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Bad timing, but the right move by Lombardi

June 11, 2008|Helene Elliott

Clever timing by the Kings to announce they had dumped Coach Marc Crawford the same day another Staples Center tenant -- bunch of tall guys, a well-managed franchise with 14 championship banners -- was about to play the third game of its league finals.

Unlike the Lakers, the Kings don't know much about winning titles. They had that runner-up finish in 1993 and, um, well, they'll always have 1993. And the Miracle on Manchester.

Crawford wasn't going to get them remotely close to contending for the Stanley Cup, not with his habitual scalding criticism of the kids who are becoming the core of this team and will make up an even greater chunk of the Kings' roster and soul next season.

So, with the Lakers' NBA Finals drama providing deep cover, the Kings quietly cut Crawford loose Tuesday, two years and one month after saying they liked his "juice," General Manager Dean Lombardi's description of the energy Crawford displayed during his job interview.

That juice soured quickly, even for the Kings. The 21st coach in their history lasted only two seasons and missed the playoffs both times.

Lombardi made the right move to fire him. He probably should never have hired Crawford, who had unlimited skill at his disposal in Colorado with Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Co. and couldn't get some solid Vancouver Canucks teams past the second round of the playoffs.

The Kings had more hope than skill and Crawford couldn't function under those circumstances, couldn't be patient with kids who were learning and making mistakes and needed a teacher more than they needed a screamer who demanded more than they were capable of delivering.

They finished 20 points out of the last West playoff berth this season, coming that close only after a late surge that did nothing but reduce their odds of getting the right to draft franchise center Steven Stamkos in next week's entry draft.

Just like the Kings to put their fans through a miserable season and not even get the top draft pick as consolation.

"I don't think we were kidding ourselves into think we were world beaters but I think we set realistic expectations," Lombardi said during a conference call.

Lombardi knew he was in for a long rebuilding process that would have many bumps but he expected, in his second season, that the team would at least be competitive most nights. Too often it wasn't. The Kings' postseason chances were gone by the All-Star break, and that was unforgivable.

Crawford came into a bad situation and didn't make it better, but he's not the only culprit here.

Lombardi, unable to lure top-notch free agents to a team that had no hope of making the playoffs in the powerful Western Conference, brought in a succession of mediocre free agents whose poor attitude and poorer performances threatened to trample the kids' enthusiasm and optimism.

Rob Blake, paid $12 million over two years to mentor youngster Jack Johnson, couldn't lead when he could barely skate after major hip surgery. The goaltending became a quagmire, partly because of Crawford's misplaced loyalty to Dan Cloutier and Lombardi's signing of Cloutier to an extension before he proved anything. Jason LaBarbera struggled to be a second-tier goalie, not nearly good enough in a conference rich with elite goalies.

Dustin Brown and Patrick O'Sullivan progressed almost despite Crawford, not because of him. Anze Kopitar was brilliant as a rookie and seemed to plateau this season when opponents realized how good he is and tried to pound him into submission. The defense was a mess and Crawford's relentless rebukes of Johnson, among others, only made things worse.

Lombardi said he wasn't inclined to make a coaching change soon after the season ended but reversed course after he assessed the organization's assets and talked to some of the kids available in the entry draft.

He came away convinced that staying with youth was the only way to make headway, and that if kids are going to remain the focal point of this still-painful process, Crawford could not effectively be part of it.

He said the decision to fire Crawford was his own, not coercion from above. He talked to his bosses, Tim Leiweke of AEG -- the Kings' parent company -- and Dan Beckerman, the club's executive vice president and chief financial officer, and said he found only support. Leiweke declined to comment, letting Lombardi be the Kings' voice.

The cynics among us will say that AEG endorsed Lombardi's plan because it's cheaper to build through the draft than to sign expensive free agents. The reality is that the Kings have no other options but to continue the youth movement.

"They were more stronger on it than they were even when I got here," Lombardi said, his grammar faulty but his point clear.

The next question is who will be the next coach.

Lombardi said he's "not married" to a candidate with NHL experience, and everything he said pointed to current assistant Mike Johnston, who could grow with the team.

"I do think this is a critical hire," Lombardi said.

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