EL SEGUNDO, CA — Although it took a little longer than hoped, part of Dean Lombardi’s plan has finally worked, now that the Los Angeles Kings have won the 2012 Stanley Cup Championship.
Back in April 2006, when he was hired as President/General Manager of the Kings, Lombardi’s plan was, not just to build a team that could win the Stanley Cup, but to build one that would be a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
To be sure, part of his plan has come to fruition, and in dramatic fashion, especially if you look closely at how the Kings have evolved from the time he took over the general manager’s chair.
For the first three years of Lombardi’s tenure, a lot of players were on the Kings roster who would be long gone by the time they won the 2012 Stanley Cup. But from a singular point of view, they actually contributed towards the success of last year’s team.
Looking at the Kings during those years, a plethora of names stand out like sore thumbs, including Derek Armstrong, Jean-Sebastien Aubin, Kyle Calder, Dan Cloutier, Craig Conroy, Kevin Dallman, Mathieu Garon, Denis Gauthier, Jeff Giuliano, Jamie Heward, Raitis Ivanans, Jon Klemm, Tom Kostopoulos, Jason LaBarbera, Jamie Lundmark, Ladislav Nagy, Sean O’Donnell, Tom Preissing, Brent Sopel, Scott Thornton, Oleg Tverdovsky, Mike Weaver, Brian Willsie, and John Zeiler.
To be sure, none of these players were big stars. There are no 40-goal scorers among them. None are standout defensemen, or elite goaltenders. In fact, these players were either marginal NHL players, or they were aging veterans with little left in the tank.
Despite all that, they stand out because each was a “placeholder” for the Kings. They all filled a roster spot, usually on the cheap, and although they were not players who could lead the Kings to the Promised Land, let alone to a playoff berth, they served a vital role: they allowed Lombardi to bide his time until the younger players he had developing in the Kings system, not to mention those he would later select in the National Hockey League Entry Draft, were ready for regular duty at the NHL level.
At the end of Lombardi’s third season at the helm, the Kings were still a bad team, having finished last in the Pacific Division 14th (out of 15 teams) in the Western Conference, and 26th in the thirty-team NHL. But by this time, many of the placeholders were gone, as players who would become part of the Kings’ young core, including Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick, were on the rise, and were beginning to show that they would become quality NHL players, if not NHL stars.
Also by that time, defenseman Matt Greene and center Jarret Stoll had a year with the Kings under their belts, having been acquired from the Edmonton Oilers, in exchange for defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky on June 29, 2008. The following Spring, veteran right wing Justin Williams was acquired in a trade (March 4, 2009) from Carolina.
As such, even though the Kings were at the bottom of the Pacific Division standings, and well out of the Western Conference playoff picture, the future was starting to look bright.
One who noticed that was veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi, an unrestricted free agent who signed a four-year contract with the Kings on July 2, 2009, after winning the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins about one month earlier.
Kings television color commentator Jim Fox noted during an exclusive interview with Frozen Royalty this past summer that Scuderi signing with the Kings was a major turning point for the franchise.
“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,” 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,” added Fox. “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. He probably did some research. He put some thought into this. Dean is part of that, ‘do free agents want to sign here?’”
Indeed, for many years, free agents gave the Kings a wide berth, wanting absolutely nothing to do with the franchise. But that changed when Scuderi signed with them.
“That’s where the foundation parts come into it,” Fox noted. “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.”
As it turns out, Fox was right. Scuderi did his due diligence, and chose the Kings as a result.
“You have some time to think about it, and you don’t really know who’s going to [make an] offer,” said Scuderi. “But once you have the offers come in, you can go online, and take a look at who they have, and what [the team] is looking like.”
“When you’re a free agent, a lot of people think you can just choose where you want to go, but that’s certainly not the case,” added Scuderi. “Of the teams that offered, there were some good choices, and certainly money is a factor. But I thought, given the contracts, the places to go, and the teams I was going to, [the Kings] had the best chance.”
“I think the management here has done it the right way. I know, as a fan, it can be frustrating to wait for that upswing. But I think anyone around the league was hard-pressed not to see that this team was on the way up [when he signed with the Kings].”
Lombardi indicated that at first, Scuderi did not seem like the kind of player who would want to play in the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles.
“His profile would [tell you], no way,” said Lombardi. “Family guy, [he’s] been on the East Coast his entire life, small town guy—coming to L.A. makes no sense. [But] it wasn’t like I went into a full pitch. His [deal] was done very quickly. Rob is really introspective, a real thinker.”
Lombardi’s characterization of Scuderi as “a real thinker” might explain why he was not fazed by the fact that he was about to sign a multi-year deal with a team that was a bottom-feeder in the standings.
“Nobody wants to play for a last place team,” Scuderi noted. “You don’t make a conscious decision to go there, even for the money. Money was a factor in [his] decision, but ultimately, I wanted a chance to win again.”
“In hindsight, it looks like the best decision ever,” he added. “At the time, you can only make the decision on the information you have, and I thought, with the young core of players, and some of the good free agents and veteran guys, I thought it would be a good mix. One of the biggest things I saw was two, good goaltenders. At the time, I didn’t know how it was going to play out, but you certainly like your chances with two, good goaltenders.”
“Could I have predicted what has happened in the three years that I’ve been here? Not really. But I thought [there was] a good chance, and luckily, that turned out to be correct.”
Although no one can say that the Kings have turned things around completely, in terms of their ability to sign the biggest of the big-name unrestricted free agents until they actually sign one—after all, Scuderi will never remind anyone of Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, Denis Potvin, Raymond Bourque, or Nicklas Lidstrom, signing Scuderi was a clear indication that the Kings were moving in the right direction, and that it was more than just people within their own organization who were seeing that.
Of course, having won the Stanley Cup will make the Kings that much more of an attractive destination for future unrestricted free agents.
“It alleviates that part of the recruiting process,” said Lombardi. “Money is always the key, but all things being equal, the player will go where he feels he has the best chance to win.”
“[Having won the Stanley Cup is] one of the things on the checklist now, when you’re talking to a player, you don’t have to say that you’re going to be good,” added Lombardi. “It’s there. I don’t have to sell it.”
Raw Audio Interview
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Rob Scuderi (6:31)
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