Dean Lombardi was fired by the Los Angeles Kings last month. The general manager was the architect behind two Stanley Cup-winning teams in LA, and he obviously has a tight relationship with Flyers general manager Ron Hextall.
In 2006, when Lombardi — a former Flyers scout — was hired as Kings’ GM, one of his first moves was to bring Hextall over from Philadelphia, where he had been serving as the team’s director of pro player personnel. Hextall then served as assistant general manager in LA until Lombardi let him go back to the Flyers in 2013, where he became the GM-in-waiting under Paul Holmgren. A year later that became the reality as Holmgren was shipped upstairs to be team president.
Now, Hextall is still a GM and Lombardi is looking for a new gig. That brings us to news today from the Courier-Post:
There is interest from #Flyers in bringing Dean Lombardi back. Ron Hextall waiting to hear back from him but the potential role is unclear.— Dave Isaac (@davegisaac) May 8, 2017
I know that the role isn’t defined here, and I don’t want to get too up in arms over a role that’s unknown. But I’m going to say this as clear as I can: I don’t want Dean Lombardi within a 100-mile radius of the Philadelphia Flyers. There are lots of reasons I feel this way.
Let’s get the on-ice stuff out of the way first.
The good part of Lombardi’s legacy is already here
It’s clear that Lombardi is a well-respected mind in hockey, and Hextall learned a lot from him. In fact, a lot of Lombardi’s philosophy impacts the Flyers today. Take a look at these lines from Lombardi’s biography in the Kings’ media guide (while trying to ignore that this glowing bio feels like it was written by Lombardi himself):
Lombardi has clearly valued the draft more than any other GM in Kings history and the talent the Kings have drafted is the envy of hockey clubs around the league. ... With a young, solid core in place – a core that also features great character – Lombardi has been able to compliment that group with key veterans who sport a winning track record. ... Despite such talent, Lombardi still firmly believes that you draft and develop your homegrown players and that you compliment that group in other ways, and the Kings remain a young team which coincides with Lombardi’s philosophy and track record that your team needs to get better while getting younger.
How much of that sounds familiar? These are essentially Hextall’s guiding principles as well -- build through the draft and with “homegrown” talent, while using trades and free agency as complimentary tools, not foundational ones.
I’m the first to defend these ideas. I think that it’s certainly the best way to build a long-term contender, and we’re starting to see it pay off with the amount of prospect depth that’s been built up in Philadelphia over the last three years.
But the Flyers already have Lombardi’s philosophical clone in Ron Hextall. They don’t need him, particularly given the concerns with Lombardi’s execution of said philosophy.
Lombardi tore down a dynasty faster than he built it
His idea to move the Kings organization to a draft-first, build-from-within system was very smart. Ahead of its time in 2006, honestly. It ultimately won the team two Cups, and ushered in the most successful era in the 50-year history of the Los Angeles Kings.
But to sustain that success, you need more than just good drafting. You still need manage the salary cap, you still need to add valuable NHL-level pieces, you still need to understand how the game is shifting year-to-year.
Lombardi did some of this briefly in Los Angeles, but it did not work out long-term. You might be able to say that Lombardi mismanaged his team right out of a dynasty.
Perhaps punch-drunk from two Stanley Cup wins, he strayed from the original course. He gave bad contracts to Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik and Jonathan Quick, all of whom will be hurting LA’s books until at least 2021. They traded away a first-round pick and goalie Martin Jones, who fell into division-rival San Jose’s lap, for Milan Lucic, who they couldn’t keep due to cap concerns. He was on the bad side of that Luke Schenn-Vincent Lecavalier trade with the Flyers. It cost him his job, and his successors have their work cut out for them moving forward.
Just as quickly as Lombardi built the Kings, he brought them right back down.
Perhaps even more importantly, he failed to value the shifts in the way the game is played. From our sister Kings site, Jewels From the Crown:
There’s no denying that Lombardi is a brilliant hockey mind and he had a good idea of how to build a team. Unfortunately, things in the NHL have changed and philosophies have shifted (as they have over the last several decades) towards getting younger and faster. Right before his eyes, Lombardi witnessed the declining usage of enforcers, reduction in fights, and increase in talented bottom-six players who can score. But he couldn’t quite comprehend what was happening.
His track record with Team USA might be even worse
His cloudy vision around the shifts in how successful hockey teams are assembled has hurt more than just the Kings. Consider his decisions as general manager of Team USA, where he has made it routine to leave home the most talented players in favor of “character” and “grit.”
As noted by SB Nation’s Pat Iversen following last year’s World Cup, where the American team finished 7th out of eight teams:
That is the philosophy that doomed the USA. It doomed them in Sochi in 2014, when they failed to medal at the Olympics with a mix of skill players like Phil Kessel and gritty forwards. Instead of looking up at the medal stand and understanding it was time for a change, USA management swung the other way.
They dug in. They left Kessel at home [for the World Cup]. They left dynamic Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk at home. They didn’t even give [Kevin] Shattenkirk an invite. They passed over Kyle Okposo, a guy who can “grit” and “skill,” and loaded up with pure bruisers and grinders like David Backes, Justin Abdelkader, and Ryan Callahan.
It’s the old-school philosophy that if you dump the puck in, bang bodies around, and crash the net then the goals will come. Qualities like “ability to make plays” or “proven scorer” were shelved for values like “grit” and “compete.”
These are all elements that I do not want in the Flyers front office. I don’t want an important voice that values what Team USA has valued under Lombardi’s leadership, or one that has made the pivotal contract errors that Lombardi has made with the Kings.
But none of these issues we’ve discussed come close to my most real concerns about bringing Dean Lombardi into the Flyers front office.
What’s worse: carrying a bottle of pills or beating your wife?
If Lombardi’s actions as Kings general manager are any indication, he has a clear answer to this question. And it’s not the right answer.
Lombardi has a reputation as a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. His press conferences often approach bizarre, perhaps even legendary status, and the one before the 2016 World Cup was certainly an all-timer. The flowery language. The emotion. It’s downright entertaining, even intoxicating.
But as Dave Lozo pointed out pretty directly last month at Vice, Lombardi is full of shit. The phrase “loyal” has been used to help explain those bad contracts we talked about before, but the truth is that loyalty only went as far as convenience for Lombardi.
Remember the Mike Richards situation? In 2014, Lombardi failed to use an amnesty buyout on Richards’ atrocious contract. That decision was widely questioned, but it was spun as a loyal general manager hoping that a former star would regain form. He was simply keeping the faith in a player he loved.
A year later in 2015, as the Kings’ salary cap realities were just starting to hit Lombardi in the face, Richards was caught at the Canadian border with a controlled substance -- a bottle of pills, as it turned out. The arrest came on June 17. Not even two weeks later, on June 29, Richards’ contract was terminated. He filed a grievance against the team and a settlement was reached in October.
The first thing Lombardi did following that settlement was send the most self-serving statement I’ve ever seen from an NHL general manager to the Los Angeles Times. It completely threw Richards under the bus.
"Without a doubt, the realization of what happened to Mike Richards is the most traumatic episode of my career," Lombardi said in a written summation he provided to The Times on Friday. "At times, I think that I will never recover from it. It is difficult to trust anyone right now-and you begin to question whether you can trust your own judgment. The only thing I can think of that would be worse would be suspecting your wife of cheating on you for five years and then finding out in fact it was true.
With all due respect here, I don’t really care how hard the general manager is personally taking a situation like this. What matters is how they’re helping the player, and it’s evident how they helped Richards. He had a “small quantity” of pills that were “clearly intended for his personal use,” according to police, and Lombardi used it as a convenient excuse to ditch the contract. Loyalty!
It makes you wonder how they would have addressed things differently had Richards still been a productive player worthy of said contract. We don’t really have to wonder, though, because in that same 2014-15 season, defenseman Slava Voynov was jailed for domestic violence against his then-girlfriend. Police reports said that Voynov threw his wife into a television after punching and kicking her.
With that news in the open, Lombardi didn’t terminate Voynov’s contract. Quite the opposite. He didn’t even abide by the NHL’s decision to suspend Voynov from on-ice activity. Instead, Voynov was “a familiar figure” around the Kings’ practice facility during the suspension, and Lombardi even allowed Voynov to skate with his teammates at one point, incurring a $100,000 fine from the league.
Why was he allowed on the ice? Because Lombardi thought it would be good for Voynov. Ahh, priorities.
Just got on the ice early - DL thought it would be good for Voynov to be around teammates for the day— lisa dillman (@reallisa) December 2, 2014
I personally think this says everything you need to know about Lombardi’s handling of the issue. A guy was under investigation — and eventually charged with — beating up his wife, and Lombardi saw no issue with letting that guy on the ice. He thought it would be good for him.
Voynov eventually went back to Russia voluntarily -- an easy decision given that he was in the custody of immigration officials and likely to be deported anyway — thus freeing the Kings of the issue. Only after his self-deportation did the Kings say they were planning on terminating the contract.
The damage had already been done though, and the Lombardi’s Kings made their stance as clear as day: if you can help the team, we’ll overlook the off-ice actions. If you can’t help the team anymore, we’ll use the off-ice actions as a reason to ditch you.
The Flyers don’t need this
Lombardi obviously has some good ideas on how to run a hockey team. He’s obviously a mentor to Ron Hextall. I also don’t really give a shit.
Forget the on-ice stuff. It’s not great, and I don’t want it in Philadelphia.
But the off-ice stuff is a complete non-starter for me. I can’t respect a guy who was so willing to quickly cut ties on a player with a drug violation, yet also so willing to violate a league suspension to welcome back a player who had been charged with domestic violence. He valued a guy’s ability to play hockey over what’s so clearly, morally right.
That’s not the kind of guy who should have a seat at the table with the Philadelphia Flyers, and I’ll respect the team less if they give him one.