GMs Maloney, Lombardi make most of 2nd chances

The Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings, two of the NHL's most surprising clubs, have turned around their fortunes thanks to the work of a pair of second-chance general managers in Don Maloney and Dean Lombardi.
Don Maloney has steered the Coyotes through bankruptcy and into prime position for a long-awaited playoff berth. ((Bruce Bennett/Getty Images))

The Phoenix Coyotes have been beaten down and mocked by those who said they have no business sticking around the Sunbelt after the organization's bankruptcy. They've also struggled mightily on the ice while the critics chirped that it was no wonder the franchise was in ruins.

Like the Coyotes, the Los Angeles Kings have been a bust on the ice. Neither team has made an appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2002.

But that could be about to change because of a pair of second-chance general managers, Don Maloney and Dean Lombardi.

If the post-season commenced Thursday, one of the Western Conference matchups would pit Maloney's surprising Coyotes against Lomabrdi's equally startling Kings. In four seasons at the helm, Lombardi has rebuilt Los Angeles into one of the NHL's youngest and most exciting clubs. Maloney has turned around the fortunes of Phoenix in three years.

As a result, the Coyotes and Kings are on the verge of removing themselves from the shameful list of teams that haven't made the playoffs since the 2004-05 lockout. That list had four clubs at the start of the 2009-10 NHL season — the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers are the others.

"We're not there yet, but touch wood, we like the direction we're going," Maloney said.

Maloney watched a dozen years go by between general manager gigs before the Coyotes hired him. Lombardi spent only three seasons between GM jobs, but he, too, wondered if a second chance at running an NHL club would come.

Maloney and Lombardi travelled different routes to get where they are this season, but they occasionally crossed paths. In fact, when Maloney was relieved of his duties as the New York Islanders' GM in 1995, Lombardi hired him as the San Jose Sharks' Eastern Conference pro scout for a season before Maloney moved on to become an assistant GM of the New York Rangers.

Learning on the fly

Both Lombardi and Maloney are 51 years old, with Lombardi six months the senior. Maloney played junior with his hometown Kitchener Rangers and went on to a productive 14-season NHL career with the Rangers, Hartford Whalers and Islanders. Lombardi enjoyed a standout prep school career near his hometown of Ludlow, Mass., then continued to play at the Elmira College and University of New Haven before earning his law degree at Tulane University.

Maloney became the Islanders' assistant GM about a year after his playing days ended. He moved into the team's GM office 1½ years later, but lasted only three years before being ousted in December 1995.

"Looking back, when I became general manager of the Islanders, I was very, very young," Maloney said. "I wasn't too far removed from my playing days. That was a benefit in terms of having a good feel for NHL players.

"But for me, just understanding the hockey business was the big thing. You have to manage [everything from] the coaching staff to a scouting staff to a budget. This was all relatively new. I don't want to classify it as crisis management, but it definitely was seat-of-your-pants management."

Dean Lombardi has assembled one of the NHL's most exciting young teams in Los Angeles. ((Bruce Bennett/Getty Images))

Lombardi began in the hockey business as a player agent and moved into a role as the Minnesota North Stars' assistant GM under GM Jack Ferreira before the Sharks hired Lombardi as their GM in 1996. He was let go in San Jose after six seasons and took a job with the Philadelphia Flyers as their Western Conference pro scout.

"Once you get out and do the scouting like Dean did [with the Flyers], you have an opportunity to see the whole league and it presents you with a different perspective because you take each team, dissect it and even go through that team's minor [league] system and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of every organization," said Ferreira, who now works for Lombardi in Los Angeles as a special assistant to the GM.

"It just helps you when you get to become a general manager again. When you're talking to another general manager, you know his organization from top to bottom because you've just been through it. So it was, in its own way, an advantage for Dean."

Mistakes made

Many general manager jobs opened up during Maloney's decade in the Rangers front office, but he felt so comfortable working under Neil Smith and his successor, Glen Sather, that he never got off his duff to go after a GM job.

Maloney, though, eventually decided to toss his hat back in the GM ring and sought interviews in the summer of 2007 for the Coyotes job as well as the vacated Columbus Blue Jackets GM position.

"Stepping back, spending a year with Dean Lombardi and then returning to New York for 10 years and working with a lot of good people from Neil Smith to Glen Sather, it was a good experience to have before I was ready to get back into the driver's seat," Maloney said. "The one thing I learned is it's a lot easier to sit back and lob ideas out there versus making that final decision."

For Lombardi, the way the Sharks turned out after his departure helped him get a second chance.

Ferreira doesn't see much of a difference in the way Lombardi is running the Kings compared with his San Jose days.

"I don't know if he has changed much," Ferreira said. "I don't think he was around to reap the benefits in San Jose. You see the rewards of the foundation that he put in place there. Here, he is doing the same thing.

"What has happened [in Los Angeles] is that it has come together a little quicker. But basically, it is the same philosophy that he's always had, to do it from within through the draft and free agency, the right college or junior free agent. You know, build that young core and get better each year as those young players develop."

Maloney, meanwhile, has focused more on the NHL team, delegating other duties like scouting and the farm team to the likes of assistant GM Brad Treliving and chief scout Keith Gretzky.

"I really feel you learn more from your mistakes than your successes and you could write a book from all the mistakes I've made," the humble Maloney said. "I have a little more maturity now in my personality to realize that there is a certain amount of patience involved in this job and work level. It's a combination of the two.

"Ninety per cent of the time and energy I spend is on the NHL team. It's the engine that drives the organization. You have to keep on top of the league, read news clips, know what's going on with other teams and regularly keep in touch with the other GMs."

No doubt, the Kings and Coyotes are glad they got in touch with Lombardi and Maloney.