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King of the Parlay

New L.A. president and general manager Lombardi has history of being a real shark when it comes to building a team

April 21, 2006|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

This is what the Kings were looking for, and why they will announce today that Dean Lombardi is president and general manager.

Lombardi saw an opportunity before the 1998 NHL draft and acted, with a jackpot payoff.

The Nashville Predators, who held the third pick, craved center David Legwand. Problem was, the San Jose Sharks were looking down on them from the second pick.

Lombardi, then the Sharks' general manager, had already decided to draft defenseman Brad Stuart. Lombardi, though, wasn't about to let that piece of information slip out and sent signals that he was interested in Legwand.

The Predators and Sharks swapped first-round picks, but it cost Nashville its second-round pick -- 29th overall. Lombardi used it to draft Jonathan Cheechoo, whose 56 goals led the NHL this season.

Now he has another opportunity.

He replaces Dave Taylor, who was fired Tuesday, one day after the Kings finished a disappointing season.

How good this could be for the Kings was made clear by one who used to work for Lombardi.

"I wish he would have went to the Eastern Conference," said Calgary General Manager and Coach Darryl Sutter, who was the Sharks' coach under Lombardi from 1997 to 2002.

The Kings can only hope Lombardi will be able to mimic at least some of his past success.

The Sharks improved in wins and points in each of Lombardi's first six seasons as general manager -- which included the Pacific Division championship in 2001-02 -- and reached the Stanley Cup playoffs five times. That came crashing down the following season, when holdouts and inconsistency sent the Sharks to the bottom of the division.

Lombardi was fired near the end of that 2002-03 season, partly because of the team's collapse and, according to sources formerly with the Sharks, partly because of constant head-butting with Shark President Greg Jamison -- who later headed a group that bought the franchise.

Lombardi spent this past season as a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers and was a hot commodity for teams looking for a new general manager. He talked with the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, as well as the Kings.

The Kings offered a bit more power than the Bruins and Islanders seemed willing to give. Lombardi, the son-in-law of former King player and coach Bob Pulford, takes over just as Tim Leiweke, president of AEG -- the Kings' parent company -- has removed himself as the franchise's chief executive.

"We want a clear leader on the hockey side who will work to bring the Stanley Cup to Los Angeles," Leiweke said Tuesday.

Leiweke, league sources said, was looking for a more assertive personality to lead the organization and Lombardi seems to meet that criteria.

"I think I met with him once a week," said the Ducks' Jeff Friesen, who played his first seven seasons with Lombardi's Sharks. "It was movie time. He'd show me tapes of Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic. He wanted me to compete like them."

Lombardi inherits a team that failed to live up to in-house expectations this season. The Kings were second in the Western Conference on Jan. 6, then collapsed, and finished 10th.

Lombardi is expected to rework the organization, from the front office on down, with the type of obsessive focus Leiweke believes was missing. That's certainly part of Lombardi's character -- he still has the notes from every meeting from the seven years he was the Sharks' general manager.

"This guy, I've never seen anyone who loves the game as much as Dean," said the Mighty Ducks' Teemu Selanne, who was traded to the Sharks in 2000-01. "He can watch hours and hours and hours of junior hockey, or anything that involves hockey. He is so passionate about the whole game. He's passionate about everything. I asked him one day if his ancestors were from Spain and he said, 'I'm Italian, I'm Italian.' I thought he was going to fight me."

Lombardi, 45, grew up in Massachusetts and played hockey at the University of New Haven, where he earned a business degree. He received a law degree from Tulane University and for a time worked as a player agent.

It didn't take long for his hockey passion to lead him into team management. He was an assistant general manager with the Minnesota North Stars before joining the Sharks.

Lombardi was elevated to general manager in 1996, taking over a team that finished last in the Western Conference with 47 points.

From there, the Sharks improved steadily, using the draft and a few key trades -- Selanne, Vincent Damphousse, Mike Ricci.

The Sharks, Western Conference finalist in 2003-04, are still benefiting from Lombardi's work, with Cheechoo, Patrick Marleau and Vesa Toskala among the players he drafted. The Sharks used Stuart and Marco Sturm, another Lombardi pick, to acquire Joe Thornton, who led the NHL in scoring this season and was the ramrod that got the Sharks to the playoffs this season.

"That team is still Dean Lombardi's team, everybody talks about that," Sutter said. "You saw what they gave up to get Joe Thornton, two great first-round kids who were basically stars. The important part of his work is still there, the long-term vision and work ethic. We're the same age; I learned a lot from him."

And will now have to face him.

*

Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this report.

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