LOS ANGELES — Dean Lombardi had already exited the ice as the Stanley Cup continued to be handed off.
“How about the farmer?” the Los Angeles Kings general manager shouted out to an old friend.
“The farmer” is Darryl Sutter, the veteran coach Lombardi tapped in December to take over behind the bench. It was one of many moves Lombardi made over the past several months that led to the Kings winning the first Cup in team history, a trophy clinched with a 6-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 on Monday at Staples Center.
Fans clustered behind the glass were all about giving the mercurial Lombardi his due, one screaming, “You are the best, Deano! Great job, baby!”
Lombardi, however, was all about deference on this night.
“There are some guys who don’t get appreciated,” Lombardi lectured. “I give credit to (former GM) Dave Taylor. He drafted (Dustin) Brown, (Anze) Kopitar and (Jonathan) Quick. Let’s not forget (former coach) Terry Murray, too. He stabilized this franchise and gave it credibility. There are some unsung heroes that need to be appreciated.”
Lombardi deserves his share of credit, even if the first few years after the former San Jose Sharks GM was hired in 2006 were rocky. His first major moves that months (sometimes years) later paid off included deals with the Edmonton Oilers. First, he nabbed Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene before the 2008-09 season and then worked a deal for Dustin Penner in February 2011.
Last summer, however, is when Lombardi made a move that really made this team a contender — even if the Kings just squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. The blockbuster trade for Flyers captain Mike Richards — in exchange for forwards Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds — sent a clear message: The Kings are ready to contend. A little bump did occur with protracted negotiations with defenseman Drew Doughty, but the two sides came to terms on an eight-year deal before the season.
As the team battled for a playoff spot in February, Lombardi added forward Jeff Carter to the mix in a trade that sent defenseman Jack Johnson and a first-round pick to Columbus.
“Ever since I’ve known him, he had a vision for this team,” Kopitar said after his turn with the Cup. “Tonight, I don’t think he could have gotten a better gift than this. He’s always believed in us. Sometimes we needed a kick in the butt. Sometimes we needed a pat on back.”
Put hiring Sutter in the “kick in the butt” category.
“He added some more grit and demanded hard work,” Richards said of Sutter.
The Kings had lost four in a row and were 12th in the conference when they fired Murray on Dec. 12, replacing him eight days later with Sutter.
“There’s four months left in the season (at the time),” said Quick, who won the Conn Smythe, the NHL’s version of the playoff MVP. “I think everybody in the locker room knew what kind of players we had in there. At our lowest moments, I think the biggest thing is nobody ever turn on someone else. Everybody stuck with it. Go through five-, six-game losing streaks, whatever it was, you know, and guys are still encouraging, still competing in practice.”
Those hard final few weeks in the regular season were replaced with relatively easy times in the playoffs. The Kings — anchored by a 10-game road winning streak — won the first three games of all four playoff series, something no team ever had done. None of their first three playoff opponents (top-seeded Vancouver, No. 2 St. Louis or No. 3 Phoenix) managed to take the Kings past five games.
Their first adversity in months didn’t come until the Kings dropped Games 4 and 5 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Devils.
“They’ve taken a lot of public negativity towards them,” Sutter said. “Look what they’ve just done. Pretty awesome. Tells you what type of players they are.”
There was also more than just a little criticism directed at Lombardi early in his tenure here. But in a building shared by the Los Angeles Lakers — who have several championship banners already in the rafters — all was right on this night as one of the team’s legends took it all in.
“This is the pinnacle for this franchise,” said Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille, a former Kings player and current president of business operations. “This is a special moment. This is something we’ve been waiting for for 40-something years. It’s incredible for our fans. It’s something we’ll never forget. Our fans deserve this.”
And, even if he doesn’t want to take a bow, Lombardi deserves credit.