When general manager Dean Lombardi thinks about all the Los Angeles Kings could become, his mind only needs to wander down the hall at the Staples Center to the offices of another franchise that shares the arena with his hockey team.
"Being in Los Angeles, to really capture this market you have to win. And you can say that about a lot of markets, but in L.A. I think it's particularly so. I mean, right down the hall is the Lakers, and there's so much you can learn from them and see how a team can completely capture a city," Lombardi said while appearing as a guest on Thursday's "NHL Hour with Commissioner Gary Bettman."
"The one thing I noticed when I first got here was there is an incredibly loyal group of fans. They haven't won a Cup in 44 years, haven't won a division title in 20 years -- and it's amazing how these people still stick by this team."
The division title drought could come to an end in a matter of days. The Kings entered Thursday night's action leading the Pacific by a tiebreaker over the Coyotes, but also locked in a battle with the Sharks, Stars and Avalanche for the three remaining Western Conference playoff berths. Los Angeles plays a home-and-home with San Jose to end the regular season and determine its postseason fate.
"I think the biggest thing is to believe in your coach and believe in your players and believe in yourself," Lombardi said when asked how he's been able to handle the roller-coaster ride in the Pacific that over the past month has seen all four contenders occupy first place. "You learn that with experience -- I've had some great teachers -- but in the end it's about your players, and they've been a pretty solid group here as people."
Led by goaltender Jonathan Quick and his League-leading 10 shutouts, the Kings have played their best hockey when the stakes have been the highest, going 9-2-1 over their last dozen games to rise from 11th in the West all the way up to third.
They made a key acquisition at the trade deadline in Jeff Carter, who's currently injured but expected to be ready for the playoffs if L.A. gets there. Lombardi said it was more than just the deal for Carter that sparked the resurgence.
"The improvement in the team, particularly this last stretch, these last 25 games -- you look at our record and it was at an over 100-point clip -- it wasn't just Jeff, it was bringing up three kids from our system," he said. "Bringing up [Dwight] King, [Jordan] Nolan and [Slava] Voynov, and they fit. And that was probably where I didn't do as good a job as I should have done at the beginning of the season. You can build with matchups, but you've got to be cognizant of fit. And I think, personally, I could have done a better job there.
"So it's not only Jeff as a player, it's that his M.O. fit with what else we had, just like Nolan, King and Voynov fit. And the other thing I think it does, don't forget, when an owner allows you to go out and make a significant move for a player of Carter's stature, it's telling your players that your owner's committed to winning. And that has a huge impact on them. OK, he got hurt, but they look at it and say, 'Wow, this guy we needed and he fits on this team. This organization wants to win.'"
Of course, the closest the Kings ever came to lifting the Stanley Cup was during the Wayne Gretzky era, when the team went to the Final in 1993 and lost to the Canadiens in five games. Even though they couldn't bring home a championship, Gretzky's notoriety and the success enjoyed by the team during those years increased the popularity of hockey in Southern California and created a ripple effect that continues to be felt to this day.
"The kids playing here, it's unbelievable," Lombardi said. "You've got the team from L.A. that's going to the nationals here, the 15- and 16-year-olds. You see kids now from Southern California go out to play in the Western Hockey League, and that would have been unheard of 10 years ago.
"So we're starting to get a little of that buzz I think they had during the Gretzky era … and I think also, these fans have been great. To do the way we had to do this, go back to the draft table, they've stuck by this. And we've had some hiccups here this year and they still stuck with it. It's hard to find a fan base that probably deserves a champion more than these people who've waited 40 years."