CHICAGO – Dean Lombardi shouted it from the rooftops – or at least from his second-floor office in El Segundo – five summers ago. He wanted the Kings to win, but not be occasional winners.
“In the long run,” Lombardi said in 2009, “hopefully you end up like Detroit.”
Winners. Consistent winners. Not champions every year, because no one can anticipate or expect that, but annual Stanley Cup contenders. Lombardi, the Kings general manager, didn’t want to settle for one prolonged playoff run every few years. He wanted to win, tweak the roster when necessary, and continue winning.
It’s working. The Kings say they’re not done, that reaching the Western Conference final against Chicago – Game 1 is Sunday afternoon – isn’t an accomplishment in itself, but it must be considered one.
Since 2005, when the NHL implemented a salary cap designed to create and sustain parity among teams, only two teams have made the conference finals in three consecutive years: Detroit and the Kings.
“I think Dean has accomplished what he was talking about, to not just be a one-year wonder but to contend every year,” Kings alternate captain Anze Kopitar said Saturday. “I think we’re definitely on the right track.”
Lombardi arrived in Los Angeles a year after the salary cap, and had a plan for managing it. He would build a young core of players, lock them up to long-term contracts, keep the minor-league system flush with prospects and look for low-risk, high-impact trades for complementary veterans.
It certainly wasn’t a smooth climb. The Kings missed the playoffs in Lombardi’s initial three seasons and fired two coaches. Two years ago, when whispers about Lombardi’s job status got increasingly audible, the Kings hired Coach Darryl Sutter, limped into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed and won the Stanley Cup.
All at once, Lombardi looked like a genius, but the truly inspired work has come into the two years since the championship parade. The Kings got to the top of mountain and started their own colony up there.
“You went to the top of the mountain,” winger Justin Williams said. “You have that inner arrogance. You know what it takes to win. That’s something that not a lot of teams have. It’s something that you need to harness.”
Consider that, in their initial 38 years as an NHL franchise, the Kings won 10 playoff series. In the past three years, they’ve won eight. The players and coaches got it done, yes, but Lombardi had the blueprint.
The Kings are back in the conference finals against the same Chicago team that dispatched them in five games last year. The Kings shrugged that off, just as they shrugged off a 3-0 deficit against San Jose, a 3-2 deficit against the Ducks and their underdog status in 2012, when they scorched the field with a 16-4 record.
“We trust each other a lot. We’ve been through a lot,” center Jarret Stoll said. “You can lean on guys and you know what to expect from guys. I know what to expect from all my teammates tomorrow night and I’m sure they all know what to expect from me. That’s a good thing to have happen.”
It started with retention. Lombardi inherited, from predecessor Dave Taylor, talents such as Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Kopitar. After two feel-out years, he made his big moves in 2008, when he drafted defensemen Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov and traded for veterans Stoll and Matt Greene.
The slow building process continued through trades (Williams, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter) and signings (Willie Mitchell), but one move, albeit largely symbolic, turned into the cornerstone for the Kings.
In 2008, the Kings named Brown as their captain, with Kopitar and Greene as alternate captains. For six seasons, that trio has been intact. They’re the message-senders, the tone-setters, the respected leaders.
“It’s just a comfort level with each other,” Brown said.
The continuity makes a difference. From the first days after his hiring, Lombardi preached the value of a “culture,” a lingering mindset that would persist even through inevitable roster tweaks.
There have been some. Veterans such as Rob Scuderi and Dustin Penner moved on, replaced by youngsters such as Tyler Toffoli and Jake Muzzin. Eyebrows were raised when Lombardi traded for Marian Gaborik in March, given Gaborik’s spotty play, but Gaborik has been a top-level scorer and popular teammate.
“I don’t think it’s a culture,” Greene said. “It’s just guys that want to win, and we hold ourselves to that standard. Everybody in here has the goal to be playing at this time of the year and to have success. That’s our goal. Once you win once, you want to do it again.”
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