Dean Lombardi: did he break a promise to Jack Johnson by trading him?

You’re Full Of Shit Mr. Lombardi " Surly & Scribe's L.A. Kings Hockey Blog

Matt Barry gave us a transcript of the Bill Waters & Jack Johnson interview today. There are two parts I wanted to dissect from the interview and then discuss: [bold and italics are from the Waters interview; the rest is Scribe]

BILL WATERS: "WHEN YOU SIGNED THE LONG TERM EXTENSION, DID YOU HAVE A FEEL THAT THEY WERE SAYING, "HEY JACK, YOU’RE GONNA BE HERE FOR THE LENGTH OF THIS CONTRACT. OR AT NO TIME DID YOU FEEL THERE WAS ANY LONGEVITY PROMISED WHEN YOU GAVE THEM THAT EXTENSION?"

JJ "That’s exactly what they said when the deal was done, that "you’re gonna be here for a long time." That was the intensions of both parties. We weren’t just signing it just to get it over with. We were doing it to agree to be together for a long time. That was the intension at the time." "I knew as the trade deadline got closer there was a lot of rumblings going on. No one said that "The rumors weren’t true" or anything from the Kings standpoint so I knew where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire."

BILL WATERS: "WHEN LOMBARDI TOLD YOU ABOUT THE DEAL, DID HE SAY "I’M SORRY ABOUT THE PROMISE I ALLUDED TO?"

JJ No. It was a very short, sweet conversation. It was, "We dealt you Columbus. Thanks. Bye." Pretty short and sweet. There was really nothing that needed to be said.

"But it’s a business" I can hear you say. Perhaps. But integrity transcends that.

"But things change." Then don’t make the promise if you know it is not an honest one.

I take people for what they do, not what they say. If a person tries to convince me that they are one of character, integrity, honesty and honor before all, okay, I look for evidence of that. Dean Lombardi tries real hard to convince the fans that he is a man of honor and integrity, that his frustrations with so many things relate to that lack of "loyalty" which he claims takes various forms including a tattoo on the ass. Well, Jack Johnson bit on the bullshit. He took the tattoo and entered into a long-term, cap friendly hit. He also worked damn hard to earn it and, from my perspective, he did. His reward? Being shipped out.

[...] If I am face to face with Dean and this topic comes up, I nicely tell him, "you can’t expect to maintain credibility when you talk about loyalty, respect and integrity and then do the very opposite with your actions. Why would any player sign a cap friendly contract with you as a GM unless they are foolish enough to not know your history?"

And for all the griping that we did about Drew Doughty and his agent Don Meehan, perhaps what we should say is "good for you, Drew" for having a good agent who knew exactly what Dean Lombardi is and taking the dollars so if you are ever shipped out, you know you have the consistent big paycheck – it is "just a business" after all, right? [...] You’re full of shit, Mr. Lombardi. Regardless of how this trade works out for us, it won’t change that salient fact.

I don't agree with most of this, and I will tell you why. But I do want to acknowledge that a lot of people appear to feel the way Bobby Scribe does here. And I will also say, as long as I am being sympathetic to this point of view which I don't share, that the whole "Kings tattoo" meme -- call it the Lament for the Loyalty of By-Gone Days -- is pretty much totally hollow and everyone involved knows it.

I believe Dean Lombardi has a sentimental fondness for a notion of "team" that either (a) existed some time in the past, but no longer, (b) never really existed in any kind of pure form, but we like to think it did, or (c) exists only in movies and stories. The rag-tag band of brothers who put aside their self-interest and become bigger than their individual selves en route to winning the Big Game. Maybe it's the world the way we wish it was. I know that I frequently lament the fact of (for example) free agency, with players happily pursuing the biggest paycheck possible with barely a thought about sticking with the team that drafted them. I was even put off by the whole (supposedly heart-warming) story of Ray Bourque getting trading to the Avs so he could have a chance to win the cup, as though he'd personally earned it by being individually great despite the fact that his team hadn't earned it. Did it really feel so good to win the cup with a team he wasn't actually really a part of, but for those few short weeks? I'm not even sure if all this is on-point or not; what I'm getting at: I share that sentimental view of the past, or of a past that may or may not have existed.

One of the reasons players were so loyal in the "good old days" is that they had no power. They were paid so little that they had jobs in the off-season to make ends meet. And in the pre-draft days of the Original Six, some of that (genuine) loyalty was borne of the fact that teams held the rights to all players who lived within a certain radius around the team's home; the Canadiens had a corner on the market of all the local kids, who of course were loyal to the Habs because they grew up Habs fans. So, there was loyalty to team because it was literally your home team, like your high school team.

Bottom line: I share what I believe to be Dean Lombardi's wistful view of the past, even though I also know that this past was really just the past as I understood it before I learned how fucked up everything really was for those players back in the good old days.

Another reason I am largely sympathetic to Dean Lombardi's team tattoo pitch, even though I know it's mostly hot air and isn't in any way reciprocal or contractually-binding:

I can add.

In the world of the salary cap, players who are predominantly out for the biggest paycheck no matter where it comes from are not problematic because they're self-absorbed primadonnas (presumably they're talented enough for everyone to look the other way); these guys and their salaries are a problem because you can't pay one player 20% of your entire payroll without it affecting your ability to surround that player with a supporting cast that will make winning possible.

You can either believe this or not. I believe it.

To the degree that it's all about the cap, Lombardi's pitch to players (to accept cap hits that make building the team possible) is entirely self-interested. But that's not only expected, it's good. Because Lombardi's self-interest and ours have this giant overlap:

We both want the Kings to win the Stanley Cup.

And the fact is, Lombardi's pitch to his players and to us, with the examples of Brown and Johnson making cap-friendly deals in order to make it possible to keep more pieces when the time comes (e.g. Doughty) or to add more and bigger pieces when the time comes (e.g. Carter, Richards, Scuderi, Mitchell, Gagne, even Penner, poor hapless millionaire that he is) has the virtue of being true. Add another million or half million or whatever to each of the contracts Lombardi has negotiated and suddenly it's not possible to add the pieces he's added. Presumably, this summer people are going to expect Lombardi to pursue Zach Parise or whomever, as he pursued Brad Richards, or Kovalchuk, or Hossa (we can talk in another post about why he generally hasn't been able to lure those people). The question of exactly how much cap room there is to pursue these people -- not to mention re-signing Jonathan Quick, or Slava Voynov, or pick your own favorite, when the time comes -- is a huge part of a GM's job. Aside from evaluating talent, managing development, and minding the cap, what else is there?

Now, back to the JJ interview and Bobby's comments:

  • JJ doesn't say that Lombardi promised him he wouldn't be traded. The interviewer seems to be trying to get him to say this, and Bobby reads JJ's response as affirming that. But, to my ears, all JJ says is, the intention of both parties at the time was that this was for the long haul...but it didn't work out that way.
  • Bobby says that "integrity transcends" the fact that "this is a business." First of all, it's manifestly and obviously a business. And Dean Lombardi's job is to build the Kings into a winner so that he, his players, his coaches, his staff, and AEG, can all be bigger, greater, richer, more successful and just generally happier. And so we, the fans, will be happier, and in our happiness we will spend more money on Kings' stuff. And also because it's more fun to be a winner than a loser. That's the business. The winning business.
  • What role does "integrity" play in that business, or in any human interaction? Aside from the general platitude that people with integrity are "good" and people without it are on a slippery slope to "bad", there's this: lack of integrity -- in the absence of absolute power -- is bad for business. Lombardi can't do his job -- the job of getting the Cup -- if no-one wants to do business with him.
  • There are several groups of interested parties involved here. There's the players, the other GMs, the fans, and AEG. I think we can take the GMs and owners off the table, since the kind of lack of integrity Bobby is talking about here -- the implied contract on a par with "no, you don't look fat in that dress" -- would not be seen by those groups in a negative light. It's just what you say according to the contract-signing etiquette book.
  • I've signed lots of contracts, and people always say words to the effect of "you're going to be here for a long time." "This is the start of a beautiful friendship." It's not a contractually binding promise of any ****ing kind. It's a platitude. They never say, "of course you realize, we've already started ****ing you over", or "really we'll trade you the first chance we get to upgrade." They never say it.
  • The gist of what Waters is trying to get Johnson to say, and what Bobby is reading into it, is: "Dean Lombardi promised not to trade me, but he lied! HE LIED!" I'm sorry, but that's just disingenuous. A promise not to trade a player is called a NO TRADE CLAUSE. If you don't have it, you don't have it, you don't have it (you don't have it). Jack Johnson did not rely on Dean Lombardi's "you're going to be here for a long time" as if it were a guarantee of any kind. Nor did anybody else.
  • The whole reason Dean Lombardi doesn't give no-trade/no-move clauses is so that he has flexibility in managing his roster, SO THAT HE CAN TRADE PLAYERS.
  • Visnovsky was here when Lombardi went out and got Johnson. Those two could have been the cornerstones of the franchise. Except it didn't work out that way. JJ was, perhaps, slow to develop; Lubo had a bad season; the Kings found themselves in a position to draft Drew Doughty. Suddenly, Lubo was expendable. Lombardi traded Visnovsky and handed the keys to Doughty and Johnson. That was a decision that had huge impact on those two players' development. Even if Lombardi hadn't traded Lubo then, he would have had to make a choice between Lubo and JJ by the time JJ signed his contract last year. And then he would have had to make another choice, between JJ and Voynov. Like he just did.
  • As soon as Voynov started to look ready, it was a known fact that one of Voynov, JJ or Doughty was going to be traded. We talked about this frequently on this blog.
  • Just like the emergence of Alec Martinez means that a choice will be made between Martinez and Thomas Hickey.
  • And in two years, Nicolas Deslauriers (a faster and possibly even nastier JJ 2.0) will be ready, hopefully. And it's not likely that we'll have Doughty, Voynov, Martickey AND Deslauriers for very long.
  • That's how it goes. There has to (always, always) be a steady stream of prospects coming "ripe" in time to take the place of players who are getting their big contracts. Otherwise the whole cap model falls apart.
  • Why do you think Lombardi is holding onto Jonathan Bernier until Quick's next deal is done (next season some time, we hope)?
  • If Lombardi wasn't arranging his assets like a laddered portfolio of bonds, with a few coming due every year, he wouldn't be doing his job. He would be building a time-bomb.
  • Many GMs don't mind the time-bomb approach. Because they know that they will likely be long gone by the time the bomb goes off, so what's the difference?
  • Lombardi is (perhaps stubbornly?) attached to his long view, his famous charts and boxes. This is another reason I like him. He's like a fan in this regard, making his little rosters, mapping out the team this year, next year, the year after. I do that too. I do it with Excel. He does it with a $60MM budget.
  • Adhering to a long-term plan, despite the fact that he might not even have a job after this summer...that's another definition of "integrity".
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