During the on-ice celebrations after the 2014 Stanley Cup final, Dean Lombardi took it all in, leaning against the players’ bench and getting a little philosophical. He talked about it “being a war out there,” and he wasn’t referring to the New York Rangers, the team his Los Angeles Kings had vanquished in five games to take their second Stanley Cup in three years.
He was referring to the Chicago Blackhawks, the team his Kings vanquished in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference final in one of the finest playoff series the NHL has ever seen. Lombardi compared his team and the Blackhawks to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. (A native of Ludlow, Mass., Lombardi, we reckon, assumed the persona of the Red Sox.) He talked about how the two teams brought out the best in each other and how challenging it would be to keep up to the franchise that set the gold standard.
He wasn’t being presumptuous or pompous about his success. He was articulating what everybody else in the hockey world was thinking. It seemed for a while the only two teams in the NHL that could beat the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks were the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings. Lombardi believed in his vision of franchise building and we all believed in it along with him. And Lombardi, who doubled down on that vision, never wavered from it.
But something strange happened along the way. Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter, who were both dismissed by the Kings Monday night after missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, didn’t change. The game did. When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup last spring, it signaled a seismic change in the way the game was played and how teams would be successful. This was not a gradual process, either. It seemed the moment Mike Sullivan stepped behind the Penguins bench, the game tilted toward speed and skill the way it hadn’t for years. Connor McDavid, who theoretically should have struggled against the big, physical centers in the west and instead has cut through them like a knife through butter with his speed, certainly didn’t help things, either.
The Kings were left behind and both Lombardi and Sutter were caught in the tsunami. And now Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake, who took over as president of hockey operations and GM respectively, are now saddled with a roster that is heavy with players on long-term contracts who were once valued for the same characteristics that now make them suspect and untradeable. There will undoubtedly be some digging out to do here and Blake had better be prepared to do some heavy lifting and make some difficult decisions.
Lombardi is not the first executive who has misread the direction of the game. But there were certainly a couple of red flags there. One of them was the American team Lombardi built for the World Cup of Hockey, one Lombardi acknowledged was put together to take on Canada without regard to the other teams in the tournament that skated circles around the Americans. It was the wrong team with the wrong coach at the wrong time.
Long-term contracts to the likes of Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik and, to a certain extent to Anze Kopitar, who analytics told us before he signed the deal would likely be a declining asset, did not help Lombardi’s cause. There was nothing he could have done about losing defenseman Slava Voynov, but his decision to stay loyal to Mike Richards was one he made with his gut and his heart, and it’s difficult to fault a guy for that.
And how was Lombardi supposed to predict that the game would get away from Darryl Sutter so quickly? Just a couple of years before, Sutter was the perfect coach for that group of players and was being lauded as one of the best coaches in the game. There was no way Sutter was going to change mid-stream and even if he had decided to, he simply didn’t have the personnel to play the game the way it was being played. Sutter being dismissed was not a huge surprise. The fact the Kings ownership didn’t give Lombardi a chance to change his philosophy and set the roster back on course was something of a shocker.
Does Blake have it in him to turn this franchise around? Well, he has been working very hard to learn the management side of the game since being named the Kings assistant GM almost four years ago. And prior to that he had a stint in the NHL’s war room in Toronto. Guys who pay that price after their playing careers – people such as Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan – tend to do very well. To be sure, Blake has come a long way since early in his tenure when he attended a game of the Kings then-farm team in Manchester. Kings director of amateur scouting, Mike Futa, turned to Blake and asked him what he thought of the AHL. “I don’t know,” Blake responded. “I’ve never been to an American League game before.”
Blake’s first order of business will be hiring a head coach, preferably not a recycled NHL veteran. If you’re going to change the way you do things, then it’s probably best to start with a clean slate. Dan Beckerman, the CEO of the Kings parent company, said in a release that words couldn’t express the gratitude the organization has for Lombardi and Sutter. They were, and should be, heartfelt words. These two men did something in Los Angeles that nobody else could do in almost 50 years.
But their time had come and they both need time to compress, then probably have to go about reinventing themselves. It wasn’t their fault. It just kind of happened.