The Decline of Dean Lombardi
The long road from two Cups to unemployment.
In the 11 years that Dean Lombardi was with the Los Angeles Kings, he built something magical, something wonderful that ended up defying the odds not once, but twice. There’s no denying that Lombardi is a brilliant hockey mind and he had a good idea of how to build a team. Unfortunately, things in the NHL have changed and philosophies have shifted (as they have over the last several decades) towards getting younger and faster. Right before his eyes, Lombardi witnessed the declining usage of enforcers, reduction in fights, and increase in talented bottom-six players who can score. But he couldn’t quite comprehend what was happening.
Flashier players such as Vladimir Tarasenko, Nathan MacKinnon, and Johnny Gaudreau were finding success. Gone are the days of beating your opponent into submission – you can’t hit what you can’t catch. But instead of recognizing the shift in trends, Lombardi doubled down. After all, he was correct in 2014 when everyone thought his Kings would have a tough time against much faster, more skilled teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers. What he failed to recognize, though, was the amount of luck and timing that went into 2014.
To understand what went wrong with the Kings and where Lombardi failed, we have to go back to 2009, when the Pittsburgh Penguins won it all. Already there was beginning to be a noticeable shift in how teams were built when the Penguins were led by two guys named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (you may have heard of them.) The very next year, the Chicago Blackhawks climbed their way to glory. In the ensuing years there were only two outliers: the 2011 Boston Bruins and the 2012 Los Angeles Kings. Similarly built to be “big” and “tough,” the odds favored these two coastal cities in consecutive years. Sweeping changes hadn’t occurred throughout the league just yet, but other general managers were taking note of what happened that year and were starting to change the directions in how to build their team. This was also when attitudes towards so-called “fancy stats” started to change, which affects how GMs construct rosters today.
The year following the Kings’ first title, the lockout was followed by Chicago dominating the league in such an obscene manner that they didn’t lose in regulation for 20+ games. The streak featured plenty of luck but they were also one of the best teams in the NHL. During the Western Conference Final, the Blackhawks cut through the Kings’ defense like a hot knife through butter. LA looked slow and tired compared to their opponents. Yes, part of that was due to injury. But a lot of it was that the other team was just so much better.
In 2014, Lady Luck (or variance if you will) smiled on the Kings. Everything they accomplished was against the odds, especially after going down 0-3 to the San Jose Sharks. The thing that saved them in their run through the Western Conference (because it sure wasn’t Jonathan Quick) was an outrageous shooting percentage. (Or, outrageous by their standards, at least.) Everything went right as LA neared their second Cup, from a random double deflection off Nick Leddy in overtime of Game 7 against Chicago to a controversial non-call for goalie interference early in the third period of Game 2 against the New York Rangers, setting the stage for a comeback and a 2-0 series lead. That summer, high off a second title in three years, Lombardi added another bad contract to the team’s growing cap concerns. Marian Gaborik was absolutely instrumental in that playoff run and there was no way they would’ve won anything without his 22 points in 26 games (to go along with Jeff Carter and Justin Williams each tallying 25 points).
There were already whispers about the cap stagnating in the near future and the team was already pushing the limit with expensive long term contracts to Quick and Dustin Brown, with consideration for the next year when Tyler Toffoli would be a restricted free agent. Toffoli had also been an important piece of the Cup run that year when he, Tanner Pearson, and Carter caught fire. Initially, there was optimism that the NHL’s landmark TV deal with Rogers would push the cap up to the high 60s, low 70s but that never materialized, and as hockey-related revenue barely budged, that meant no significant increases in the salary cap, either.
Unable to keep Williams for the amount he desired, the Kings (who really had no plans to keep him beyond 2015 anyway), let him walk. During his tenure in LA, the Canadian winger, when healthy, was a consistent near 20-goal scorer. The big move of 2015, the trade deadline acquisition of Andrej Sekera, was to fill a more pressing need on defense in lieu of Slava Voynov self-deporting. The Kings missed the playoffs that season, largely due to bad luck in one-goal games and injuries to key players at the end of the year when goals were in desperately short supply. However, poor offense contributed to their pitiful record in one-goal games. While the coach has his share of the blame, the general manager did not do enough in this instance to ice the best possible roster to garner success.
Knowing he needed to boost the team’s depth scoring, Lombardi went out and acquired Milan Lucic, a big, burly winger with a nasty temper who likes to hit. He’s also been a consistent 20-goal scorer over his career, which would fill (and possibly upgrade) the hole that Williams left a year prior. For Lucic, Lombardi gave up a first-round draft pick (the 13th overall pick), Martin Jones, and top defensive prospect Colin Miller. Miller had been struggling with LA’s strict defensive style, especially in his own zone, so trading him meant little to the organization. What was painful was the general overpayment, especially since Lombardi was armed with the knowledge that their fiercest rival had designs on the Kings’ backup goalie. A sort of “gentleman’s agreement” was struck with Don Sweeney not to trade Jones to San Jose, who immediately turned around and dealt the netminder anyway. Lucic delivered as promised and after a slow start, eventually seemed to form great chemistry with both Anze Kopitar and Toffoli. For all intents and purposes, he appeared to fit in quite well in Los Angeles. But Lombardi waited until the offseason and eventually couldn’t squeeze Lucic in under the cap.
Heading into a make-or-break season with his job on the line, Lombardi’s big move was to acquire Jack Campbell as a rehabilitation project and Jeff Zatkoff as expansion draft fodder. No one could’ve foreseen Quick’s injury in the first game of the season or Zatkoff failing to secure the number one spot but curiously, the organization lost faith in Peter Budaj by February. They had numerous opportunities throughout the season to shore up the position and remained steadfast in hoping two career backups could keep the Kings afloat long enough to limp into the playoffs. It’s not Budaj’s fault that Darryl Sutter had no faith in Zatkoff and it’s definitely not his fault that the guys in front of him couldn’t score. With a limited market at the trade deadline, the Kings made on minor move to boost their offense, with Lombardi demanding that the bulk of the change come from within. Hoping that a punch would come from 39-year-old Jarome Iginla, who had managed to score all of eight goals prior to landing in Los Angeles, was probably not the best idea, though he did score six goals on just 33 shots.
Then there’s the Ben Bishop trade. Nothing against Bishop, but even in hindsight, this swap doesn’t make sense. The problem wasn’t goaltending and even if it was, a more-rested Budaj combined with a healthy(ish) Quick could have given the team a solid one-two tandem. Bishop only makes sense if they had planned to play him instead of Quick, which they didn’t.
What ultimately has been slowly killing the Kings is their lack of depth scoring. That’s been a major issue since Lombardi took over and he’s never really addressed it. He hasn’t kept up with the times. As great of a leader as Trevor Lewis probably is, he scored a career-high 12 goals in 82 goals this year. Career highs for Andy Andreoff and Kyle Clifford are eight and six respectively. That’s not good enough anymore. But Lombardi still thought that grit meant something. It just became too redundant to have the same type of player fill the bottom six.
Oh, and there’s the loyalty problem. Long known for his beliefs in team identity and loyalty, Lombardi had already made several missteps when he inked Brown and Quick to the deals that he did. In 2014, the Kings had been granted a gift. Thanks to the 2012 lockout, general managers were given two years to use two compliance buyouts. These total, get-out-of-jail-free cards allowed management to essentially wipe out any player’s cap hit. Mike Richards had been struggling all season long and had seen his ice time and production drop. By utilizing the CBO, Lombardi could make a difficult business decision while appearing to remain “loyal” to the star center he’d once coveted in Philadelphia. Rather, he chose to visit the Kenora native, exercise with him, look him in the eye, and let the opportunity pass him by.
This so-called “loyalty” factor landed Lombardi and the entire Kings organization in hot water later that fall when Voynov was charged with domestic violence. Apparently not realizing the seriousness of a player assaulting his wife, Lombardi invited the Russian defenseman to practice with the team during his mandatory suspension as the NHL investigated his arrest. I’m not positive he ever understood why this was such a terrible thing to do.
The summer of 2015, with Kings missing playoffs by two measly points at the hands of the Calgary Flames, Jarret Stoll was caught with a few grams of cocaine in his pocket. Lombardi admittedly cried when he sat down with the center following Stoll’s arrest. No tears were shed for Richards when he was caught at the Canadian border with a bottle of OxyContin. Instead, his contract was terminated and he had a legal battle over it, despite some emotional quotes to the Los Angeles Times. But Lombardi is totally a stand-up guy. He handled the stripping of Dustin Brown’s captaincy with grace and aplomb… by letting it play out publicly in the media.
In the end, Lombardi’s greatest undoing was his inability to change and keep up with the times. He’d rather be a dinosaur then acknowledge that things are not the same as they were even three years ago.