Ian Clark's On Hockey: From L.A., a Kingly presence
MANCHESTER -- Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi arrived at Verizon Wireless Arena Tuesday morning, prepared to see his organization's top currently active team play its home opener Friday night. Whether he becomes a familiar face around Manchester remains to be seen, now that the NHL has made its strongest proposal yet to end its lockout of the league's players.
If the NHL Players' Association accepts the proposal, Lombardi will return his focus to Los Angeles, where the Stanley Cup champion Kings will have to scramble to get ready for a proposed Nov. 2 start to the season. But if the lockout drags on, the AHL's Manchester Monarchs will continue to have an unusually strong hands-on presence of higher-ups from the parent club.
Kings assistant general manager (and Monarchs GM) Ron Hextall was in town during Manchester's training camp, and Kings coach Darryl Sutter was scheduled to follow the executives' cross-country travels.
It's all part of keeping the pieces that form the organization's infrastructure, something Lombardi says is key to the Kings' success, all working in harmony.
'It's a great opportunity to focus on some areas where maybe you are not able to (focus) when dealing with the day-to-day of your big club,' he said. 'There's an enormous amount of things you can do to turn a negative into a positive.'
While communication between the Monarchs and Kings typically is ongoing, it's a different situation altogether to have someone such as Lombardi actually into town and observing the day-to-day operations, from practices to workouts to games.
At least until Tuesday's developments, Lombardi was planning to watch the Monarchs - who got off to a strong start last weekend with back-to-back victories - play their first 2012-13 home game, against the Providence Bruins.
'(It's) invaluable,' Lombardi said. 'That type of communication with your players - whether they want to hear it or not - is critical with today's young players. It's not like 20 years ago where you said 'Do this' and they did it. Now they ask why.'
The Monarchs are an especially young team, with rookies and second-year pros seeing significant ice time. Those players have a steeper learning curve than their typically more-seasoned opponents.
'This is one of the younger teams we've had. We've got a lot of players at different stages,' Lombardi said. 'We've got (Andy) Andreoff, (Tyler) Toffoli, (Tanner) Pearson, (Jordan) Weal ... We've got a lot of guys with very little, if any, minor-league experience, so in terms of those guys, you're looking at how quickly they can adjust to the next level.'
It's an eye-opening experience for some players.
'So many junior (hockey) kids think that the American Hockey League is an easy stepping stone. They figure out in a hurry that this is a tough league and there are a lot of good players,' Lombardi said. 'You're looking at how quickly they can adjust to the pace. In their case, there's a lot to learn in terms of preparation and development. They're kind of like (college) freshmen.'
Meanwhile, veteran players know that this is the chance to make an impression toward getting a shot in the NHL.
'Guys who have been pros here a while - the (Marc-Andre) Cliches, the (Jake) Muzzins, the (Thomas) Hickeys - these guys are guys that should be knocking on the door for helping us up top (in L.A.) eventually this year,' Lombardi said. 'They're at a stage where you say, 'How far are they from helping us win at the NHL level?' It's a very different analysis than the young kids you're looking at.'
The players themselves are well aware.
'Eyes are on you,' said Hickey, a fifth-year defenseman. 'But, at the same time, if you haven't figured it out yet, they're always keeping tabs on you, and they always know what's going on, so it's not like you have to fire it up when they get here. You should be doing that all the time.'
When Sutter came to visit the Monarchs during the NHL all-star break last season, Jordan Nolan and Dwight King made an impression and were called up to L.A. Four months later, they were holding the Stanley Cup over their heads.
The possibility of a similar scenario unfolding from visits by Lombardi and Sutter is not lost on the the current Monarchs.
'It's one of those things that can kind of make or break your career because there are so many people watching,' said third-year forward Brandon Kozun. 'The way you have to prepare is that every night is your last night and make sure you're ready for every game. That's part of being a pro. If you want to help your career, this is the year to do it.'
We'll see how long the opportunity lasts.
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Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..