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.
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  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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