A Look Back At Dean Lombardi’s Plan To Build The LA Kings Into A Perennial Stanley Cup Contender

COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS: Part 2 of a series looking at Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi and his role in the recent success of the team, even though he has said repeatedly, “…it ain’t me.” In this installment, we’ll look back at the plan he laid out for the Kings when he came on board in April 2006, something hardcore fans will likely remember, but just as many have probably forgotten, or never knew about in the first place.

LA Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi speaking to the media during the on-ice celebration after the Kings won the 2014 Stanley Cup Championship at Staples Center in Los Angeles on June 13, 2014.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net
EL SEGUNDO, CA — After the Los Angeles Kings won the 2014 Stanley Cup Championship on June 13, 2014, their second Stanley Cup Championship in three seasons, I asked President/General Manager Dean Lombardi during the on-ice celebration at Staples Center in Los Angeles, “so what’s it like to have your plan come together so well?”

Lombardi looked at me for a brief moment and, as reported in the first installment in this series, he said, “Hey, I didn’t get my face plastered against the boards here at all. I feel like I have, but I didn’t. These guys are the ones who get it done. It ain’t me.”

Lombardi went on to credit his players, head coach Darryl Sutter and Kings majority owner Philip Anschutz as being the primary movers and shakers when it comes to who is primarily responsible for the Kings’ recent success.

I asked Lombardi that specific question because when you look back at what he outlined when he first arrived in the Los Angeles area, you discover that everything he laid out in his plan has come to fruition, and in a big, big way.

When he was introduced to the local media during an April 21, 2006 press conference at what was then the HealthSouth Training Center (now the Toyota Sports Center) in El Segundo, California, Lombardi wasted little time explaining his plan.

“Building requires a vision,” he said. “Unfortunately, often times in this business, ‘vision’ is being able to see what other people can’t. But when you have a vision, you need a theme. That theme is simple. Everybody has to be on the same page. From top to bottom, from the assistant equipment manager right up to your owner, everybody must sing from the same hymn book. You go through the tough times together, but you stick together.”

“When you put it all together, then you’ve created something that will last,” he added. “You’ve created an identity of what you are, not an image of what you hope to be, and when you have that, you will have a franchise where your players, every one of them who puts on a Kings jersey, no matter where they go, feels ‘once a King, always a King.’”

If Lombardi’s comments don’t sound very familiar, you evidently haven’t been paying close enough attention. Indeed, moving in one direction together, speaking with the same voice, and developing young players into those who bleed the Kings’ colors are big parts of Lombardi’s plan that are plainly evident today, as is the character of each player and team chemistry.

“I wanted a team that was hard to play against,” Lombardi said about his work as general manager of the San Jose Sharks. “We believed that you could get by with special teams in the regular season but the playoffs were a war, and if you didn’t have players with character who weren’t willing to go through a brick wall, you weren’t going to win in the playoffs.”

“Particularly in the era of the [salary] cap—the purpose of the cap is to distribute talent evenly,” Lombardi explained. “So where do you find an edge? An edge is in your chemistry. The guys like coming to the rink. They like each other…if you get that, you’re going to get that five or ten percent on your competition that you’re going to need.”

If you haven’t already noticed, to this point in reviewing what Lombardi said about his plan when he took the job, there has not been a single word about X’s and O’s, the need to acquire high-end talent or anything about improving the skill level of the team, for that matter.

Hold that thought.

Another key point in Lombardi’s plan, as he mentioned earlier, was drafting and developing young players, something the Kings never did prior to Dave Taylor taking over as general manager. In fact, as Lombardi pointed out during an exclusive interview in September 2008, something already fairly well-known—that since their inception in 1967, the Kings traded away their future year after year after year.

But I did not realize how bad it really was.

“I could go into the whole philosophy, but I love reading history and I think that’s the way you learn,” said Lombardi during that September 2008 interview. “I’ve just been fascinated [by the Kings history]. It was one of the issues when I decided to come here—why there’s never been a [Stanley] Cup, and then when I got here I talked to people like [Philadelphia Flyers’ Senior Vice President] Bobby Clarke about where that identity comes from. I talked to some of the old [New York] Islanders like Bill Torrey. I just started studying it and I was shocked that the first first-round pick to play for the Kings was [defenseman] Jay Wells, and that’s twelve years after the first draft [for the Kings]. That’s unbelievable, unprecedented.”

As mentioned earlier, that began to change under Taylor, who started the Kings down the road of retaining their first round draft picks. But Taylor was never given the resources or the autonomy that Lombardi has had since he took the job to expand the team’s development efforts. As a result, the Kings continued to spin their wheels.

As reported in Part 1 of this series, drafting and especially development were areas that the Kings had historically ignored, and Lombardi recognized that it was a key reason for their decades of futility. In fact, he forced a sea change in ownership’s thinking, and he did so pretty much the day he took the job.

“The most important thing right now is the amateur draft,” Lombardi said on April 21, 2006. “My goal in San Jose each year was to get your staff fired up to bring home at least two players. If you can hit along those lines, you’re doing pretty good, and I know you get seven or eight picks, but that’s reality. But you can’t afford to get shut out.”

“It’s been very clear that the idea of putting together players that don’t just have a chance for the playoffs, but they are a bona fide contender—the only way I felt we were going do that, was going to be at the draft table,” he added a few years later.

To illustrate, in the eight years that Lombardi has been at the helm, 15 of his draft picks have made significant contributions at the National Hockey League level. Eight were members of the Kings’ 2012 Stanley Cup Championship team, and ten were on the 2014 Stanley Cup Championship team—this level of success at the draft table and at the development stage is virtually unheard of. It is the kind of success that legendary teams are often made of.

Lombardi’s success does not stop at drafting and development. In fact, looking closely at the plan he outlined, one notices that every major aspect of it has not only come to fruition, but they have paid off several times over.

Lombardi’s focus on drafting and development of homegrown players who would come up through the ranks bleeding the Kings’ colors has been the key factor in building unity and team chemistry to the point where the players would skate, full speed, though a brick wall for one another. The fact that the Kings have all that now is a key indicator that his plan has come together. In fact, it is difficult to imagine things turning out better than what has already transpired.

On top of that, going back to that thought you’ve been holding, again, Lombardi never went into great detail about the need to draft or eventually trade for top-tier talent, even though he knew that would have to happen down the road. The reason? That was a given. It did not need to be stated. Even more important, he also knew that unless the other aspects of his plan were in place, he could have several superstars on the team, but success would most likely elude them time and time again because the bonds between them would not be strong enough to get them to care for one another and to truly play for each other.

Although drafting and development have been the most critical aspects of Lombardi’s plan—they are the foundation that everything else is built upon—as mentioned earlier, building a team culture in which the players are a close-knit bunch who will push each other, play for each other and keep everyone in line has been just as critical. Without question, it is another key part of Lombardi’s plan, something Frozen Royalty will take a closer look at in the next installment of this series.

Dean Lombardi Series, September 2014

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