INTERVIEW WITH DEAN LOMBARDI: In part 2 of this series, Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi talks about the progress the Kings have made in their rebuilding efforts. Look for part 3 of this series right here on Frozen Royalty on June 24.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — When Dean Lombardi became President/General Manager of the Los Angeles Kings on April 21, 2006, he took command of a sinking ship.
His National Hockey League lineup had a bit of talent, but it was one of the oldest in the league and was not good enough to make the playoffs. The rest of the Kings’ system was mostly devoid of young talent, the result of the Kings mismanaging assets from the big club to the minor and junior leagues.
Indeed, the ship was sinking fast. You could even say it was already starting to go down by the bow.
Lombardi quickly realized that drastic changes were necessary in order to save the ship and in just a little over three years, the Kings went from one of the oldest teams in the league to one of the youngest. Their system went from one that had almost no legitimate prospects to one with about a dozen prospects that other NHL general managers have coveted.
In terms of trying to build a franchise from within, that is definite progress.
“We’ve come along much faster than I thought, considering it’s an eighteen-year-old draft, with the emergence of [defenseman Drew] Doughty, [forwards Wayne] Simmonds and [Oscar] Moller already coming in and playing,” Lombardi said in an interview on June 13. “So I think from the direction that I always wanted to take this, it’s starting to manifest itself.”
“I can see it underneath,” Lombardi added. “That’s my job. A general manager is supposed to be able to see what everybody else can’t. That’s your job. That’s vision. I think it’s come up quicker than I anticipated.”
One of the reasons things are happening so fast for the Kings is that they got younger fast, seemingly in an instant.
“The one thing that’s different between this team and [what I had in] San Jose was that gradually, over six years, we improved every year and got younger every year until we had six years of improvement and we were the third or fourth youngest team in the league,” said Lombardi. “That team [was] completely set up to move forward, make its deals and [had the vast majority of] its players come from within.”
“This team didn’t transition down gradually like that team,” added Lombardi. “That was my goal. You had to hold the fort with older players in San Jose like [former Sharks who are also former Kings] Kelly Hrudey, Marty McSorley, Bernie Nicholls. That was similar to [our Ladislav] Nagy, [Jaroslav] Modry and those older guys.”
“This team transitioned very quickly. It went from one of the oldest to the youngest and…that other team has no upside. When you look at their back end, it would have been great five or six years ago. But where’s your upside? Where are you going, let alone the fact that your team is filled with mercenaries?”
Many of Lombardi’s critics point to the recent success of the Chicago Blackhawks, who advanced to the Western Conference finals this past season. They argue that Lombardi is a poor general manager because the Kings should be doing as well as the Blackhawks by now.
Lombardi said the Kings are not at the same point in their rebuilding efforts compared to the Blackhawks, but are on a very similar track.
“Everyone points to Chicago [as a model],” he explained. “Chicago has thirteen draft picks in its lineup. Chicago is a very young team, but don’t forget they started this process six years ago. We’re basically in year three and I think we’re way ahead of schedule.”
“If you look at Chicago, [they’re] a very young team, thirteen draft picks in their lineup and then go back and find out how far back those drafts go and they hit, like I’ve always said, 2.5 [drafted players making it into the big club’s lineup] per [draft] year,” he elaborated. “That’s your goal. Very similar to what we’re doing. Look at their draft, look at how many guys they’ve drafted. They have drafts where they had fifteen picks, very similar to us. A large majority don’t turn out but then they hit on a [Troy] Brouwer or a [Dave] Bolland and these guys and not only do they have good young players [but] they have a culture. They have guys who now bleed Blackhawk.”
“We’re ahead of schedule. I match us up to where Chicago is. [Chicago defenseman Brent] Seabrook is your Doughty. Can [Kings defenseman Jack] Johnson be your [Duncan] Keith…and you go right down the line. That’s the difference between last year and the year before when most of these kids were still in the minors. We weren’t even thinking some of those kids we drafted were going to play right away.”
Even though the young Kings team finished 14th in the fifteen-team Western Conference this past season and failed to qualify for post-season play for the sixth straight year, they improved dramatically on defense, not to mention on their 2007-08 finish in the standings.
“It also shows that when you go with young players, it does take some time,” said Lombardi. “On the other hand, we had more points than last year and we went from one of the oldest teams in the league to one of the youngest teams. So it’s one thing to have the number of points we had two years ago and have an old team with no upside to having eight or ten more points this year but being one of the youngest teams in the league with significant upside.”
“What you have is hope,” added Lombardi. “I think when you’ve got one of the older teams we had while we were buying time you have no hope. It’s just buying time. From that perspective, I’m pretty pleased. It’s come along quicker than I thought. The turnover of the defense from one of the oldest in the league two years ago to one of the youngest, which I said we had to focus on and rebuild the back end, that has come along quicker than I thought and not only at this level. In Manchester, again, we went from one of the oldest teams in the league two years ago to one of the youngest teams in the league. I think the only team that was close to us in youth was Columbus.”
“So all the things that go into building a reserve list and starting to show itself on a team are coming into fruition but I still think we’ve got a ways to go.”
One indication that the Kings’ rebuilding efforts still have “a ways to go” are the fact that young forwards Brian Boyle and Teddy Purcell were unable to lock onto a roster spot last season. Instead, they shuttled back and forth between the Kings and the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate.
In both cases, the players were asked to improve their play without the puck, both on defense and on the forecheck. Too often, they lost physical battles for loose pucks or worse, chose to watch the play along the boards and in the corners, rather than get their noses dirty. And In the case of the 6-7, 248-pound Boyle, that was an especially glaring problem.
“I guess if you go to where the surprises are a disappointment, let’s call a spade a spade,” Lombardi said about the disappointing seasons he got from Boyle and Purcell. “This is what you try to do on your roster. Once you’ve got your nucleus, it’s easier to do. But when you’re in those phases where you’re building forward and you want a kid to take a job, you still have to be careful about giving a guy a job who hasn’t earned it. But it also gets a little harder sometimes because of the way contracts are. You want to create a spot for them to earn it, but if they don’t earn it, then you’ve got a hole.”
“So there’s always that rub between putting them in the lineup and then make our decision in July and say that he’s got to play versus going out and getting a veteran who you might have to pay $1 million but then, if the kid beats him out, then that $1 million is floating around useless,” Lombardi elaborated. “It’s a little different than it used to be in the old days when players, even at the NHL level, weren’t making so much money. There were a lot of two-way contracts and you had the flexibility to evaluate a guy and let the best player play.”
Lombardi was hoping that Boyle and Purcell would seize the opportunity, but…
“What we tried to do was…I thought it was fair to say that Teddy and Brian had paid their dues in the minors and that they were ready to take the next step,” said Lombardi. “However, I think, at times, when you’re trying to build a core, build a team, when there’s still a state of flux versus Detroit and you can say, ‘OK, these are my ten guys and I’ve got these openings,’ we’re still in that juggling phase about who goes where and even the guys who are established, where do they fit in your core? So there’s always that evaluation going on that makes the implementing of young players a little juggling act sometimes.”
“In their case, we would’ve said, ‘all right. You’ve paid your dues, you’ve showed us some things at this level,” added Lombardi. “We’re going to leave a box open for you. So you have a job to win.’ What can happen sometimes is that you can have your roster all filled with one-way contracts. Even if the kid comes in and lights it up, there’s no space for him.”
“We didn’t do that. We said, ‘we’re going to leave this box open so there’s a job and we have you as the number one candidate to win that job. But you’ve got to win it.’ There’s a difference between that when you have a guy who’s got a job to lose…like you’re there and you really have to screw up to lose it—there’s a job open for you to win and they didn’t win it. The fact of the matter is that they got outplayed by Simmonds and Moller.”
Indeed, Simmonds and Moller beat out Boyle and Purcell for their jobs during training camp and it wasn’t even close.
“Simmonds kept getting better, Moller kept getting better,” said Lombardi. “I don’t know if [Boyle and Purcell] got complacent and took it the other way as if they had a job.”
“From the surprise side, our draft picks from last year [Simmonds and Moller] came in and took those jobs and earned them,” added Lombardi. “The other two? Was it complacency or what? They lost the job. [But] to their credit, they went down to the minors and didn’t pout. But by that time, now the job’s not there for you so you have to wait your turn again.”
Although Boyle and Purcell were disappointing out of training camp, Lombardi explained that both disappointments and surprises are not unusual in camp.
“Every training camp, somebody’s going to surprise you, somebody’s going to disappoint you and that’s why you keep your flexibility and let it play out,” Lombardi noted. “Same thing with [rookie defenseman Drew] Doughty. I didn’t pencil Doughty in. No way. I’ve never seen an eighteen-year-old defenseman come in and play like that. I had no problem thinking he was going to go back to junior so he’s a surprise. A good one.”
“But the other two disappointed, no doubt about it,” Lombardi added. We’ll see where they are this year again. But the longer they wait, the more young players are coming through the system and you might [be sent packing]. This is what you really want. ‘OK…you don’t want it, somebody’s coming right behind you now.’ That’s where you have depth in your system and you’ve got that internal pressure which is way better than any coach yelling at you.”
More young players coming through the system putting pressure on the guys ahead of them? When was the last time that could be said about the Kings? Sure sounds like a good problem to have.
Photo: Dean Lombardi. Courtesy Los Angeles Kings.
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