LOS ANGELES — With the Los Angeles Kings flying high, having won nine straight games, setting a franchise record for consecutive wins with a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Detroit Red Wings on February 6, many have probably forgotten one important thing.
The Kings are still in rebuild mode.
Indeed, even with the Kings currently living in the rarefied air of fourth place in the Western Conference, they are still not where they want or need to be.
“It clearly shows that we’re [going] in the right direction,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. “In terms of what you’re pleased with, it’s always been about getting better every year, having a nucleus start to form and to become a contender. So what that record represents to me right now is that we’re clearly headed in the right direction.”
“I don’t doubt that we’re [going] in the right direction, but we’re not going to be ultimately pleased until we get to where we feel we’re at Chicago’s level or San Jose’s level,” added Lombardi. “That’s where we’re going. So I’m pleased in terms of the right direction, but [we’re not] kidding ourselves]. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Before this season began, Lombardi said that his young core of players had to get better if the Kings were going to reach new heights and, at least to this point in the season—58 games in, the core has improved.
“I said, at the beginning of the year, there were a couple of key indications,” Lombardi explained. “Number one, the kids had to get better. No matter who we added, the most important thing was that Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jack Johnson and Jonathan Quick all get better. That was number one.”
“I think all of those kids, to varying degrees, have improved and that was the most important thing,” Lombardi added. “We’ve got some big hurdles to overcome, but they’re a really good group who cares. The nucleus of that team, I’m convinced, cares about the right things.”
For his team to advance to the next level, Lombardi also needed a couple of veterans to fit with his young players and provide leadership.
“The fit of [defenseman] Rob Scuderi and [left wing] Ryan Smyth—not only do we think they’re good players, but I’ve said it before, we think they fit with what we have,” said Lombardi. “[This] is another sign that you’re getting better, that when you’re in the marketplace, you’re getting specific types of players to fit with a nucleus forming, versus three years ago, grabbing everyone. ‘Who’s available, I have to get someone on the ice?’ Those are the subtle signs that you’re [going] in the right direction that I see but the fans don’t.”
“How they’re going to fit, you think they’re going to fit, you do all your homework, but you don’t know,” added Lombardi. “Did I think Smyth was a fit with Kopitar? Yes. But you don’t know until you see it. Same with Scuderi. A stay-at-home guy with Johnson or Doughty made a lot of sense. But I think the odds were good that it was going to work, and it has.”
Lombardi has also emphasized building a culture as a key component to building a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
“I’m seeing a culture developing,” he said. “I said that one of the first signs to me was when these guys trained together over the summer. You talk about progress, my first year here, not one player stayed here and trained. When I went down there in July and saw that twelve of our veterans were training together, I said, ‘OK, now we’re starting to build something.’”
“This goes back to the words, culture, identity and caring,” he added. “ So there were a lot of signs that we’re [going] in the right direction. I think it all comes with the record. But a lot of kids have got to get better and we’ve to fight through some adversity.”
And as many of the Kings’ players have said all season long, their belief in each other has been a key factor.
“When you’re building, the mental part of building is that intangible in that you feel the team starts to believe in itself,” Lombardi noted. “Even the players in there—they can come in, think they’re going to be better, they see Ryan Smyth in there. But until they go out there and do it, too, they’re not going to get that idea, ‘hey, we’re good.’ The player has to believe in himself, but then they ultimately have to believe in each other that they’re good.”
In recent seasons past, there were no real expectations on the Kings, other than to put in their best effort. But all that changed this past summer when Lombardi told his players that they were expected to make the playoffs this season.
“This is the first year we put expectations on them because I think they’re realistic,” said Lombardi. “This team, we told them, ‘you’re good enough to make the playoffs. We expect you to make the playoffs.’ This is the first year.”
“How a team deals with that is very different than a Cinderella team,” added Lombardi. “There’s a few teams out there playing with no pressure. But until you learn to deal with pressure and meet expectations, you’ll never be a bona fide contender. You might have a hell of a run and maybe win it all. But you’ll never be that Detroit, that New England Patriots, New York Yankees or whatever, where you’ve got a culture in that [dressing] room that knows how to win, expects to win and it carries on year-to-year.”
“That has to start with this group. That’s why I said it has to come [from] within. We have to do this the right way because it’s the only way you’re going to build it and have the potential to last.”
The Kings responded to those expectations by starting the 2009-10 season on fire, earning a 22-12-3 record in their first 37 games.
“The thing I saw here early was that there was a lot of pressure on them,” Lombardi explained. “They won some big games, some close games. We got some bounces, we did fight through some adversity. I tell you, I’m really proud of what they did. We were beat up. We had ten games in seventeen days. Granted, it wasn’t pretty, but they found a way to win.”
But then the league schedule makers gave the Kings an eight-day break in their schedule back in December that killed the momentum they had built.
Indeed, the Kings came back from that break without the intensity and emotion they displayed to start the season. The result: 3-6-0 in their first nine games after the break, which included two, three-game losing streaks.
The Kings then proceeded to win just three games in a seven-game home stand that had them right on the brink of dropping out of the playoff picture. But unlike recent seasons when they would go right into the tank, this year’s Kings picked themselves up by their bootstraps, turned things around and are now on a nine-game winning streak that has them in a rather lofty position in the standings with a 36-19-3 record.
“The [good won-loss] record is great, but what [it] represents is that whole thing of dealing with expectations and dealing with pressure. I’m starting to see that,” Lombardi noted,
All one has to do is walk into the Kings’ dressing room to see the tremendous, positive change in their attitude and much of that comes with greater ability to deal with the burdens of pressure and higher expectations.
Indeed, you can almost feel it when you walk into the room.
“I used to have John Ferguson with me in San Jose,” said Lombardi. “He said, ‘I can’t define it, I can’t put it on paper, but you can feel it.’ That’s those guys with [Stanley Cup] rings. The Montreal Canadiens—he was part of that. He knew what it was like when you can see a room where guys get off the bus and there’s a certain strut to them. There’s a certain attitude. They’re cocky, but it’s the right type of ‘cocky.’”
After all that and noting that the they are performing well above what anyone expected of them heading into this season, other teams know that the Kings are no longer an easy win.
“You know you’re getting better when you beat somebody and they’re not getting bag skated the next day,” said Lombardi. “When you’re a bad team and you beat somebody, it’s ‘how could we lose to the Kings,’ and the coach is ripping them.”
That is not happening now.
“I was talking to [New Jersey Devils general manager] Lou Lamoriello at the Board of Governors meeting,” Lombardi explained. “He said, ‘get ready, because people are ready for you now. People know you’re going to be good. That means they’re going to be ready for you. They’re going to go after your best players, you’re not going to sneak up on anybody.’”
Despite the Kings’ improvement this season, things do not get any easier going forward.
“So the challenge is, it was hard to get where we are now and it’s going to be doubly hard coming up,” said Lombardi. “Unfortunately, a part of getting a little notoriety is that you can’t sneak up on anybody.”
The force behind the improvement is the infrastructure Lombardi has built since he joined the Kings, which includes scouting and player development.
“You’ve heard me from day one—infrastructure,” said Lombardi. “Emerson, Mike O’Connell and Mike Donnelly—I thought, this summer, they were tremendous. It’s at the level now that I had in San Jose and now it’s going to go beyond that. They’re going to go to another level.”
“It’s that whole thing about the phases of building a team,” added Lombardi. “Putting good, young players in your system never stops rolling. This team is moving into phase three, but phase one never stops.”
For a team to become a perennial contender, solid drafting and player development cannot stop.
“Once this train starts moving, all four cycles have to be going,” Lombardi stressed. “That fourth cycle is winning championships or being a contender.”
“You have to build your way up to that, but even when you’re there, the phase ones are coming. Even though I think we’ve clearly moved beyond phase one, phase one is still running.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that both Rob Scuderi and Ryan Smyth were acquired by the Kings as unrestricted free agents. Scuderi was an unrestricted free agent this past summer, but Smyth was acquired in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defensemen Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing, along with a fifth round selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Frozen Royalty regrets the error.
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