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July 28, 2011 :: 2:13pm ET
Dean steals the spotlight
At a Mike Richards presser, Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi discloses Drew Doughty could become the team's highest paid player.

LOS ANGELES, CA -- If you reviewed the credentials of the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, mine would likely be the most diverse and least traditional.

You'll not find a minute of journalism or creative writing class attendance; observe, I'm the proud owner of a C in college English and with degrees in Accounting and Finance, it ain't the standard path to hockey writing nirvana.

While my sentence structure has improved over the years, I lean heavily on two assets to keep readers informed: entertained and, above all, engaged. While I can't quantify the first trait, storytelling, which appears to be innate for me, there's a simple test to see if you possess the second value, instinct.

So for those aspiring writers out there (including many who feel they can do a better job than me), please step up to my Journalism 101 class. While I don't own a teaching credential, the fact that my course consists of only one pass or fail question should exempt me from the required validation.

Pencils down, heads up for your final exam question:

You walk into the Los Angeles Kings' locker room. In one corner stands the newly acquired former All Star Mike Richards. In the other is the man who acquired him, General Manager Dean Lombardi. If you picked the man who will don the number 10 come the fall, you're just a fan. If you went to the man that gave the El Cid Lounge incredible publicity this summer, you're likely to be my heir apparent.

So on the day the Kings anointed to be the one where Richards got his up close and personal introduction to the scandalous LA media, the show was really about Lombardi.

We've done the long form interview with Richards a few weeks back; seeing him in person and observing how he deftly handled the aggravating "Dry Island" accusations with class and dignity over the past few days serves to reinforce the impressions formed during our initial chat; this is a driven player that leaves it all on the ice and performs at the highest level of skill in the NHL.

I draw an analogy to Donovan McNabb, the NFL quarterback who led the Philadelphia Eagles to the cusp of a championship, but failed to grab the final brass ring. While McNabb's departure was welcomed by many, the Eagles have yet to return to the Super Bowl without him.

If Mike Richards was able to lead this team to a Stanley Cup Final at 24 years of age, just how poisonous was he inside the room? If he was a cancer to Peter Laviolette's efforts to bring a Cup back to Philadelphia for the first time since before disco music was in vogue, why not strip him of the 'C' prior to last season?

Laviolette said in a radio interview this week that "it was unfair to take jabs" at Richards and Jeff Carter for this episode. The Flyers' roster now may be a bit younger, bigger and better in goal with their dual departure, but if their fans think it's a 106-point team right now, they've got to show me how.

The only fact that can be confirmed is that the Philly media did their best to slice and dice young Mike and when he wouldn't play by their rules, things got ugly. Richards reiterated that things written about him were untrue and hurtful, but was also dismissive of most of the barbs launched at him.

"No offense, but I don't read the papers or watch sports shows," he revealed politely, but unapologetically.

So with Richards happily slipping into his black and white number 10, an event simultaneously causing nausea in droves of Flyers fans, Mike turned to the real important business of deciding which beach town he'll reside in, Manhattan, Hermosa or Redondo, and picking which car wash to use on those 80 degree January days. With the tasty media appetizer completed, we got to the main course, the equivalent of a beautiful well done rib eye steak served up by the man of 1,001 quotes, Dean Lombardi.

While we first thoughts his words would be a referendum on Richards and a reprise of the process of getting a player he refers to as "my Adrian Gonzalez," there was no surprise when lightly prodded, the discussion (OK, we mostly listened) drifted into matters of unsigned franchise defenseman and the like.

"I was surprised that Mike was available, we'd heard that Jeff Carter was, but if Gretzky can be traded nothing should be a surprise," Lombardi said. "The thing with Mike is he's got a very high hockey IQ. When you see guys play the point on the power play, it's an indicator that a coach trusts the player to make the right play, especially when it's a forward."

As for where he fits into the scheme of things in a power play that was statistically at the middle of the pack last season, Lombardi put on his coach's hat: "You can play him down low with Anze Kopitar; it gives Kopitar a threat that can set up on the half board or down low. Mike's smart enough to read what's in front of him, but he's also got the guts to go to the net and cause traffic jam. You just throw him out there and let him figure it out."

As for the processing and acceptance for being dealt away from the only hockey home he's known, the big boss is managing his expectations of the player.

"He's moving in that direction. My history with players is that if I get a guy that wants to be traded, I probably don't want him. I want the guy who's hurt by the trade. It's not a lot of fun to make that first call but eventually have the same feeling for your jersey," Dean conveyed.

He touched on Richards' locker room presence by remarking, "Mike has the right attitude and belief in his organization that you're dying to get into your own room. It just doesn't happen like that, once August rolls around and he starts meeting the rest of his teammates, he'll complete the adjustment."

Lombardi showed his ever present piercing sense of humor when specifically asked if he's dismissive of the off ice allegations about Richards and Philly running mate Carter. "The 'Dry Island' thing, we did a lot of investigating and found out it was Charlie Sheen who planted that story."

When the laughter died down, Lombardi lined up with Flyers GM Paul Holmgren about the salient point of the tale.

"What I'm most surprised at is that the story is out," he said. "I think it's far more telling that someone in the room talked about what goes on in the room. That, to me, is the biggest issue. The media loves a player who talks like that; the players are so exposed now and the one place that was left (in confidence) was the room.

"I've known Mike a long time, more admiring from afar than my brief time in Philly; we've talked about a lot of things. He went out on the beach today and without any knowledge of our conditioning program worked out with Trevor Lewis. For a veteran to go out and expose himself like that tells me all I need to know. You can talk about Dry Island all you want; you can put me on Dry Island. What a player does away from the rink does have ramifications, but I've seen it the other way.

"Unquestionably, this player competes and there's never, ever been a player who says he's not a great teammate."

So while Lombardi minimized the accusations, his final statement on this matter hinted that his shiny new acquisition can still mature a bit, but any transgressions are similar to what we've all experienced.

"As far as the other stuff (off-ice), yeah, you got to grow up a little." He admitted. "Can I get your resume of the things you did at 22? You didn't have the cameras on you, you didn't have blogs written about you, but I'm sure that when everyone was in that age range and had some money in their pocket, they're would be some pictures of you too."

The added irony to this part of the story is that one of the principals that went back to Philadelphia, Wayne Simmonds, is not a choir boy either. Simmonds and Drew Doughty were inseparable during their three years together and their time wasn't always spent watching Entourage.

Simmonds will contribute nicely in his third line role and be a fan favorite, but if the Philadelphia Daily News gossip columnist wants to find him at a club along Delaware Avenue, he wouldn't have to look long. Truth be told, every NHL locker room has cliques and it usually breaks down to older veterans with familiar versus players in their 20s making huge green and playing in a metropolitan area.

With Richards' character questions tucked in neatly and put to bed, the conversation rolled to the state of the Kings franchise. With a few weeks to reflect on falling short on the Brad Richards hunt, the GM was matter of fact as to the real issue of why the Richards that got away landed on the Great White Way.

"I really have no regrets, we're getting there," Lombardi said. "We weren't a favorite but we turned it into a real close call. As an organization, I thought it was our finest hour. This was the first guy we really went after hard the right way."

Short of engineering a comeback by the Great One, Dean remains realistic on the likelihood of landing the biggest free agent fish in the pond in subsequent summers.

"We're close," he said, "we're respected to the point where people will consider us but to be honest, those guys in the east have all that tradition and everything else, we're going to have to get it done to go to the top of the list."

The subject that makes the neck hair stand on edge of all Kings fans was then broached; the status of negotiations with franchise defenseman Drew Doughty.

Lombardi disclosed that a 40 minute conversation with Doughty's camp occurred yesterday, but "it's safe to say we're still having dialogue and trying to move forward. We'll be talking again shortly, but this is the first extended conversation we've had in a while."

A good amount of conjecture suggested that the delay in substantive negotiations are being delayed until Doughty's representatives, Don Meehan and Mark Guy of Newport Sports, see the outcome of Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber's arbitration process. The guy on the other side of the bargaining table doesn't see it that way.

"It gives some evidence, but even Weber is different," Lombardi said. "That's the hard part, there's not a lot of defenseman, (Dion) Phaneuf, Duncan Keith, it's mostly forwards that have gotten the big money. You could even say a guy like Keith Yandle compares with Drew with his numbers, but he's older, so he's not totally analogous.

"You could say Weber, but he's older and one year away from free agency. Is it relevant? Yes, but it's a matter of how much wait you give it. You have to throw in the fact that the CBA is up, the (Steven) Stamkos deal is out there, so each piece you have to give a little weight to. Our biggest concern is fitting the deal into our salary structure. The bottom line is making that number fit into where we are and where we want to go. I'm confident that Doughty will be here and for a long time."

With that, we came upon the money shot. The question that gives one of the most verbose GMs in the NHL cause to pause, think and commend the questioner on the validity of its content.

Are you comfortable "making Doughty the high paid King?"

After a five second pause that appeared to be far longer, Dean tried to side step the question, but smartly throwing out a compliment. "Boy, that's a good question. I like the way you got to it too."

After the reporter accepted the kudos from him, the GM expanded the answer that would surprise most Kings fans.

"I guess it would depend on the term (length) of the contract," Lombardi admitted. "That's the other thing; it depends on how many free agent years I get. So I don't think you can ask that question in a vacuum, that's a good one, you almost got me. I think if you get more free agent years (Doughty would be become a UFA after seven years of NHL experience, Lombardi wants a deal to extend to the player's late 20s at minimum), I think you can be more flexible that way."

So despite the fact that most Kings fans feel that Kopitar and not Doughty should be the Kings highest paid player, the team's GM knows there is a deal out there that would make the premise a reality.

What started out as a "Welcome to LA" party ended was in reality an "LA Kings State of the Union."

Every Kings fan I've spoken with wishes October was here already. While the team has had back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in seven seasons, their consecutive first round playoff exits keep them wondering if the growth is just a tease or the real path to a Stanley Cup.

The Richards acquisition has further galvanized its fan base with the team closing in on record season ticket sales and they're our pick to win the Pacific Division outright if their top six stay healthy, not a simple task given injury histories of Justin Williams and Simon Gagne.

Doughty will come back into the fold as he has little negotiation leverage, making the LA blue line as good as any in the NHL. With Kopitar ahead of schedule in his rehab from a devastating late season injury, the 1-2 punch that Lombardi knows is necessary down the middle has finally been achieved. With the tandem of the two Jonathans, Quick and Bernier likely to remain intact for one more season, they're set between the pipes. The lacking element on this teams was proven winners, other than Scuderi, the on notice Dustin Penner and Williams there are no rings in the room, much less deep playoff run experience.

Lombardi's good fortune of being able to add Richards to this group stamps them as a legitimate contender for the first time since Gretzky patrolled the ice at the Forum.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com.
You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.


 

 

Archives:
Jul. 10, 2011 Silencing the Mantra in LA?
Jul. 07, 2011 The Heat is On
Jun. 28, 2011 Mike Richards enters the Pacific
May 30, 2011 The Cup Comes Home
May 07, 2011 Jumbo Flavor
Apr. 05, 2011 Purple Rain
Mar. 17, 2011 Ya gotta have Hart
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