EL SEGUNDO, CA — A little over six years ago, when Dean Lombardi took over as President/General Manager of the Los Angeles Kings, the team was, for all intents and purposes, a mess, both on the ice and off.
Lombardi’s plan, to tear down the team completely and rebuild it through the draft, not to mention completely changing the culture of organization, generated significant support from fans.
But Lombardi also drew the ire of many detractors who claimed that a championship team could not be built without bringing in established stars, and as the team struggled and failed to make the playoffs in his first three season at the helm, the numbers of his detractors seemed to grow exponentially, and their voices grew louder and louder.
Indeed, Lombardi was deemed by his detractors to be a failure, nothing more than a glorified scout who should never have been hired in the first place. That the Kings qualified for post-season play in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, only to be eliminated in the first round each time, only added fuel to the fire.
But if you think that was bad, wait…it gets worse.
Last season, the cacophony of voices rising up against Lombardi reached its highest point, as the Kings struggled out of the gate, despite being hailed as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup at the beginning of the season. In fact, there were even rumblings that his job was on the line unless the Kings made a deep run into the playoffs.
Of course, the Kings did that and much more by winning the 2012 Stanley Cup Championship with a dominating 16-4 run through the playoffs that saw them take 3-0 leads in each playoff series.
So much for the naysayers, who are all probably hiding somewhere, quietly and begrudgingly eating their bowls of crow, while Lombardi basks in the limelight after being rewarded with a four-year contract extension on January 18.
But don’t think for a second that Lombardi is sitting back, enjoying the fruits of his labor. Although he got to do some of that during the summer, such as when he got his day with the Stanley Cup, he now faces an even greater challenge: building the Kings into a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
“In San Jose, it was a similar plan—build through the draft, all the things you heard,” said Lombardi, who was the general manager of the San Jose Sharks from 1996 to 2003. “[Now, having won the Stanley Cup], this is a new challenge for all of us, but this is, ultimately, what teams strive for, to be the Detroit Red Wings, or the New England Patriots.”
“We always hear the word, ‘window,’” added Lombardi. “The advantage we have, having won it, [is that] we have $7 million in [salary] cap space this year, and we’ve got ten players who are 25 or younger. It’s gauging the breadth of that window and allowing yourself multiple runs.”
Lombardi indicated that the sacrifices the team had to make during the rebuilding process gave the 2011-12 Kings much of what they needed to win hockey’s Holy Grail.
“Making the playoffs the first year, when you’re building, is always a lot easier than the second year [referring to the 2010-11 season, when the Kings made the playoffs for the second time after he took over], and that was very similar to what happened in San Jose, too,” he said. “It was really hard the second year [for the Kings]. The expectations—there were a lot of young players who were no longer playing with the house’s money. When they got through that second year, that’s when I started seeing it, because there was a lot of adversity that second year…there were some dicey moments.”
“I remember saying continually during that period that what impressed me was I never saw guys pointing fingers,” he added. “I never saw quit. I saw frustration, at times, but it was the right kind of frustration—the kind that you learn from. That’s when I started seeing it. The key was that they stuck together. I didn’t see one inkling of blame anywhere, and that’s usually your first sign.”
“That experience, in the second year, is what helped them with it last year, when we lost in Detroit [a 4-3 loss on March 9, 2012]. A lesser team would’ve caved, going into Chicago [for their next game]. But we won in overtime [3-2 on March 11], and then came home and ran the table. Like so many things in life, these moments you got through [previously], are what help you [later on], and I think that moment, last year, when they got through it, was a reflection of that second year.”
As Lombardi said, things got dicey last season, as the Kings were as close as a team can get to falling out of playoff contention. Despite that, he never lost faith.
“I never doubted the team,” he stressed. “I really didn’t. I knew we were on course. If we were an average age of thirty, going through that last year, then I would’ve said, ‘oh boy, this might not be [the team].’ But there was no way. We were the sixth youngest team in the league, and you could see signs of growth—look at [star center Anze] Kopitar, the difference between now and three years ago. Forget about him as a player. Look at him as a man. Even [defenseman Drew] Doughty.”
“This is a process that has to take place, and I knew that yeah, they’re struggling,” he added. “They’re going to have to fight their way through.”
Even when the talk about his job being in jeopardy began to surface, Lombardi kept pushing forward. He knew his team was headed in the right direction.
“You can’t control if you get fired,” Lombardi noted. “The biggest issue is, ‘am I off track?’ Did I make mistakes? You’re darn right [I did], and I’ve said that a million times. Ron Wolf [former general manager of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers said], ‘if a GM is right fifty percent of the time, he’s doing a hell of a job.’ It’s just that we want to walk around and think we’re all geniuses, and not admit our mistakes. But the key is to make mistakes that don’t [knock] you off the track, and we were never off the track. This team was never going backwards.”
“You can’t allow [concerns about your job security] to get into the equation, or you’re going to start wasting energy,” Lombardi added. “[Besides], that’s not what you should be concerned about. What you should be concerned about is, are you on track, and if you are, then [what do you do next]?”
“But if you’re off track? That’s when you might get scared, if you’re worried about your [job]. You might grab some guy for a short-term fix who’s not going to get you there. But I never had the impetus to do that. The [Jeff] Carter [trade]—he was a guy who clearly fit, [the kind of player] who we all knew we would have to go after, eventually. Fortunately, he was there at the time. Maybe we pushed [forwards Jordan] Nolan and [Dwight] King a little quicker than if we hadn’t been sliding a little. But in terms of the general plan, there was no way we were off track.”
Indeed, Lombardi’s Kings were right on target. But now, the new challenge, as previously mentioned, is for them to become a perennial Stanley Cup contender, and win the whole enchilada again and again.
“Now [the players have] a different challenge, like we’re all facing,” said Lombardi. “Fortunately, you’ve got guys in that room now who have won multiple Cups. You’ve got a coach now, in Darryl [Sutter], who’s been to the Final twice. I’ve got a lot of people around me, like [assistant general manager Ron Hextall] who’ve been part of winning.”
Of course, the Kings are not going to be a perennial Stanley Cup contender by keeping all the same players from their 2012 Stanley Cup Championship team forever. Skilled young players drafted and developed by the Kings will be needed year after year, along with selected talent brought in via trade, or free agency.
“As [former Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim general manager Bill Stoneman] said, you should always have a five-year plan,” Lombardi noted. “Even if you win it, always have a five-year plan in place. I think there’s a lot of merit to that. But I also think it’s not wholesale ‘get draft picks.’ It’s trying to find the balance between making sure you’ve still got the pipeline coming, but [also] getting these guys the help they deserve, if they’re playing to the best of their ability.”
Character And Culture Played A Huge Role
From the beginning of his tenure with the Kings, Lombardi has preached character and changing the culture of the Kings, one that was not conducive to winning.
From the get-go, Lombardi preached that players had to be “character guys,” in addition to being skilled, or having other desired attributes. This was another point in Lombardi’s plan that raised the hackles of detractors who believed it did not matter if a player was a cancer in the dressing room as long he was a skilled player.
But again, Lombardi has proven the naysayers to be wrong, as character and culture proved to be major factors in the Kings’ success last season.
“I think our values and the culture we established really became paramount,” said Lombardi. “That’s never going to change. It’s about team, it’s about each other. That part I do know has to stay in place.”
“Darryl gave me a definition that’s on my board,” added Lombardi. “He said, ‘Dean, you’ve got a good dose of constructive paranoia,’ [which means] you’re never satisfied, and you’re always worried about everything.”
“That’s [also] what you hope for from your players. Ultimately, if they’re going to establish themselves as to what they want to accomplish, in terms of being one of the great teams of this era, you can never be satisfied. Then it’s that old line, ‘once you win, you want to win again.’”
Lombardi then provided a prime example of how the culture in the organization has changed.
“Dustin Brown said it best, and talk about a guy who’s grown,” Lombardi noted. “He said, ‘you know what, Dean? One thing I realize now…when we lost in the first round the last couple of years, it didn’t bother me. But now that I know what it’s like to win, if we don’t win again, I’m going to be pissed.’ That’s exactly what you want. That’s the upside. Now you’ve got a guy saying, if we don’t win, I’m going to be pissed. That’s a very different mindset: ‘now that I’ve experienced it, I don’t want anyone else to have it.’”
“Not only that, you talk about Kopitar growing, and we forget that these guys, even the older ones, they’re just entering their prime,” Lombardi added. “But now, they’re entering their prime with those kinds of thoughts, which generally translate to what you want, going back to the culture.”
“When he said that to me, I thought, ‘wow, that’s pretty good.’”
Although it may seem like Lombardi has everything right where he wants it, and that everything is coming up roses, guess again.
“When I sit [in my office] and look at the board, I find myself asking different questions than I’ve had to ask myself before,” he said. “I’d like to say that I’ve got it all figured out, and that I’ve been there before, but that’s not the truth.”
“[But] we’ll figure it out,” he added. “We’re going to get different valleys, but we’ll fight our way through.”
Over the years, a common sight during Kings practices is Lombardi pacing near the bench area. Given the constructive paranoia, mentioned earlier, the pacing will undoubtedly continue.
“Trust me,” said Lombardi. “Having won, that part [still] hasn’t changed. I’ll still be pacing around. That isn’t going to change.”
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Dean Lombardi (20:03)
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