ownership groups in the past were more concerned about filling seats and star power than actually trying to win games or championships. Even [former Kings owner] Bruce McNall was more into bringing in the best player of the league so that he could be ‘the cool kid’ than he was about trying to build the best team possible.”
“It is much more difficult to risk losing your fan base through a rebuilding phase than simply signing name players to fool them into thinking that the team is getting better,” added Ing. “Hockey is a team game and very few teams have had any success in simply signing the big-name players to win. To win in the NHL requires commitment from everyone on the team to play their role and unless the big names are willing to come in and play down their egos to contribute to the team, they aren’t going to be all that effective. By going the full rebuild route, Lombardi is trying to develop a culture where kids are branded and have loyalty to the ‘name on the front.’ Too many players that go for unrestricted free agency are simply doing so to help the ‘name on the back.’”
Ing emphasized the core building that Lombardi is focusing on.
“I think that this team will not be successful until it has a strong core,” said Ing. “I can only think of one or two seasons when the Kings have even looked like they were building a strong core of players and it was always abandoned after a season or two. As a matter of fact, one of those times was immediately prior to when Wayne Gretzky was brought in and I believe that it could be argued that the Kings may have been better off simply continuing the course that they were on with a young, exciting, up and coming team rather than chucking it all to bring in Gretzky, sacrificing the youth that they had been building and try to win while Gretzky was in his prime.”
“I admire Lombardi for sticking to his guns and staying with the plan of short term sacrifice for long term success, because he is the first manager in the history of this franchise to do so, even against mounting pressure and unending criticism by Kings fans,” added Ing.
Naturally, some are wavering a bit in their support.
“I definitely still support Lombardi’s youth movement, but it seems like he’s stripping away the roster of anyone in their 30’s or above,” said Connie Kim, 26, of Redondo Beach, California, a season seat holder and publisher of the blog, A Queen Among Kings. “I don’t doubt the talent of the kids. I’d just feel a little more comfortable if the veteran pieces were a little more exciting than Michal Handzus and Tom Preissing.”
“I was one hundred percent on board [prior to the trade that sent Lubomir Visnovsky to the Edmonton Oilers on June 29 in exchange for center Jarret Stoll and defenseman Matt Greene],” added Kim. “This week, I’m eighty percent on board. The trading of Visnovsky and releasing of [defenseman Rob] Blake [Blake actually signed with the San Jose Sharks as an unrestricted free agent] really turned me off to this ‘vision.’ I think if [Lombardi] stays on the path he’s on by completely getting rid of the veteran presence with no wins to show for it he’s not going to find himself under Kings employment for much longer. I thought out of all the veterans, the Kings would have wanted to retain Visnovsky and Blake. Now that these two are gone, I can see Lombardi doing just about anything except for trading away the top prospects.”
KEEP THE FAITH
During an interview with Frozen Royalty following his Breakfast with the GM event in which he fielded questions from season seat holders on Saturday morning, September 8, Lombardi’s message, which he also closed with at the breakfast, was “keep the faith.”
Indeed, he showed a chart to season seat holders that showed the Kings’ draft history and how so many first-round picks were traded away and became stars for other teams, including legendary defenseman Raymond Bourque and several others. In short, Lombardi made a rock solid case for the fact that the Kings traded away their future over the years—they never actually tried to build their team the right way—through the draft.
“I could go into the whole philosophy, but I love reading history and I think that’s the way you learn,” said Lombardi. “I’ve just been fascinated [by the Kings history]. It was one of the issues when I decided to come here—why there’s never been a [Stanley] Cup, and then when I got here I talked to people like [Philadelphia Flyers’ Senior Vice President] Bobby Clarke about where that identity comes from. I talked to some of the old [New York] Islanders like Bill Torrey. I just started studying it and I was shocked that the first first-round pick to play for the Kings was [defenseman] Jay Wells, and that’s twelve years after the first draft [for the Kings]. That’s unbelievable, unprecedented.”
“I broke [down the history of the Kings] into the four segments and why they haven’t won the Cup and it all came back to what I believe in, it just reinforced what I believe in,” added Lombardi. “That’s the only thing I can tell the fans. I think I’ve told the story, I met with six or seven of them. I was sitting there and the passion—one [frustrated fan] said, ‘I know…I know this is the right thing to do, but I can’t take it anymore! It’s been forty years!’”
“These people have probably all heard it all—the sales pitches or whatever,” Lombardi continued. “The only thing I could come up with was the only reason I can tell you to stick with us is that we might get it right this time. And that’s it. Other than that, I don’t know. It just came off naturally because I didn’t know what to say.”
And for those who contend that the Kings need star power to be successful, Lombardi says that philosophy has been part of the Kings’ problems.
“It’s not just to get it right, but you’ve never really tried it this way and I’m so sick of hearing that LA needs stars,” he lamented. “You know what? I haven’t seen a star since I’ve been here. I see blue collar working people. When I come to work, there’s construction workers and everybody else with honest jobs who want a winner. So I don’t buy this whole stuff that LA needs stars. Maybe if you want to attract Hollywood stars, but the real fans just want a winner.”
“I think that whole thing where it’s ‘let’s get off the plan [because] we’ve got to give these people a star,’ I think its one of the roots of where we’re at,” he added. “Just build a winner and when you build a winner you’re going to have stars. But to go out and get stars without the idea of winning, if you put that before the horse, I think you end up with that problem.”
THE ILLUSION OF YOUTH
One thing that is not going to sit well at all with Lombardi’s critics is that it is going to take longer than three years to turn the Kings around.
“We weren’t young, first off,” said Lombardi. “Just look at the numbers. Secondly, how were we going to get younger and put the core together? You had to go to the draft table. That’s why you see we had fifteen picks. I would’ve taken twenty. We’ve got to get this thing stockpiled. Tell me another way. You weren’t young, but now you’re going to start.”
“I think what I said was that—and this gets lost—three years is when you’re going to start getting young and this is the first year we’re going to start,” Lombardi explained. “We had the illusion of youth with our best players, but our average age was 25th in the league. That’s not a young team.”
“If [center prospect Brian] Boyle and [right wing prospect Teddy] Purcell and [defenseman Peter] Harrold and maybe one of the other kids makes the step that’s four guys that go in, the average age starts to drop,” Lombardi elaborated. “Now you’ve got guys who’ve come through your system and now you can at least try to get younger.”
“I think there’s a misnomer there, there was nothing to get young with unless you were going to pull Boyle out of school,” said Lombardi. “I don’t know what else we could’ve done to get younger because you can’t get young free agents. So how you are going to get younger? You have to buy time. And that’s what I’m looking for.”
Lombardi pointed to his experience with the Sharks as an example.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be exactly like San Jose, but once we had it stabilized [there], when I had more there to work with, infrastructure-wise and reserve list, we got younger every year and better every year,” he emphasized.
“I don’t think we need to go that long because it’s different pre-lockout, but it is the same theory,” he added. “The one thing there, I was able to start getting younger in year two, versus I think this is the first time we can start getting younger and it’s going to continue. The point is to not just get younger this year, but keep those guys coming and maybe next year it’s two or three. But get these three or four in the lineup and they show they’re NHL players where I can look at next summer and put’em in a box [on a chart] and say Boyle’s a bona fide number three center or Purcell has already showed me he can get in that two box or Doughty, no question he’s going to be up here. That’s the type of progress that gets you excited. Now let’s get three more in the lineup.”
So now that we know the plan is longer than three years, has the plan changed from when he started with the Kings back in April, 2006?
“Underneath, the plan has never changed,” said Lombardi. “The free agency gives you the illusion of bigger names. The big test was this summer, not trading those picks this year because I could’ve traded Doughty, I had opportunities to pick up a player with the [Colten] Teubert pick, and then late in the second, we picked up a player [Brad Richardson], but even he’s a 1987-born. That tells me that it’s not what you say, it’s what you do—[ownership was] still committed to doing this type of thing.”
Despite all that, one has to wonder how many fans the Kings might lose by the time Lombardi’s plan comes to fruition.
“I like the youth, it’s refreshing compared to the older rosters who are in contention presently but may not be in two years,” said Kim. “I feel that we’ll have less of a turnover rate once we get all the homegrown talent in LA. But I can’t help to keep the thought in the back of my mind of how once Dean Lombardi got his roster together in San Jose, he left the organization, [then] they made a trade for Joe Thornton, and then they really hit the upper echelon of the league. Are the Kings going to have to wait a couple more years to really be in contention?”
Good question. And you can read more about Lombardi and his thoughts about his team, his plan, what the fans think and more in the next installment, to be published on Tuesday, September 9 or Wednesday, September 10.
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