"There are nights when I let myself smile during or after a game," Lombardi explained. "I know this whole process is a long one, but there are signs that I really like.
"What I really like is, I am beginning to see an identity. A Los Angeles Kings kind of hockey, with our type of players."
Lombardi, who helped build the plan to acquire character players in the formative years of the San Jose Sharks (the Presidents' Trophy winner this past season), knows you can't change a team's culture and identity overnight -- even if you draft players like Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo, Brad Stuart, Scott Hannan, Marco Sturm and Christian Ehrhoff, as he did in San Jose.
Lombardi admitted there's a right way to build -- and that starts with your own hand-picked players through the draft. But that is the long road to success, and you have to make other moves in the meantime.
Lombardi smiled when he saw the skills of homegrown products Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov and Dustin Brown lead the team in scoring. But he also pointed to the contributions of Michael Handzus, Jarret Stoll and defenseman Kyle Quincey, next on the Kings' scoring list, as keys to the future.
Finding that right mix isn't easy, but the Kings have already shown this summer that there is more than just a little light at the end of the tunnel of prospects Lombardi has brought in since he joined the team in April 2006.
An example of being more choosey is the players he's brought in so far this summer. On Thursday, Lombardi lured free-agent defenseman Rob Scuderi away from the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins with a four-year, $13.6 million free-agent contract. On day later, he acquired left wing Ryan Smyth from the Colorado Avalanche for Quincey, defenseman Tom Preissing and a 2010 fifth-round draft choice.
With Scuderi to bolster a young and skilled defense headed by Drew Doughty (last year's No. 1 pick), Jack Johnson (Carolina's top pick in 2005), Matt Greene and Peter Harrold, the Kings have added to a unit that was in the top 10 in goals against and penalty-killing last season.
The addition of Smyth -- who had 26 goals and 33 assists in 77 games last season and has surpassed the 30-goal mark four times in his career -- Lombardi gave his team a third scoring threat on the wing to go along with Brown and Frolov.
Just as important is the character that Smyth and Scuderi bring with them.
"Ryan is the type of player who fits with our team," Lombardi said of Smyth. "He fills an important need as a player who has proven for years he'll put up numbers. Plus, he is a competitive, gritty, scoring left winger, and he fits with the overall identity we continue to build here."
The Kings hope Brayden Schenn, taken with the No. 5 pick in the 2009 Draft, eventually will add to the stable of prospects that were part of the Kings' lineup last season -- when they challenged for their first playoff spot since 2002. Included in that group were Kopitar, Frolov, Brown, Wayne Simmonds, Teddy Purcell, Oscar Miller and Trevor Lewis up front, with Doughty, Johnson and Harrold on defense and youngsters Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg in goal.
Lombardi has used both drafts and deals to rebuild the Kings, beginning shortly after his arrival in April 2006 when he traded Pavol Demitra to Minnesota for Patrick O'Sullivan and a first-round pick. In September 2006, he obtained the rights to Johnson from Carolina for Eric Belanger and Tim Gleason.
"Ryan is the type of player who fits with our team. He fills an important need as a player who has proven for years he'll put up numbers. Plus, he is a competitive, gritty, scoring left winger, and he fits with the overall identity we continue to build here." -- Kings' GM Dean Lombardi on Ryan Smyth
"You have to buy time for your team by bringing in a few free agents until you see that your team is ready to stand on its own feet," he said. "That's what we did with Rob Blake the first year, then we went after five more free agents in the summer of 2007 -- Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Tom Preissing, Kyle Calder and Brad Stuart.
"You have to show the fans something positive. You have to show them a sign of what is coming."
Last summer, Lombardi pulled off a big trade -- acquiring Stoll, a center, and Greene, a defenseman, from Edmonton for defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky. The Kings signed veteran defenseman Sean O'Donnell as a free agent.
Despite bringing Scuderi and Smyth into the fold, there are no dreams of a Stanley Cup just yet. But making the playoffs is definitely on the radar, especially when you consider the leaps and bounds this young roster made last season. And if they get close, Lombardi has draft choices to fill another need or two -- he has one first, two seconds and three thirds in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.