FROZEN ROYALTY EXCLUSIVE: Since the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup last June, the vast majority of the attention has been on the their players, for reasons that should be obvious. But someone had to show them the way, and someone else had to put all the pieces together. In part eight of a series featuring the long-time broadcasters of the Los Angeles Kings, they share their thoughts on the contributions of head coach Darryl Sutter and President/General Manager Dean Lombardi.
LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — Before the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup on June 11, 2012, they were a mostly beleaguered franchise that was known much more for stumbling and bumbling its way through its 45-year history than anything else.
For the most part, all that changed when the Kings won the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history nearly four months ago. But just six years prior, things were about as bleak for the Kings as they had ever been.
Indeed, in April 2006, the Kings were a team that was spinning its wheels, going nowhere, primarily due to poor decisions, both on the ice and off, by ownership and management.
But that’s when Dean Lombardi was hired as the new President/General Manager. Perhaps just as important, ownership finally learned that they had to keep their noses out of hockey operations decisions, a huge problem that virtually crippled the franchise since their inception in 1967.
In other words, Lombardi was given the autonomy and authority to devise a plan to build a winning team and stick with it, which included adding the infrastructure and system needed to make the Kings a perennial winner.
But before one can talk about what Lombardi was able to do, as both he and Kings Governor Tim Leiweke said right after the Kings won the Stanley Cup, the work of former general manager Dave Taylor must be recognized.
“In the years that Dave Taylor was [the general manager], we had more first round picks than Dave had years on the job as the general manager,” said Kings radio play-by-play announcer Nick Nickson. “I think we had eleven or twelve first round picks in his eight or nine years as general manager.”
“When Dave was in the general manager position, he recognized, and saw, first-hand, the Kings trading away first round draft [picks], bringing in the quick-fix, the guy at the end of his career,” said Kings radio color commentator Daryl Evans. “He established keeping the picks. He [selected center Anze] Kopitar, [forward Dustin] Brown, and [goaltender Jonathan] Quick. He wasn’t around long enough to reap the benefits of Jonathan Quick, but he also knew how important it was to get a goaltender. To his credit, he laid the foundation.”
“For a long time, the Kings—it’s not like they were a bad team,” added Evans, the former Kings left wing who has been behind the microphone for 13 seasons. “They were in the middle of the pack. [But] you don’t get good draft choices when you’re in the middle of the pack. We got lucky with Anze Kopitar. He’s a diamond in the rough, so you have to give a lot of credit to Dave Taylor for being able to sniff him out.”
Many have attempted to discredit Taylor by claiming that his selection of Kopitar was nothing more than pure luck on his part, that Kopitar merely fell into his lap, figuratively speaking. But Evans rejected that claim out of hand.
“Dave not only had the guts [to take a risk on a prospect from Slovenia, a country with no real hockey history or reputation], but he did his homework,” Evans countered. “He had that player scouted out, and that’s a credit to him.”
“A lot of people wouldn’t have pulled the trigger on [Kopitar] that early in the draft,” Evans added. “They figured they might get him later on.”
Nickson pointed out a huge advantage that Lombardi had that was not available to Taylor.
“From a personnel standpoint, and a lot of us talked about this—up until three years ago, when we had we had Brown and Kopitar, and some other pretty good players, five, six or seven years ago, and then [during] the first three years at Staples Center, when they had [right wing] ZIggy [Palffy], then they got [center Jason Allison and [right wing Adam] Deadmarsh—everybody thought [those] were great moves, at the time,” said Nickson, who just completed his 31st season with the Kings. “Of course, Allison and Deadmarsh had the injury problems. But the one thing that was missing from Dave’s era that Dean was able to have during his tenure has been an all-star goaltender.”
“The last three-and-a-half years, when you look back on it, from the moment Quick came up midway through that 2008-09 season, the way he played, you knew he was going to be a good goaltender,” added Nickson. “It was just how good could he be? A lot of those teams, with [Palffy], or with Allison, or going back to the mid-to-late 90’s, when the teams weren’t that good. Never did they get the goaltending like we’ve seen the last three-and-a-half years from Quick.”
“If Dave had a Jonathan Quick come through in year four or five of his tenure, maybe Dave is still the general manager. What if Jonathan Quick was four years older, and broke in with the Kings in 2004? We can all play the ‘what if?’ game. But from a personnel standpoint, the one advantage that Dean’s reign has had over Dave’s is Jonathan Quick as a number one [netminder].”
As mentioned earlier, Lombardi came on board in April 2006, so Taylor, who is now Vice President, Hockey Operations for the St. Louis Blues, was not around to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
But it took more than just drafting players. Indeed, teams must develop their prospects into full-fledged National Hockey League players. But Taylor was generally unable to do that, with the Kings scouting and development system sorely lacking, whether it was because it was not a priority, or because ownership failed or refused to provide Taylor with the necessary resources.
Under Lombardi, the Kings invested heavily in their scouting and development.
“Dean Lombardi was big on the development part of it,” Evans noted. “He recognized that there weren’t enough pieces in place. Then you started seeing the team getting younger, [and still] piling up draft [picks].”
In the early going, Lombardi’s method was the subject of jokes, especially when he broke out the now infamous charts and Powerpoint presentations that outlined his plans.
“[At Lombardi’s first Breakfast with the General Manager], he had all these charts and everything,” said the Voice of the Kings, Bob Miller, who has been broadcasting Kings games since 1973. “He was talking about the reserve list, [and he signed some veteran free agents to bide time until young prospects were ready]. But he knew that, eventually, it would [all] pay off, and it did. He had the resources, in [rookie left wings Dwight] King and [Jordan] Nolan, to reach down [into his farm system] and bring somebody up who could contribute.”
“The whole idea, as [Lombardi] said, [was] to be good, not just one year, but to be good year after year after year,” added Miller. “We’ll see if that happens, but with everybody coming back, with everybody signed, I can’t remember another Stanley Cup winner who never lost a player off the team. Dean did a really good job of being patient, getting these guys signed, and leaving room under the [salary] cap.”
Indeed, unlike many other Stanley Cup winners that lost a significant number of key players the next season, the most recent being the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, the Kings appear to be set to contend for the Stanley Cup for years to come.
“[Having established] what they have through the draft, and in the development part of the game, I think they could be a contender for the next handful of years, with the core of the team still under contract,” said Evans.
“We’re not built [to be a ‘one-and-done’ team],” said Kings television color commentator Jim Fox. “We’re built in a better way, because we have a young team. We have everyone back—I can’t remember, [during] the salary cap era, where everyone’s come back on a [Stanley Cup]-winning team. I think we’re the first team to do that, and, depending on the day [along with roster moves by other teams, we’re] anywhere from the youngest to the fifth-youngest team in the league, so a lot of things are coming together.”
In addition to building through the draft, a few, key free agents became a part of Lombardi’s championship formula. Fox noted that, in stark contrast, it was not all that long ago that free agents wanted absolutely nothing to do with the Kings.
“The one thing that stands out, and Dean is part of this, is when Rob Scuderi, of his free will, decided to sign with the Kings [in July 2009],” said Fox. “That, to me, was the sign of a change, that someone from the outside was recognizing what was happening on the inside. I’m sure Rob was looking at the moves Dean had made, the foundation. How old are they? Are they a young team? I think he looked at that, and thought this was a pretty good place to be.”
“We know Rob is one of the most level-headed guys,” added Fox. “He probably did some research. He put some thought into this. Dean is part of that, ‘do free agents want to sign here?’ Then, Willie Mitchell went through a process where he had an opportunity—it was probably not as many teams as were after Rob, because Willie was dealing with a concussion. But he had three or four, at the end, that he had to make a choice on, and he chose the Kings [in August 2010].”
“That’s where the foundation parts come into it. When someone on the outside looks in and says, ‘you know, I played against them last year. They’re a pretty good team. If I go over here, and they add a few pieces, all of a sudden…’ [That said], it’s not ‘all of a sudden.’ There is a plan, there is a process. But the moves Dean made at the end—look at the regular season. [They had to] fight to get in.”
More than six years after he joined the Kings, Lombardi’s plan of building a perennial winner through the draft, along with a free agent or two, has certainly come together. Part of that plan was bringing in character players, in the NHL Entry Draft, via free agency and trades. That went a long way towards building a tight-knit, close team where the players would skate through a proverbial wall for one another.
“A lot of it has to do with the fact that so many of the guys are in the same phase of their life,” Evans explained. “You’ve got a [few] older guys in Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and [right wing] Justin Williams. Then, if you look at [defenseman] Slava Voynov, who’s twenty [years old]—Mitchell is 35. But [for the most part, the team has] been together for a couple of years. The group has gone through the tough spots together, and they’re growing together.”
“It is one of the tighter groups of players I’ve seen,” Evans elaborated. “They genuinely like each other, and I think that’s one of the reasons they go to war for each other on the ice.”
Indeed, all the planning, building through the draft, and signing key free agents was great, but the team actually had to win a championship before it could start down the road to becoming a perennial winner. In other words, the time had come for Lombardi to put it all together. But with the Kings heading in the wrong direction early last season, despite high expectations, Lombardi knew that he had turn things around. In fact, it was commonly believed that the Kings had to get into the second round of the playoffs, at the very least, and that his job was likely in jeopardy if the Kings failed to reach that benchmark.
“I think [Dean Lombardi deserves a lot of credit], and I think there was a lot of pressure on,” Miller observed. “If we missed the playoffs, I think there would’ve been a lot of changes in management. We’re coming down to thinking that this is year six [since Lombardi was hired], and we might miss the playoffs.”
Fox stressed that three personnel decisions Lombardi made are what he will be judged by, in terms of his job performance this past season, and perhaps beyond that.
“The realization that he had, and I brought [this] up to him, [was] that the last couple of moves he made [would be more important than all] the moves [he made to rebuild the team],” said Fox. “You get to a point, and now you’ve got to get over the top, and he knew that was the case. He knew he was going to be judged on the [Jeff] Carter trade, King and Nolan coming up, not trading Jonathan Bernier. He knew he was going to be judged on those [decisions].”
“You can go back to all of the steps he put together in the foundation, which were extremely important,” added Fox. “But at the end, he had to make those moves. He made’em, and they won. He should get the credit.”
There was another personnel move Lombardi made that was widely panned by pundits, the media, and fans, but turned out to be magical.
“The biggest acquisition [was head coach] Darryl Sutter,” Fox emphasized. “I don’t normally give as much credit to coaches as I’m going to give to Darryl Sutter, or as I have given to [him]. The timing was right, everything was in place. But I think the team needed—there’s a whole bunch of different things that go together. They needed confidence, they needed a looser rein, they needed the right type of pressure, and I think Darryl brought that.”
Based on Sutter’s reputation, the widely held perception was that he would be a fiery screamer, and not much more than that. But while Sutter could be intense, and made sure he got his point across to his players, sometimes rather firmly, he never showed that fiery side, at least, not to the media.
“I think a lot of [the players] thought he was going to come in, and scream and holler at [them], and he didn’t do that,” Miller noted. “There were so many times we had shots of him on TV with his arm around players on the bench, almost teaching rather than screaming and hollering. [Instead], he showed confidence. Make a mistake, and you’re [still] going back out on your next shift. ‘Show me you can get over that and play well.’”
“[The players] were very receptive to what Darryl said, in his message, and Darryl did a great job in bonding with the guys, getting to know them,” said Evans. “He [told them] that if we’re going to do this, everybody has to be together, and everyone did a great job of buying in.”
Miller mentioned the possibility that the players were motivated, in part, by intimidation or fear.
“I don’t know if players would agree with this or not, but maybe there was a little bit of fear of [Sutter], and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” said Miller. “Jimmy Fox told me that, [when he was playing for the Kings], he was scared to death of Pat Quinn, when he was the coach. He was a big guy.”
“Maybe that’s not a bad thing, to just be a little bit afraid of your coach, and what’s going to happen,” added Miller.
Whether they feared Sutter or not, Kings players knew they were largely responsible for their poor play early in the 2011-12 season.
“When [Sutter] came on board, the situation wasn’t good,” said Evans. “He also came to a team where the players felt partially responsible for [former head coach] Terry Murray having lost his job. They had a [hand] in that.”
“Darryl didn’t change much,” added Evans. “Terry is more of a conservative type of coach. Darryl’s a little more aggressive. If you lose it, battle your butt off, and get it back, where Terry is more about falling back into your defensive composure. It’s something the Kings adapted well to.”
Sutter tweaked the Kings system, allowing them to be more aggressive in the offensive zone, especially once Carter was acquired at the late February trade deadline.
“The other thing is, he gave them the green light,” said Miller. “All players want to play offense, right? You want to score. You want [to contribute an] assist, and he gave them that without giving up much on defense. [It was] ‘let’s be more aggressive. Let’s go out and be aggressive offensively,’ and I think the players, right away, that’s what they wanted. They bought into that.”
“That was the spark that was missing before,” added Miller. “All of a sudden, we’re an aggressive team. We’re forechecking, and we’re taking the puck away, but we’re still getting back and playing pretty good defense. I think that’s what the players wanted at that point. [Sutter] told them ‘if it’s a 50-50 puck, let’s go get it. Don’t drop back right away on defense. Let’s go get it, and be aggressive that way.’ It just seemed to me, and I don’t know it the players would agree, that that’s what they wanted to do.”
Sutter changing the mindset of his players was apparent off the ice as well.
“I think he was able, from a strategic and mental standpoint, to allow the players, as a team, and individually, to focus the right way,” said Nickson. “What brings that to bear is that if you go back and listen to the quotes from the players after games during the playoffs, it’s almost the exact same thing that the coach was going to say. It was like everybody was on the same page with how the game should be approached—how you should forecheck, how you should defend, what you should say after games to the media, how you should practice, what you say to the media after practice.”
“It was almost like no matter who you talked to, everybody was going to have the same approach, and the same attitude as the next person,” added Nickson. “That type of mindset being so prevalent throughout the whole team, that’s where you have to give the head coach a lot of credit.”
In the end, Sutter’s biggest impact on the Kings was his leadership.
“The bottom line is [that] he’s a leader,” Fox noted. “That’s it. You can characterize coaches as tacticians, motivators, whatever you want to do. He’s a leader. That was important, to this team, at the time he joined [them].”
“[Sutter] ran into fate six months ago, and figured out how to put all the pegs in the right holes, and boy, did he ever do that, with the lineup changes—the more you talk about it, the more you just have to sit in awe of what they accomplished,” said Nickson.
What Took So Long?
Lombardi’s plan over the last six years has, obviously, succeeded, although it remains to be seen if he has built the perennial winner that can contend for the Stanley Cup each year.
But why did it take the Kings so many years to get to this point?
“I think that there were some handicaps that this franchise had,” said Fox. “When I hear a current-day coach talk about travel, games and schedule being an issue, and Kings coaches have, over the years, even Terry [Murray] and Darryl Sutter. But go play a balanced schedule, where you’re playing two at home and two away [against every team in the league], travel [on commercial flights], practice at Culver City [Ice Arena], which is one of the worst facilities, and then try to win games.”
“People would call those excuses,” added Fox. “I call them reasons this franchise had a difficult time. There were some issues there, where the Kings were not always as high a priority as you would hope, as a player. Then you have ownership problems. Who controls that? That’s uncontrollable, but it affects your team.”
Indeed, ownership issues, most notably while Bruce McNall owned the team, followed by Joe Cohen and Jeffrey Sudikoff, and to some degree, even the current owners, the Anschutz Entertainment Group, were at the root of many of the problems following the 1993 Stanley Cup run.
“When Larry Robinson was coaching here, one year, if I looked at the skill level of the team, I would say it was borderline minor league,” Fox stressed. “They’re playing games, and the roster was just—but that was driven by ownership issues.”
“There are a lot of things that go into not being there,” Fox added. “You can even go back to the beginning, and this is hindsight, but they decided that their tact was, ‘let’s trade draft picks for older players,’ and I’m not even going to talk about the decisions made and the players [acquired]. So they made the choice right away that they were going to kind of go for it.”
“You’re going to pay for that later down the road.”
The Kings certainly paid and paid…for more than forty years. But winning the Stanley Cup has changed so many things.
The biggest change: credibility.
“The big thing is, how many people have been cynical over the years? ‘This owner doesn’t want to win…all he cares about is developing the buildings, and his real estate, he won’t go out and spend money on players, they never make the right trade…’ and we all know, deep down, it’s not because they’re not trying,” said Nickson. “All thirty franchises are trying to do what, ultimately, the Kings did this [past] year. I’ve been around long enough [to know] that it’s such a fine line between winning and losing. Just look at the playoff race the Kings were in this year. There was a fine line between being the eighth seed, being out of the playoffs, or winning the division, a matter of a mere two or three points, either way.”
“The credibility factor is, now that you’ve won—I don’t want to say it gives you carte blanche, but it gives everyone the sense that the people they have know how to do it,” added Nickson. “[After all], they’ve done it now. So, going forward, I’ve got confidence that they can do it again because they’ve done it already.”
The Kings’ new-found credibility is the result of, as detailed earlier, Lombardi’s plans coming to fruition.
“Over the years, whether it was [Wayne] Gretzky being here, or when Dave was the general manager, or Andy Murray was the coach, or Bob Pulford, when they had some good teams back in the 70’s, until you win something, people don’t become believers,” Nickson stressed. “A lot of what we’ve told people over the years, and a lot of what Dean has told the fans, that this is how we have to do it, turned out to be the way to do it. That gives him credibility.”
“Players have the credibility now,” Nickson added. “They’re winners. They know how to win.”
“You cut Dustin Penner a little bit more slack now.”
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