EL SEGUNDO, California — Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi assembled a team that won two Stanley Cup titles and 10 playoff series in three seasons with the belief that teamwork and trust mattered as much as talent.
After the Kings' remarkable run quietly ended Saturday, Lombardi has a long summer to contemplate how far he should extend that trust for another year.
Los Angeles finished ninth in the Western Conference, missing its first postseason since 2009 and becoming the first defending champion to miss the playoffs since the 2007 Carolina Hurricanes.
"They were as frustrated as we were that we couldn't get that car revved up," Lombardi said at the Kings' quiet training complex. "I think we did eventually, and then we ran out of gas."
Lombardi has signed most of the core of his championship teams to long-term contracts, leaving him relatively little flexibility to remake the Kings. He doesn't want a full-scale overhaul, but he also wants more from a tired team that couldn't finish strong.
"I am not giving up on the idea that loyalty is still part of building a team," Lombardi said. "But you'd better exercise it very judiciously, and I think that's one of the things I've had to learn. That is not to point the finger at any players, but ... when you hit that well of cap space (for) loyalty, it has to go to the right (players), and it had better be returned."
Lombardi also confirmed parts of a New York Post report stating that the players locked coach Darryl Sutter out of a meeting earlier this season, but the GM saw it as a positive development toward player ownership of their fates, along with that team concept prized so dearly by the Kings.
Lombardi said the meeting happened in February, right before an eight-game winning streak.
"Theoretically, I have no problem with it," Lombardi said after disputing several details in the Post's story. "In terms of what actually happened, maybe you don't have to go to that extreme."
The Kings (40-27-15) finished with the same record as they had in 2012, when they squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed. Los Angeles then made NHL history, steamrolling to the franchise's first championship with a 16-4 postseason record.
Los Angeles wasn't much better in the lockout-shortened 2013 regular season or the 2013-14 campaign, but still won six more playoff series and another Stanley Cup title with their incredible postseason poise.
Thanks to a midseason slide this winter, the Kings never even got the chance to show off that playoff acumen developed from a record 64 postseason games in a three-year stretch.
The problems weren't confined to any one position, although two major losses on defense put the Kings in trouble early. Willie Mitchell was allowed to leave as a free agent, and Slava Voynov was suspended for the final 76 games of the season after his arrest on domestic violence charges.
Lombardi has several personnel decisions to make in the upcoming months, and not much salary cap room in which to make them.
Defenseman Robyn Regehr announced his plan to retire immediately after the game, but Conn Smythe Trophy-winning forward Justin Williams and center Jarret Stoll are unrestricted free agents along with late-season rental defenseman Andrej Sekera, who missed the season's final six games with an injured knee ligament.
Williams refused to discuss his impending free agency right after the season ended, and it seems likely he could make much more money elsewhere. Stoll said he would be glad to return in any capacity, but the soon-to-be 33-year-old veteran managed a career-low 17 points this year.
Captain Dustin Brown also had a dismal season, but is under contract for seven more seasons. Center Mike Richards, perhaps the worst example of Lombardi's reliance on his core, has five more years on his deal, but could be bought out after his midseason AHL demotion.
Lombardi has plenty of time to make his decisions, and the veteran executive is always open to re-evaluation of his reliance on loyalty and togetherness.
He still has distaste for the mentality prevalent in baseball and other sports in which players are treated solely as commodities on a balance sheet and analyzed purely by their statistical value.
After the experience of this season, Lombardi is starting to see the point of it all.
"I could be completely all wet," Lombardi said. "Those new-wave baseball guys could be absolutely right. 'They are commodities. Your idea of team and stuff, that's done, Dean. Grow up.' But I'll tell you one thing: Hockey ain't my first love. My first love is team, and I don't think you can expect to have a room that's really a team unless those principles of competing for each other and loyalty are in the room."
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