When Dean Lombardi was hired to be the general manager in Los Angeles following the 2005-06 season, he made sure to sign a five-year contract.
He's no fool.
Lombardi promised a plan to skin the Kings' franchise to its bare bones and start from scratch, building through the Entry Draft and then interspersing the right pieces when necessary. He knew the Kings would struggle for a while, but he steadfastly refused to waver and buy into the quick-fix theory that had been the team's failing model for years.
It's Year Four of that five-year deal and Lombardi's Kings are ahead of schedule.
Entering the weekend, Los Angeles was second in the Pacific Division and fourth in the Western Conference with 28 points. They boast one of the League's premier forwards in Anze Kopitar and two of the best young defensemen in Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson.
Lombardi drafted Doughty and traded for Johnson. He lowered expectations on Kopitar, allowing the young Slovenian to develop at his own pace. He's now a Hart Trophy candidate.
"I've been through this in San Jose and it was the same type of model, build a team and a reserve list at the same time," Lombardi, the GM in San Jose for seven years, told NHL.com. "That was the mission given when I took this job. I looked at the reserve list and there were no young defensemen and no young goalies and you'll never win a Cup unless you get that. "The first part we accomplished by becoming one of the youngest defenses in the League and, if you remember back in San Jose , we got better six years in a row, but we got younger each year. You're getting a better team and your reserve list is getting stronger. You're building a good team and your franchise is acquiring depth which then allows you to go out and make your deals to push you over the top."
Of the 25 players who have played at least one game for the Kings this season, 18 were acquired by Lombardi either through the draft, free agency or trades. Ten of the players on the Kings' roster are 25 or younger.
The only big splashes he's made in the free agency or trade market came this past summer when he convinced Ryan Smyth to waive his no-trade clause to come to L.A. and then persuaded free agent Rob Scuderi to sign a long-term contract.
|Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, right, of Slovenia, is chased by San Jose Sharks right wing Devin Setoguchi during the first period of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar) |
The moves were a clear sign from Lombardi that he felt his team was ready to go to the next level and become a playoff contender. That's precisely what has happened, but only because Smyth and Scuderi have been perfect fits.
Before suffering his upper-body injury, which will keep him out a month, Smyth was playing alongside Kopitar, driving the net and battling in the corners to help the young star pile up points. Justin Williams, acquired in a deadline deal last season, was flourishing on the right side of that line, one of the best in the NHL.
Scuderi, who has missed three-straight games entering Saturday, has for the most part been just the steady, stay-at-home veteran the Kings needed to play with ultra-offensive and talented Doughty.
"That's the other sign you are getting better is when you go to the marketplace and you are looking for fits," Lombardi said. "Ryan Smyth and Rob Scuderi are perfect fits."
The fit is what matters most to Lombardi, which is why he will not make a splash for the sake of making a splash.
So, for instance, even if Tampa Bay ever decides it wants to trade Vinny Lecavalier (they deny they will), Lombardi won't immediately pick up the phone.
He does not want to lose focus on the grand plan, which is to build a winning team from within and keep the assets it has developed when those players are up for new contracts.
Lombardi hopes guys like Kopitar, Doughty, Johnson, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick can one day turn the franchise over to a new group of young players who will continue on with a tradition they built.
"That's the thing Detroit and Philadelphia and New Jersey have," Lombardi said. "Immediately when a draft pick walks in, he stands for something. I have challenged these kids with that. They were told that before they were drafted that what we have done here has never been done in L.A. and you have to be the ones to lead the charge."
Lombardi always had faith in his plan, even when the team was losing and the fans were disenchanted.
He vividly remembers his first meeting with the season-ticket holders. He was trying to explain why he feels drafting and organizational structure is important to building a team, but they said they had heard it all before.
|The Los Angeles Kings' Anze Kopitar, left, of Slovenia, and Jarret Stoll, right, congratulate teammate Kyle Quincey, center, after he scored a goal in the third period against the Anaheim Ducks during an NHL hockey game in Anaheim, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009. (AP Photo/Branimir Kvartuc) |
"I said, 'Oh really?' " Lombardi said. "I put up on the board a list of some Kings' draft picks and I said name me the first first-round pick who has had a career with the Kings. It was Jay Wells. It was incredible. Their whole thing was they were L.A. and they can't build through the draft. You have to try to be that bad."
Lombardi said he went on to explain to the fans that the Kings have tried "splash and dash and sold this thing where you need that. Well, L.A. is like every other city; they want winners. They had Kobe and Shaq, but they won.
"The hard part is they can't see a draft pick and they don't want to hear about a plan."
But when the plan started to show some life last season, Lombardi sensed a shift in the thinking of the fans. They started to see what he was doing and they finally started to understand what the first three seasons under Lombardi were all about.
"What they see now is hope," Lombardi said, referencing the team's top affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, one of the youngest and best teams in the AHL.
"It's a long way from hope to knowing we're going to get this done, but at least you're starting to see some of this plan come to fruition. We have a tremendous amount of work to do here."
Lombardi still has time to get it done. He gave it to himself by signing that five-year deal.
"There is a core of fans here that is every bit as knowledgeable as what you get in Boston or Toronto," Lombardi said. "So many of them know exactly what I am doing and they are saying, 'We're behind this.' "
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org