EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Always one of the most honest and talkative general managers, the Los Angeles Kings' Dean Lombardi sat down with NHL.com for nearly an hour inside his office at the Toyota Sports Center earlier this week.
Lombardi's team, the one he has been building since taking over the GM's post in L.A. on April 21, 2006, begins play against Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals Sunday at Jobing.com Arena (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS).
Here is some of his insight on the type of hockey town Los Angeles is becoming, his feelings on what's important in building a franchise, the growth of star goalie Jonathan Quick, why the addition of coach Darryl Sutter has worked so well, and how he never felt his work was coming undone despite things looking so bleak as late as three-quarters of the way through the regular season:
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In what ways are things different around here now?
"When my scouts were in for the last series and they went outside on the plaza, it was pure anarchy. They've been around hockey a long time and they said they've never seen anything like it. They're not rookies at being around hockey events.
"Gretzky told me six years ago when I took the job, 'Dean, if you win there, it's the best hockey town in the world.' I thought he had a little too much time in the sun, but I think I'm starting, after seeing what it was like in Game 4, to understand what he's talking about.
"Mike Richards said he went out on the plaza, all those people were there, the fire trucks were going, and he said, 'I never saw this in Philly.' So, hey, they've got 44 years of pent-up emotion here and it's all ready to explode."
You've got eight guys on this roster that have been to the Stanley Cup Final or won it. How important was that in building this roster?
"Critical. Critical. When Darryl and I were in San Jose it was one of the standards we tried to use, been to the Finals or won it. Obviously it's easier said than done, but the term we always used here was you were building a culture as well as a team. They're not always necessarily the top players, I think of Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene, but they're great team guys and they do anything it takes to win -- and they've been there.
"You can't flip a switch, but when you put up on the board the qualities you are looking for -- shot, speed, size, rings get in there. And to get to the Final, those guys know it's a war of attrition and the price you have to pay. Experience is invaluable. Even the coach. Darryl having been through it in Chicago and Calgary, it's experience you can't buy."
"I guess it's a little bit of both. With Johnnie's growth process, the first thing I think of is he was in the East Coast Hockey League and Billy Ranford went to go see him, and he fell asleep on the couch. That's how far he's come.
"Here's a guy who came out of UMass, he wasn't good enough to play in Manchester, so we sent him to the East Coast League. I knew as an organization we had to get this goaltending fixed. We just drafted Bernier and I hired two goaltending coaches because these guys had to get taught. Johnnie had to start in the East Coast League, Bill Ranford went to go see him, and there was no Jonathan Quick. He was asleep on the couch, forgot to set the alarm. I'll never forget it. So, when you ask me how far he's come, that's how far he's come.
"But to his credit, he was always a competitor and a great athlete. I have to give a lot of credit to Dave Taylor. He drafted him and he's a heck of a piece. He and Bernier are both top guys, but I think they're both driven. Bernier, in fact, is the underrated guy in all of this. It's not like he's played bad; the other guy has just played better."
Why was Darryl Sutter the right guy for this team?
"There are so many things I can say. You gotta start with the man. There is honesty to him and a very underrated intelligence. Everyone wants to paint him as a farmer, but this guy had a full boat to Princeton, and quite frankly if he had gone that way I wouldn't be surprised if this guy was on Wall Street right now. He is very sharp but because he's a cowboy, us liberal intellects from the Northeast want to label him as stupid. We tend to do that. That's the thing that is really underrated here.
"So, it's the honesty of the man, the intelligence of the man, and how players that played for him respect him.
"The other thing is he has an identity. Unfortunately today it's hard to have an identity because we want to please everybody, so we become a phony and stand for nothing. If you're going to have an identity, yeah, some people aren't going to like it, but at least it's honest. It doesn't mean you're rude to anybody. He gives your team an identity, but it's still about the players.
"I also sensed he was going to be a better coach having seen the big picture as a general manager and having taken seven months off at the farm. I thought he would be a better coach than he was before."
Did you ever feel that it was unraveling this season?
"No, because the guys cared and I knew it was a good team. A lot of the problems at the beginning of the season were my fault. I violated a couple of the rules I was taught, I got away from fit. We had brought in good players, but they weren't in the best position to succeed.
"The adjustments we were able to make: Bringing up (Jordan) Nolan and (Dwight) King; (Slava) Voynov pairing with (Willie) Mitchell; (Jeff) Carter going with (Mike) Richards; Jarret Stoll moving to the third line, where he belongs, versus trying to score on the second. Those adjustments addressed the issue of fit. It wasn't necessarily just Carter, it was everybody got into their right roles and our scoring went way up in the last 20 games. We actually outscored Vancouver.
"Carter was the piece that was missing, but that doesn't work without King and Nolan. The size and the speed got upgraded. It's a domino effect. Even Voynov going in with Mitchell, I can't do the Jack Johnson deal for Carter without Voynov coming in. And the byproduct is it's actually a really good fit because it's lefty-righty.
"But a lot of the problems we were having early, a lot of that was my fault. I liked the players, but the fit wasn't right. Fit in hockey is critical, and that's my fault. I never felt it was unraveling, but we had to do a lot. The one thing I have always said about this group, it really cares. That's the No. 1 thing. Those 20 guys, they really do care. That doesn't mean they don't have to learn how to compete and they don't have to learn how to be pushed, but if you don't care you've got no chance. If you don't care you're going to break when things get hard. It's a good group of guys. Caring about the jersey is not something you see a lot of in sports today, but you can really sense that in our dressing room.
"As long as they keep that and they continue to learn how to compete, they might be able to pull something off here."
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