LOS ANGELES â€” Coach Darryl Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi were the Los Angeles Kings’ leaders during the best years of the franchise’s mostly ordinary history.
When they couldn’t replicate that success over the past three seasons, not even their Stanley Cup pedigree could keep their jobs secure.
The Kings fired Sutter and Lombardi on Monday, abruptly dropping the duo that led the franchise to its only two NHL championships.
The Kings promoted former defenceman Rob Blake to vice-president and general manager after four years as Lombardi’s assistant. Longtime team executive Luc Robitaille was promoted to president in charge of all hockey and business operations.
The moves bring an emphatic end to a remarkable era for the Kings, a Second Six expansion franchise. Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014, but has won only one playoff game since.
Sutter is the winningest coach in Kings history at 225-147-53, while Lombardi is the winningest and longest-serving GM in franchise history.
“This was an extremely difficult decision and was made with an enormous amount of consideration for what we have accomplished in our past,” said Dan Beckerman, the president of AEG, the sports conglomerate that owns the Kings. “But the present and future of our organization is the highest priority.”
The Kings (39-35-8) missed the playoffs this season for the second time in three years, posting their worst record since 2009 despite top-end talent including Norris Trophy-winning defenceman Drew Doughty, All-Star forward Jeff Carter and captain Anze Kopitar.
Los Angeles finished 10th in the 14-team Western Conference, fading down the stretch with a team that struggled to keep up with faster, younger opponents.
Sutter, the stoic Canadian farmer, is still popular among most Kings fans. The club finally decided it couldn’t wait any longer to capitalize on the remaining years of its core’s prime.
“Words cannot express our gratitude and appreciation for what Dean and Darryl have accomplished for the Kings franchise,” Beckerman said.
“They built this team and helped lead us to two Stanley Cup championships and will forever be remembered as all-time greats in Kings history.
“But with that level of accomplishment comes high expectations, and we have not met those expectations for the last three seasons. With the core players we have in place, we should be contending each year for the Stanley Cup. Our failure to meet these goals has led us to this change.”
The Kings made the Stanley Cup Final just once in their first 44 years of existence before Sutter and Lombardi created a team that won 10 playoff rounds and two titles in three incredible seasons.
Lombardi patiently rebuilt the franchise after taking over in April 2006, but then undermined it by handing out lucrative long-term contracts to fading veterans.
The former lawyer also made several disappointing acquisitions at the expense of his player development system in a win-now attempt to keep open his core’s championship window.
Blake has watched it all as Lombardi’s assistant GM since 2013, while Robitaille has been in charge of the Kings’ business operations for the past decade.
Both are Hall of Fame players with their retired numbers hanging in the Staples Center rafters, and both are former Kings captains, playing 14 seasons apiece with the franchise.
Although they faltered lately, Sutter and Lombardi are responsible for the Kings’ golden years.
Sutter replaced the fired Terry Murray in December 2011 and reteamed with Lombardi, his friend and former boss in San Jose. The coach immediately injected discipline and passion into an underachieving group, and the Kings shocked the hockey world by rampaging through the post-season as the eighth seed in the West, going 16-4 and winning the first Stanley Cup in their 45-year history.
The Kings made it back to the Western Conference finals in 2013, losing a tough series to eventual champion Chicago. They won it all again in 2014, rallying from a 3-0 series deficit to San Jose in the first round before completing a 26-game playoff grind by beating the New York Rangers on defenceman Alec Martinez’s goal in the overtime clincher.
But then the mediocre times started: In 2015, Los Angeles became the fourth team in NHL history to miss the playoffs after winning the Stanley Cup.
After a bounce-back season last year in which they lost the Pacific Division title in their 82nd game, the Kings were easily knocked out of the first round by the Sharks.
Blake easily could replace Sutter from within: Kings associate head coach John Stevens is a well-respected former Philadelphia coach who has attracted attention from other teams.
But Blake might want to make a clean break from the leadership group that created a team that appeared out of step with the rest of the NHL at times.
With the active support of Lombardi, Sutter moulded the Kings into a defence-first team focused on crisp puck possession and grinding play in the offensive end. His old-school approach ran against the modern NHL grain, but it turned the Kings into a post-season powerhouse.
Sutter’s approach hasn’t produced enough regular-season success in the past three years to get Los Angeles to that post-season stage, however.
The Kings again were among the NHL’s best defensive teams in front of Jonathan Quick, but Los Angeles’ 201 goals this season â€” down 24 from last season â€” were tied for the fifth-fewest in the NHL.
The 59-year-old Lombardi’s loyalty to the Kings’ championship-winning core has tied up their future payrolls with lucrative, multiyear deals for players including Kopitar, struggling ex-captain Dustin Brown, oft-injured veteran forward Marian Gaborik and Quick, their workhorse goalie.
Los Angeles’ farm system has also produced remarkably little top-end talent in recent years, another major reason for Lombardi’s downfall.
While Sutter seemed reluctant to rely on youngsters in previous seasons, he gave plenty of chances to young players this season. The only significant impact was made by 22-point scorer Nic Dowd and dependable defenceman Derek Forbort.
While Carter and Doughty had their usual outstanding seasons, Kopitar â€” who recently got an eight-year, $80 million contract from Lombardi â€” had the worst production of his 11-year NHL career with just 52 points.
Injuries didn’t help, either: Quick missed 59 games with a groin injury, and Gaborik only showed glimpses of his usual self after getting hurt at the World Cup of Hockey.
Sutter coached in Chicago, San Jose and Calgary before landing in Los Angeles. The former Blackhawks forward from one of hockey’s most legendary families runs a farm in Viking, Alberta, during the off-season, but he seemed to adjust well to the Kings’ beachside lifestyle.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gregbeacham
Greg Beacham, The Associated Press