Kings’ Dean Lombardi sees remodeling project start to take shape

Dean Lombardi wasn’t exactly warned against becoming Kings general manager four years ago. But he wasn’t encouraged either.

His chief mentor, Flyers executive and Hall of Fame center Bobby Clarke, had the strongest words.

“He told me to be careful because he wasn’t sure whether they’d stick through what had to be done because of their reputation,” Lombardi said, referring to the Kings’ habit of ditching rebuilding plans, reversing course and getting nowhere.

After a long wait, the Kings have found their way back to the playoffs. They are the sixth-seeded team in the tough Western Conference and Thursday night play their first postseason game since 2002, facing the third-seeded Vancouver Canucks.

But Lombardi changed an entire culture to get there.

With Clarke’s cautionary advice in mind, Lombardi signed a five-year contract. But all those warnings rushed back when he made his first visit to the weight room at the team’s practice facility. The equipment was old, the room dark.

“It kind of felt like a prison cafeteria. This stuff must be from 1950. That’s the first time I went, ‘Whoa,’ ” he said. “It’s one thing, but it might be emblematic of a lot of things, going back to the development program, scouting, maybe trying to upgrade. I’ll never forget that. A surge went through my gut, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got some serious work to do here.’ ”

Their labor, though not free of mistakes, is paying off. Shrewd drafting and moves that brought credible, experienced voices into the locker room revived a team that had become a perennial playoff no-go in a city that expects championships.

“I’m excited because we’re set for a long run here. This is not a one-year aberration. We did not rent players to get to this level,” said Tim Leiweke, the Kings’ governor and right-hand man to media-shy owner Phil Anschutz.

“This is not a keeper getting completely crazed and carrying us on his back. This is the real deal and I believe it’s going to get better as time goes along. And that’s what I’m a little mystified that the people in the market haven’t picked up on.”

Until recently the Kings gave casual fans little reason to care and alienated many longtime ones by raising ticket prices and failing to lure top-tier free agents. Their season-ticket base dropped about 3,000 to roughly 9,500. Crowds were small. Lombardi’s first coaching hire, Marc Crawford, had no patience for young players, and Lombardi was bringing in lots of youngsters.

Upgrading the weight room was easier than revamping the roster, but Lombardi has made it stronger and players have formed bonds that helped them avoid long slumps this season.

Winger Dustin Brown, center Anze Kopitar and goaltender Jonathan Quick were drafted by Lombardi’s predecessor, Dave Taylor, and are now leaders. As in San Jose, where Lombardi stressed drafting and development to turn the Sharks into a power, he created depth on defense and in goal.

“If you’re going to have young players, you start from the back,” he said.

It helped too that Lombardi fired the excitable Crawford and hired the patient Terry Murray. And that Drew Doughty, chosen second in the 2008 draft, is a world-class defenseman and Olympic gold medalist at 20.

There’s progress on all fronts. Last week, the Hockey News singled out L.A.'s scouting staff, their Manchester (N.H.) farm team made the playoffs and the Kings clinched a playoff spot despite Quick’s eight-game winless streak.

“We kind of hit the trifecta,” Lombardi said. “Certainly it’s been a long grind but when you hit periods like that I told everyone on the staff, ‘I pushed the hell out of you and I know it’s not easy but take five minutes and be proud of yourself.’ But we’ve got a lot more to do. We can’t let up.”

For reporters who weren’t around much during the season, the Kings have created a playoff brochure with pronunciations of players’ names and suggested storylines. Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille, now the Kings’ president of business operations, has expanded their business base and brings the same fanatic attention to detail that Lombardi does but with more charm.

Robitaille won the Stanley Cup with Detroit and wants to bring that silver trophy here. When the Kings win it — not if, he said — “to me it will mean almost the same.”

A pivotal point for the Kings occurred last summer when they made two key acquisitions they might not have been able to make a year or two ago, signing defenseman Rob Scuderi from the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and getting veteran left wing Ryan Smyth to accept a trade here.

Smyth said he had found the Kings tough to play against and wondered whether their goaltending was good enough. The team’s development, he said, has been steady.

“Now it’s about opportunity and about seizing the moment and in this case there’s an opportunity here of being in the playoffs and going somewhere,” he said. “The expectations are here.”

Whether that means a premier free agent such as Ilya Kovalchuk will want to become a King remains to be seen, but Lombardi will have money and leverage.

“With the credibility we’re starting to gain, if we see the right guy, I think we can compete with anybody now,” he said.

Lombardi’s and Murray’s contracts each have a year left, and a good playoff run should buy them more time to finish this job. Leiweke said that topic will wait until after the season.

“I think we’re all happy that we made the playoffs,” Leiweke said, “but with the team and the level of play that we’ve been capable of during the season, I would think there is more to be gained and more to be accomplished.”

It starts now.