Dean Lombardi - Now THAT's how you build a winner

Editor's Note: The following is a FanPost by a regular commenter here at The Copper & Blue. The views contained in this FanPost do not necessarily reflect the views of management.


Photo by: Bridget via Wikimedia Commons, creative commons license.

Paul Holmgren grabbed the spotlight last week, trading away his two most prized showponies while walking down the aisle with a big stupid grin on his face and tying the knot with Ilya Bryzgalov. It was kind of like watching your poor neighbour tear up his garden because his wife didn't like the feng shui of the purple begonias, only to replace them with daffodils. I like daffodils.

But while Hockey Nerds the world over were all acutely aware of Scott Howson's need to land a big kinetic force to save his professional life in acquiring Jeff Carter, the big shock of the day came moments later; and the big winners of the day were the hockey fans of Los Angeles.

Those poor bastards. They haven't seen a good hockey team in a decade and a half. I think there was a playoff series win during the Palffy years, but that was as good as it got. I think their goalie back then was a bright shining star named Felix Potvin, which should tell you everything you really need to know about that dark time.

But Lombardi, oft criticized for being shy on the trigger and being the architect of a perpetual re-build, grew a pair last Thursday, landing Mike Richards and kicking aside the booster seat. The LA Kings were headed to the adults table, and like the Wu Tang Klan they "ain't nothing to f*#k with".

Team building in the modern NHL is fascinating - like watching a National Geographic series on the survival traits of jungle beasts. Some are able to hunt large game, timing an aggressive move that puts them over the top (Burke nets Pronger), while some grunt and growl and beat their chest only to mortgage the future of the franchise for Phil f*#king Kessel. Some do little. Some graze. Some dither. While some are patient and grow strong slowly and steadily.

The Kings were like a gangly teenager unsure of his own identity right after the lockout. In '05-'06 they celebrated one last losing season captained by Luc Robitaille, like a year's homage to the Gretzky years, before Lombardi was brought in to guide them out of their misguided wandering and save them from becoming the NHL equivalent of the Clippers.

Sure Lombardi inherited a team that had Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar in its prospect pool, but Lombardi acknowledged that the team needed to build around a young core, rather than trying to build a winner before the fruit had ripened on the vine. The LA Kings were more sub-par than they were awful during the early days of Lombardi's tenure and have only Jonathan Bernier and Wayne Simmonds to show for the '06 and '07 drafts, wasting a couple on Trevor Lewis as well as blowing the 4th overall pick in 2007 on Thomas Hickey. Yikes.

LA eventually shed some of the older players destined for Free Agency like Pavol Demitra and Mike Cammalleri in exchange for draft picks, choosing to grow their identity and giving important ice to their young core which now included Jack Johnson, Jonathan Quick, and Simmonds. The "Youth Movement" is a nice spin on "tanking it", and for two more seasons the Kings learned to play the game by losing, and subsequently drafting high and obtaining a franchise D in Drew Doughty and the ultimate bargaining chip in Brayden Schenn in the process.

After finishing near the bottom in '08-'09 however, Lombardi decided that the Kings had grown up enough and it was time to compete again. None of this lavishing in 10th place where only the moss grows - with an asset known as cap space they obtained the Mullet, Mr. Ryan Smyth and adding Rob Scuderi's newly minted Stanley Cup ring and soldiered back into the playoffs the following season. From there they've never looked back.

And this is why I dig what Lombardi is doing - he identified the key parts of the puzzle (Brown, Kopitar, and Doughty), gave them time for their talent and leadership to mature, and then complimented them with young cost-effective players (Clifford, Martinez, Simmonds), and useful vets acquired on the cheap (Williams, Penner). It seems like a very reliable formula for building a perennial playoff team. The big move, of course, was the decision to part with a next generation player like Schenn in order to build an elite team NOW when the core is in place and the main engines are both firing and are all locked in at reasonable dollar contracts.

I would suggest that the Oilers are following a similar trajectory, although likely even more successfully than the Kings. Prior to acknowledging they were re-building the Kings had Brown, Quick, and Kopitar, while the Oilers own Eberle, Gagner, and Paajarvi. While the Kings took a while to reap the real benefits of a re-build, the Oilers took a long sorrowful look in the mirror, an exercise that has netted them generational talents in Hall and Nugent-Hopkins.

Not every decision that Lombardi made during his 5-year tenure was the right one. Drafts were questionable, the trade for Penner was a big swing and a miss. But the focus was consistent - acquire loads and loads of draft picks and prospects, build a team around the best ones and trade the B and C grade prospects for contributors like Williams, Smyth, and Penner, and don't get distracted by a risky move like Kovalchuk.

It took a while to acquire the depth of assets that LA did. They dealt away the productive members of their team and forefeited their stake in the playoffs over a long haul. But in that time they built the strongest pool of prospects in the entire league (on top of the Hockeys Future ranking for years). Not all of those propects will play in the NHL (cough Colten Teubert), nor will they play for the Kings, but their value was exchanged for something productive, and after Lombardi sat patiently in the weeds for the right opportunity to arise, they leveraged their unique asset - prospect depth - to bag a big lion in Richards. So until the Oilers can do likewise and make a run at Lord Stanley, I look forward to watching LA beat up on the Vancouver Canucks over the foreseeable future.

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