Dean Lombardi's Loyalty Problem
"his mo is to hold onto these guys for loyalty reasons until they become completely untradeable" - <a href="https://twitter.com/andrewleafman/status/587641562697494528">Andrew Leafman</a>
Dean Lombardi loves baseball, he loves to talk, and he loves his team.
Many of the ways Dean Lombardi has gone about building this Kings team have assured them of the success they've enjoyed over the past six seasons, playoff spot this season be damned. He protected his draft picks, valued development, and remained patient with his young players as they matured.
He largely avoided the big contracts handed out on the free agency day, though in some cases that appeared to be accidental as opposed to any actual accomplishment by Lombardi. Though many of his free agent signings didn't work out to any real degree, they were of such low risk that nothing was significantly damaged by them.
Lombardi also made a wealth of deft acquisitions via the trade market. Even prior to the Jeff Carter trade, he made nice, low-key plays, like the time he acquired Freddy Modin for literally nothing. While it's true that not all of his trades have been winners, no one scores a goal every time they step on the ice.
Probably the most important thing Dean ever did was get a lot of luck.
Anze Kopitar slipped in the draft because he was from an obscure country, and then slipped into Lombardi's hands after Dave Taylor was fired. Tyler Toffoli slipped in the draft because teams misjudged how much his sub-average skating would affect his game. Justin Williams stayed healthy after a career of doing the opposite. Jonathan Quick turned into a top-flight netminder for an entire season out of the blue. The Philadelphia Flyers made a pair of highly-valued centers available, and the Kings got the better of the two for literally nothing.
The truth about Dean Lombardi's success in Los Angeles is this: he is a smart general manager that has made a handful of really good moves, a handful of terrible moves, and a handful of tremendously lucky moves. This makes him not unlike the vast majority of GMs in sports. They do the best they can to ensure a lucky outcome, and it takes a lot of good fortune just to stumble into even more good fortune.
What we know about the players on this team is that they can play the game of hockey exceptionally well. They utilize a great system, they have outstanding talent, and they probably have one of the more effective coaches in the league.
We know that most of the players currently on the Kings roster had a track record of success prior to joining the team. Jeff Carter didn't become more excellent by joining the Kings. Anze Kopitar has developed as a King, but was a first round draft pick for a reason. Marian Gaborik has always been terrific. Dustin Brown smoked the AHL in the season before he settled into a permanent role in the NHL. Justin Williams had a long history of the exact kind of success that he has enjoyed in Los Angeles.
All of this is to say that these Kings don't appear to be better as Kings than they would be elsewhere. Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll declined after arriving in Los Angeles. Natural aging curves apply to both, of course, but that's exactly the point. The Kings don't appear to play better simply because they exist around each other. Not a very romantic thought, of course, but probably true nonetheless.
If Lombardi believes that the most important factor in the Kings' sustained success is loyalty, then he has completely missed the mark. The most important thing Dean Lombardi has done is acquire good players. He has done it repeatedly. He traded for Justin Williams, Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, and Andrej Sekera. He retained Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Dustin Brown. He developed Tyler Toffoli, Jake Muzzin, and Alec Martinez. Those are good hockey players. That they happen to also be loyal people isn't unimportant, but it also isn't the primary reason to employ them on a hockey team.
Where loyalty and trust in your teammates probably has an impact is in a situation like the one the Kings faced last April. When your backs are against the wall, maybe you don't buckle as easily as you might otherwise. That, of course, still happens to be an incredibly rare circumstance for any team. Even when loyalty and trust and all of those intangibles matter, it still takes a lot of good luck - like, say, the Sharks coming out flat in game 5 on home ice - to actually get anything done.
Case in point: the 2014-15 Kings. This team had their backs against the wall. They responded. They saved their season. Then they weren't lucky and they lost out in the end anyway.
In his post-season interviews with various reporters, Dean Lombardi stated that his first love isn't hockey, it's team. That's all well and good, but it's not relevant either. Dean Lombardi's job is to build a team, yes, but that team's purpose is winning hockey games. What I don't think matters in a real sense, beyond personally finding it cute or fun, is how much these guys love being around each other. It's very easy to build a team of guys that love each other and lose a lot of hockey games.
Lombardi's loyalty obsession stabs with more than just one prong. If he's only identifying his hockey players as human, then he leaves a lot of other people in the dust. There is no question that you have to identify the fact that your players are more than just commodities. You have to care for them and work for them because they are human beings. You also have to recognize the rest of the world's population as human.
Dean Lombardi, time and time again, has not done this. He has valued his team - his baby, his creation - above all else. In failing to worry about problems that extend beyond his personal bubble, Lombardi has devalued the lives of women hockey fans. Slava Voynov is not a poor, unfortunate soul. He's a man that most likely did a very bad thing. Even after acknowledging that, there is a way to care about his life, and even his ability to contribute to this hockey team, that doesn't also serve to diminish a significant portion of the people that actually care about what Dean Lombardi has built. There is a way to care about your hockey team and also everything else that isn't your hockey team.
That is a subject for better minds than mine, and Shana Naomi did a superb job in the linked piece, so I'll leave it at that.
Dean Lombardi's obsession with "team" above all else has already been felt on the ice. Mike Richards was an absolute tap-in to be bought out. He had already been demoted to the 4th line in the playoffs prior to his potential dismissal from the team. He had never really succeeded as expected after joining the Kings, save for one very productive playoff run. Lombardi, relentlessly in pursuit of protecting his team, lipped out the putt. Now he's likely going to be forced to count large chunks of an unproductive player's contract against the salary cap for years to come.
Robyn Regehr and Jarret Stoll had no business being extended when they were. Jonathan Quick's case was more complicated, because he was legitimately terrific in the season prior to his contract extension, but the timing was poor. Lombardi had another season to wait and see what Quick was all about. After all, 2011-12 was the only time Quick has definitely been the superstar many think he always is. It's never a particularly good idea to give away big money and big term for one good year. Dustin Brown's contract was at least somewhat laughable from the moment it was signed, and it may already be too late to trade out from under it. Jordan Nolan and Kyle Clifford both recently signed contracts that don't make a lick of sense. They're not disastrous, but why do they exist?
The boat hasn't been sunk yet because the crew has been stellar, but Anze Kopitar and his group of super-friends can't bail out water at this rate forever. After a certain point, Lombardi's fealty to loyalty becomes an increasingly large threat to the buoyancy of this ship.