Dean Lombardi’s Right: He’ll Be His Own Harshest Critic

At least, when it comes to those who run hockey teams.

The days of “In Dean We Trust” feel like a distant memory right now.

Team USA lost their third, and final, round robin game to the Czech Republic yesterday. They finished the 2016 World Cup of Hockey with an 0-3 record. They were outscored 11-5. They were easily the worst team in the weaker of the two tournament groups. It was under Dean Lombardi’s watch. It was, in every respect, a failure.

And somehow, that’s both the best and the worst thing you can say about Lombardi’s role in this debacle. John Tortorella was the wrong coach. The defensemen, aside from Ryan McDonagh, contributed nothing and (in a number of cases) less than nothing. Patrick Kane, expected to lead the offense, had zero goals and set up a European 2-on-0 with a brutal turnover. Jonathan Quick allowed seven goals on 44 shots, and he even had a chance on some of them. Ben Bishop was worse. So, yes, the blame can go in any number of directions. However, if you’re the mastermind and none of the guys you chose came through, it’s gonna come back to you eventually. All of it.

Dean Lombardi isn’t stupid, though. When asked about leaving Phil Kessel at home, he immediately brought up five players the USA management team picked over Kessel, and two of the first three were the two most-criticized choices, Justin Abdelkader and Brandon Dubinsky. He knows which choices didn’t pay off, and he knows that this comes back to him. But he probably also knows that this isn’t going to be a death knell for his hockey career. For one, he still expects people to buy his book. But for another, he thinks the harshest judgment will come from within.

When it comes to American fans, he’s wrong. When it comes to the self-contained world of hockey, he’s right, and here are three reasons why.

  1. History. If you’re a player or a coach in the National Hockey League, you keep your job by answering the question, “What have you done for me lately?” If you’re a GM, you keep your job for a few years unless you’re a total disaster, and if you win, you’ll keep your job for a lot longer. All 30 teams in the NHL have changed coaches since Dean Lombardi was hired as the Kings’ GM ten years ago, and over those ten years, he’s done more than enough to ensure that this won’t be his legacy. His career-defining moves are three acquisitions: Darryl Sutter, Jeff Carter, and Marian Gaborik. That’s because they won Stanley Cups, and that’s the way it works in the NHL. Speaking of:
  2. It’s not the NHL. Simply put, a colossal failure in a three-game tournament won’t bring any sort of genuine consequence. American hockey fans can be mad (and boy, are they ever) but will anyone in LA really hold this against Lombardi if 2016-17 is a good year for the Kings? It might even be a blessing, if Lombardi might take some of this embarrassment to heart and makes some sound decisions. Wouldn’t that be something?
  3. He’s the rule, not the exception. Let’s read that Kessel answer again.

A lot of people have framed this as “LOMBARDI WOULD STILL CHOOSE ABDELKADER OVER KESSEL!” Read it with Dean’s legendary loyalty in mind, though. Regardless of what he really thinks, there’s no way he’d throw any of the US players under the bus this soon. Having said that, I think Lombardi genuinely believes those five guys were all a benefit to his squad, and I think a lot of people in hockey might agree with him.

Remember Scott Burnside’s inside look at the 2014 US Olympic team’s selection? Read this passage and understand that the two dreamers below are (1) the NHL’s longest-tenured GM and (2) a guy who’s run various organizations for nearly as long.

With a little more than a month until the team is to be announced, GM David Poile confesses on the Nov. 25 conference call that he had a dream that defenseman Jack Johnson wasn't named to the squad. Poile was wracked with angst, believing they'd made a horrible mistake.

Later, as a counterpoint, Brian Burke says he'd had a dream the U.S. team lost a medal game because of a mistake made by 19-year-old rookie defenseman Seth Jones.

Lombardi came off as the smartest guy in the room because he brought some stats on Keith Yandle. He also didn’t get his way.

Those unquantifiable judgments still matter a whole lot to hockey executives. Little has changed in the last two years, and it was on display at the World Cup even as Team USA stole the headlines. Barry Melrose declared, “I still believe in will over skill,” as Canada was dismantling the USA in front of him. Canada, for their part, chose Jay Bouwmeester over P.K. Subban. (Jake Muzzin, too, but good luck getting me to criticize that choice.) And Sweden is fortunate that an injury to Niklas Kronwall allowed them to take Hampus Lindholm instead. Wonder what would’ve happened if Team North America was offered a veteran exemption... they probably would have jumped at a chance to replace Ryan Murray or Jacob Trouba with Brooks Orpik.

Dean Lombardi and Team USA might learn something from the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Based on past history, a lot of owners and general managers at the NHL level won’t. Lombardi’s getting raked over the coals now, but he’ll survive to continue leading the Kings. If there are similar nightmares in LA, though, he’ll have no trouble finding the critics.