A Brand New Day
April 25, 2017 | 4:30pm ET
"Turn the clock to zero buddy, Don't wanna be no fuddy duddy, We're starting
up a brand new day." -- Sting
LOS ANGELES, CA -- Itís been a couple of weeks since the Palace Revolt
that resulted Dean Lombardi and Darryl Sutter abdicating what was
thought to be very secure thrones just a year ago. Now that things
have settled since the stunning and yes, essential bloodletting was
executed, itís time to fully assess the aftermath of a season that
started with great promise and ended with far more questions than
As for the past, though Iíve been one of the most vocal critics of the
former regime, there is no question that Lombardi and Sutter set a new
standard for hockey in Los Angeles -- a standard that no doubt led to
their abdication when they failed to meet the higher expectations
created through winning not once but twice -- and when we look back on
their tenure that should always be at the top of the list.
Lombardi brought structure where there was none and when you consider
that he started so far at the bottom -- even Drake would be impressed
-- it was a massive accomplishment that few executives could have
executed in any sport.
I was there in that first off-season when he signed seven free agents,
among them Scott Thornton and Ladislav Nagy, and the team was
routinely drawing 13,000 in an 18,000 seat Staples Center. And itís
not like things went straight up either. There was the missteps along
the way, like the Marc Crawford hiring and the Dan Cloutier trade, but he never paused on his mission of ďfilling those
boxesĒ (one of many Lombardisms he gifted to us over the years) and
with the capable eyes of scouts like Mike Futa (rightfully spared and
elevated to Assistant GM) and Mark Yannetti, he constructed the
platform that is essential for winning a championship.
But there are other GMs who build and build and never hit the zenith
and that was a major criticism of Dean when he stepped into the Kings
role. He built a similar structure in San Jose, but the team couldnít
execute his master plan and he was shown the door. But as a hockey
lifer, he kept his head down and eyes open while scouting for the
Philadelphia Flyers, looking for another opportunity to achieve the
goal of winning a Stanley Cup.
What made the difference this time around in Los Angeles was his
willingness to gamble at the right time with a maturing team.
If you recall, he pushed back when Ilya Kovalchuk became available,
concerned with how a player with a reputation for not putting his team
first would affect the emerging talent he had in the room. Even with
talents like Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick progressing
into elite status, Los Angeles was never the top destination for high
caliber free agents to land as this decade commenced. The only way to
find the requisite talent to compete with the leagueís best was to
execute high impact, high risk trades.
So, he took on those massive contracts of Jeff Carter and Mike
Richards and he brought to Los Angeles an out-of-favor and
often-injured Marian Gaborik and won big bests that culminated in two
Stanley Cups in three seasons.
While that trifecta will be pointed to as the conduit to two titles,
it was the less heralded deals that were just as vital to the golden
You can start with the guy who is a pivotal player in the Washington
Capitals current chase of their first and very elusive Stanley Cup,
Justin Williams. Few remember that Mr. Game 7 arrived hard by the
Pacific shores in exchange for Patrick OíSullivan and a second-round
pick. The Williams deal and the one that brought Matt Greene and
Jarret Stoll to the roster were the precursors to a long winning
streak of trades that negated Lombardiís spotty record with
first-round picks not named Doughty.
Yet with all the burgeoning talent Lombardi didnít have the right
bench boss to meld a talented group into a winning one and he gambled
yet again by bringing the old headmaster Sutter to Los Angeles when he
team was floundering in 2012. Sutterís predecessor, Terry Murray, was
a cautious, understated coach that had brought the Flyers to a Stanley
Cup Final in 2008, and while he birthed many of the defensive
principles this team ultimately used to win it all (and a stick tap to
then-GM Dave Taylor for drafting Kopitar, Quick and Dustin Brown), he
didnít possess the guile and the hardened exterior Sutter had to put
this team over.
Darryl chose to saddle up for another ride from his outpost in Viking,
Alberta, to be reunited with Lombardi and they advanced in lockstep to
forge a legacy that despite the way the final chapter was written, is
how this tandem should be remembered.
In the five years Iíve covered Darryl, itís easy to say that I will
never deal with a coach as unique as him. When he chose to, he could
be insightful and informative (unless you ask him about injuries) and
his wry sense of humour often had me chuckling as I walked out the
press conferences. While fans saw the very public father/son
relationship he had with Chris, the Dancemaster, who has a pure a soul
as anyone Iíve come across in this game, what you didnít see was the
private moments he spent with families and people outside the locker
room who wanted a few minutes of time and he always accommodated them,
even after the toughest of losses.
Sutter gave the Kings exactly what they needed, a structure on the ice
that aligned perfectly with Lombardiís off-ice structure and the group
became one of a select few that rallied from a 2014 3-0 playoff series
deficit against their intrastate bitter rival, the San Jose Sharks.
Make no mistake, a major factor in that 2014 title run that included
three Game 7 wins was the backbone this team grew in the Sutter era.
They shrugged off deficits and dug down deep when most counted them
out. Credit Lombardi for layering his roster with the right type of
players, but give equal credit to Sutter for instilling the
intangibles into a squad that ended 45 years of puck frustration in
And then what Lombardi stated shortly after the 2012 win came to
fruition over the past three seasons -- itís far tougher to stay on
top than it is to get there.
Since that 2014 Cup win, Iíve heard a litany of reasons why a team
with its core still in its prime have produced only one playoff game
win in three seasons.
Blame the salary cap.
Blame Slava Voynov.
Blame the Jonathan Quick injury.
Blame Anze Kopitarís cap hit.
What Lombardi and Sutter need to do is blame themselves; theyíre the
biggest culprits in their demise.
Sure, you can point to the Brown and Gaborik deals that hamstrung the
GMs maneuverability over the past two seasons. You can point at the
fruitless rental trades of Andrej Sekera and Milan Lucic that stripped
the teams of assets that could have been used to get a replacement for
Voynov -- sorry but to still use Voynovís absence as to why this team
is no longer dangerous shows a lack of ingenuity to find a replacement
for defenseman who youíd think was the next Norris Trophy winner and
impossible to replace (given how heís talked about now by some). You
can point to his loyalty of not buying out Richards when it was
obvious his usefulness was done.
Lombardiís run wasnít killed by a singular stab wound, but rather by
the collective of 1,000 cuts.
Did the aforementioned issues damage their ability to be a consistent
playoff contender? Yes, but the overarching reason that Rob Blake and
Luc Robitaille are at the helm of hockey operations is three-fold, in
Deanís resistance to change and the inability to transition this team
to what wins in the NHL now is a primary reason for the departure from
the glory days with Sutter as a willing accomplice. Together they
forged into the season holding the flag on Corsi Hill and dug their
boots until they were overrun and itís not that they guessed wrong,
but was the arrogance of their thinking that was the beginning of the
end. It started with the term that Lombardi uttered at the end of the
2015-16 season conference call that I point to which encapsulates this
last season, referring to the Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup triumph
as ďthe flavor of the month.Ē
A mere 10 months later, the bitter taste in his mouth is generated by
an offense flavored with the lowest shooting percentage in the league
(6.01%) and goal production that translated into a 10th place finish.
Despite recommendations from his inner circle to move on from Sutter
after the five game spanking at the hands of the Sharks last season,
he chose bring him back for more money and for two years with an
option for a third when the red flags through final half of the season
had been raised.
While knowingly unwilling to pivot in the direction in which the game
has been trending to, Lombardi may have unknowingly destroyed the
ecosystem on which he built his championship teams upon. Every winner
needs to have elite players to win 16 postseason games and I believe
the Kings still have that top end talent, enough to the extent that
his successor Blake predicted if the current roster returns to form
and they can keep Quick injury-free he expects a return to the
Along with the elite, you need the energy guys who while they donít
possess the talent of the upper tier, will do what it takes to win a
game, The Colin Frasers and the Brad Richardsons of the game, who are
reliable and dependable and although they may not win you a game, they
certainly wonít lose you one. The Kings still possessed those players
in Trevor Lewis and Dwight King (before he lost the bite to his game
that saw him shipped off to Montreal), but in lesser numbers.
The massive difference in the roster of the last three seasons was
Lombardiís excavation of the middle layer of strata that made this
team so tough to beat. You can blame the salary cap (again) if you
choose, youíre inclined to make excuses, but when you strip away
Williams, Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, Stoll and Robyn Regehr and
donít replace them with comparable skill and character, itís a void
that simply canít be replaced.
Itís the intangibles, the savviness of finding different ways to win,
that only comes with experience and canít be measured in terms of zone
entries that is still vital to winning.
When Kopitar was battling the pressure of living up to the new
captaincy and the $10 million per season contract, there was no
Mitchell around to take him out of a beer to talk things through. When
Carter was going through a big second half dry spell for the second
consecutive season, there was no Williams to compare notes with. When
Nick Shore game regressed to the point where he was a fourth line
center, he surely could have used tutoring from Stoll. That strata,
that comfortable buffer that was eaten away with each departing
veteran, was far more damaging than an overpriced Gaborik contract or
a Sekera rental trade gone south.
Combine that with Sutterís unwillingness to back off both his
offensive scheme and demeanor toward his players, who by their
accomplishments deserved the benefit of the doubt. Despite his core
players wearing Stanley Cup rings on both hands, he always demanded
more as if this was a team that had proved nothing over the last five
years. Despite insisting most nights that his team played well because
they out-chanced the opposition, the reality is they played sub-.500
hockey over the past season and a half and their success was masked by
their uncanny ability to win 3-on-3 overtime games (a big hint that
transition needed to take place).
Some call it ďshelf life,Ē but the lack of fire from the Kings in the
final 20 games of the regular-season when a playoff berth was there
for the taking is all the evidence you need to see that the sweep had
to be clean for an organization that had grown stale.
A final personal word on Darryl, despite the disrespect he showed for
the media at times and his ridiculous limiting of player access after
games (locker room cleared every night before media access and many
nights a third or fourth liner tasked with answering questions), I
enjoyed the give and take (and many times it was just take) of the
coach who will go down as one of the best in NHL history as 611 career
Despite his massive resume and achieving things most coaches only dare
to dream about, the one thing that disappointed me was his inability
to accept blame in the last three seasons for this teamís
underachievement -- from the still inexplicable rocky relationship
with former captain Brown that impacted the playerís production to
stating that he wasnít a source for information, one would think that
with all his accomplishments he would have been more generous with his
public thoughts, especially after games.
The one thing that was the most struck me the most during the teamís
regression was his inability to take responsibility for it despite
asking for full accountability from the players he managed -- I donít
ever recall Darryl taking a direct hit for anything that didnít result
in a win, it was always ďwe have a lot of guys who scored one goalĒ or
ďwe played wellĒ after another unproductive offensive night where even
the most casual of observers could see the team was laboring. It was
never ďweĒ could do better, it was never ďI need to do a better jobĒ
behind the bench, just deflection after deflection like him running an
on-ice tip drill.
My description of the past gives context to what Iíve seen in the
infancy of the Robitaille/Blake/Stevens era.
With the formal introduction of Stevens to the media on Monday, it
completes the hiring process for the key players at the top of the
food chain. Unlike the Blake press conference that seemed more like a
wake than an introduction into a new era, the sense I got during the
gathering for Stevens is that a dense fog that had hovered over the
organization over the past 18 months is lifting. While you can say
that is par for the course in the very early days of a management
change, Blake and Stevensí demeanors, while neither being over the
top, just feel to be more forthcoming and less adversarial when
discussing the state of the franchise.
No doubt Blake took a lot of copious notes from Lombardi -- when I
asked if he was going to be more available to the media than his
mentor, he jokingly remarked, ďI like the way Dean did thingsĒ with
respect to the limited and decreasing public interactions with the
media the former GM had as his tenure lengthened.
CAN ROB DO THE JOB?
While the critics have pointed to his lack of experience in front
office management that some deem a risky hire, I found Blake to be
polished and prepared with reasonable and cogent explanations in his
second meeting with the media.
He dropped an unexpected bomb by disclosing that Gaborik, who
struggled mightily after returning from injury this season, would not
be bought out as many, including myself, had been speculating.
Granted, Blakeís hand was forced by circumstances; Gaborik was injured
after his return and underwent a surgical procedure Monday that per
CBA rules will not allow the Kings to exercise a buyout.
What both he and Stevens made abundantly clear is that the system that
won two Stanley Cups had outworn its usefulness and while weíre likely
to see the essentially same roster (more on that in a few) weíre going
to see a different model of the Kings next season. Both coach and GM
referenced this team high shot volume but low shooting percentage when
critiquing what went wrong last season. The teamís inability to create
quality scoring chances is what the real issue is and although no one
will mistake them for the Penguins next season, their plan of attack
will transition -- literally and figuratively -- into one that will be
hope to be more successful and yes, entertaining.
And donít sell the entertaining part short for this team in this
market -- with so many sports teams in Los Angeles, itís a constant
fight for time and space with the local media outlets -- the engine
that still drives ticket sales and sponsorship dollars and this is
where Robitailleís influence and acumen impacts the franchise.
As president of business operations, along with AEG COO Kelly
Cheeseman, Luc continued to drive this team to relevance on the sports
landscape after the departure of Tim Leiweke. Winning always helps,
but the building of a top-tier in-game fan experience and the ability
to make the Kings a hot ticket (meaning, celebs on the glass and Will
Ferrell cutting in-house promos) is no small feat in a market with
legacy teams like the Lakers and Dodgers and not one but two NFL teams
(OK, maybe a team and a half with the Chargers) to compete with.
If youíre not winning itís one thing, if youíre not winning and the
team plays the same mundane game night in and night out, itís quite a
different thing in Los Angeles. If the Kings franchise loses
relevancy, itís a very long battle to regain it in a fickle sports
market and that in part I feel has dialed up the sense of urgency to
get back to the level of their championship seasons.
As for the roster, those hoping for this team to morph into a SoCal
version of the Edmonton Oilers come September need to put those
thoughts away. From the discussion on Monday, Blake is relying to a
return to form from Kopitar, Toffoli, Muzzin and a full year from
Quick to return Los Angeles to the post-season and expects a playoff
berth with those stars aligning. Assuming Gaborik isnít off loaded to
a team needing to hit the cap floor (New Jersey, Arizona) and a Brown
trade or expansion draft selection isnít in the offing, Stevens will
go to war with same core that produced 86 points and 27 regulation
wins in 82 games.
So, is standing pat really the best strategy? While Blakeís hands are
pretty much tied salary cap-wise given he needs to bring in Toffoli
and Pearson for new deals, there are still some questions to be
1. Drew Dance Partner -- Sutter chose to play Derek Forbort as
Doughtyís primary partner last season and I believe thatís why his
performance tailed off from his Norris Trophy winning season. While
the positives of Forbort gaining experience is a benefit, he is
clearly not a top pair NHL defenseman. While Sutterís hand was forced
by the consistently subpar play from Muzzin (remember, he was selected
to Canadaís World Cup team last September no small feat), the coachís
insistence on keeping Doughty with Forbort inhibited his ability to
make game-changing plays.
Blake and Stevens need to go back to the drawing board and decide on a
better partner that will instill more confidence in Doughty to join
the rush more often and reignite his game changing talent. Stevens
could go back to Muzzin alongside Doughty wagering that this past
season was an anomaly or Blake can look outside for a reasonably
priced stay-at-home defender like pending UFA Karl Alzner or perhaps
Brendan Smith, who has acquitted himself well for the Rangers in this
2. You see, I see, what about the 2C -- When theyíre at their
best, Kopitar and Carter make matching up at center difficult if not
downright impossible for the majority of opponents -- itís was a major
factor in their two Cup wins and the depth chart is likely to stay
intact come the Fall. But thereís a train of thought that says it may
not be the best thing for Carter given the rigors of the position and
thereís facts to support it. The last two seasons Carter has had
strong goal production starts, but you could set your calendars as to
when he would cool off:
2015-16 season: Games 52-73, 4 goals in 22 games
2016-17 season: Games 56-76, 3 goals in 21 games (2 empty net goals)
Itís up to debate as to why this stretch occurs at approximately the
same time in consecutive seasons, but when youíre having to chase
Connor McDavid around the rink one night and getting elbowed in the
ribs by Ryan Kesler the next, maybe Carter would be a little comfier
turning defenseman coming off the right wing with Kopitar going to net
down the middle.
Additionally, if Stevens keeps the powerplay alignment that Sutter
rolled out most nights, your second unit powerplay options at center
remain Nic Dowd or possibly Adrian Kempe -- not an optimal choice
short of a huge step forward by either player.
As with a partner for Doughty, there could be some nice options as we
roll into summer -- via free agency, Iíve been beating the drum for
Nick Bonino to slide in for Carter and center Toffoli and Pearson.
Bonino is affordable -- heís coming off a deal that only pays him $1.9
million per season and is very familiar with the Pacific Division from
his days with Anaheim and Vancouver. If you want to go the trade
route, putting together a package for New Jerseyís Adam Henrique
(Devils need help everywhere) or dialing up the stakes and seeing what
it would take to secure Tyler Johnson (imagine him with the 70s kids)
makes this a far more difficult team to defend.
The theme of star players turning home to restore former glory to a
franchise has not been a successful one lately, ask Joe Sakic in
Denver, Trevor Linden in Vancouver or Cam Neely in Boston. But at
least one NHL Insider, Pierre LeBrun, thinks that Blake draws a
favorable comparison to another former player-turned-GM.
On our TFPlive show on NHL Network Radio on SiriusXM this past Sunday,
LeBrunís comments should give Kings fans hope.
ďI know Rob Blake for a long time and when I listen to him talk and
how he approaches things, it reminds me so much of Steve Yzerman when
he was starting out in management. The thing about the job and other
great players have attempted to do it Ė you have to put in the time
and Rob learned that from Dean, who I thought was a great mentor. I
think the Kings are in good hands with him,Ē LeBrun offered.
While Blake and to lesser extent Robitaille will get currency from
their brand names at the start, ownership needs to see results
quickly. The last three seasons have directly hit the teamís bottom
line on the profit and loss statement and while Anschutz Entertainment
Group has very deep pockets as the potential payouts to Lombardi and
Sutter attest to, owner Phil Anschutz and CEO Dan Beckerman want more
than three home playoff games in three seasons and they want that
sellout streak of 213 consecutive games to stay intact.
With the NHL now, in essence, a year-round sport, weíll soon get the
first precincts reporting in on the new office holders.
There is an ongoing active search for Stevensí assistant coach(es),
with only Denver Universityís Jim Montgomery the only name to surface
publicly, though heís unlikely to jump on board. Once the management
team has filled out, itís on to the work of the expansion draft --
Blake stated he has not made a final call on the protected list and
then the back-to-back exercises of the NHL Draft and Free Agent
Weíre all curious to see what the first 100 days of the Rob Blake
administration produces and as critical as Iíve been of this
organization recently, I favor the swiftness of the change and the
selection of whom they chosen to take the reins.
Itís a Brand New Day in L.A.
Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.