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When Isles hesitated, Kings grabbed Lombardi

Dean Lombardi nearly became the Islanders' general manager four years ago, but the Kings jumped in before Charles Wang was ready to make a choice to replace Mike Milbury.

Now Lombardi and the Kings - who hosted the Islanders last night - are wrapping up their breakthrough season, about to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Lombardi has kept an eye on the Isles and Garth Snow, who is trying to get the Islanders up to where the Kings are.

"He's got a really good handle on what he needs to do," Lombardi told Newsday. "It's a difficult situation, and he got thrown in without any experience. What you see now with the Islanders is hope. It's the same place we were two years ago."

Lombardi has done the start-from-scratch thing before, helping to build the Sharks from struggling expansion team to a perennial Western Conference contender as GM from 1996-2003, though when the team struggled in the 2002-03 season, he was fired.

He was working as a scout for the Flyers when a slew of GM openings came up late in the 2005-06 season. Lombardi, like Snow a Massachusetts native, interviewed with the Islanders and Bruins before the Kings grabbed him.

"I really like Mr. Wang. He cares very deeply about that team," Lombardi said. "I liked everything about the organization. L.A. just moved sooner."

The Islanders went first with Neil Smith, then Snow 40 days later, and it's taken them some time to install their rebuilding plan. The Kings, who already had drafted key pieces Dustin Brown (13th overall, 2003 draft) and Anze Kopitar (11th overall, 2005), struggled the last three seasons the way the Islanders are now, but they stayed with their program to rebuild through the draft and with young players.

Now the Kings have the sort of foundation they've never had - homegrown players Brown, Kopitar, Alexander Frolov, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, along with former Islander Ryan Smyth and Syosset's Rob Scuderi.

Not even when Wayne Gretzky and his group of former Oilers (Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey), former Rangers (Tony Granato, Tomas Sandstrom) and Luc Robitaille reached the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals did the Kings build from the ground up.

"They've had 44 years here without a Stanley Cup and they've never tried to do it this way," Lombardi said. "It took them 10 years before they had a first-round pick who played for the organization [Jay Wells, 1979]. You have to establish a culture for things to turn around."

Lombardi said he's had a few conversations with Snow in the nearly four years since both got GM jobs - the same way Lombardi once picked the brains of an earlier generation of general managers such as Lou Lamoriello and Bill Torrey when Lombardi was starting out in the early 1990s.

"I remember Lou Lamoriello giving me his organizational chart when I first became GM in San Jose," Lombardi said. "You try to learn how the Devils, the Flyers, the Islanders from the 1970s and 1980s, how they built their teams into powerhouses. It starts with having people around you who believe in what you're trying to do and are committed to it. That's why you see so many teams who just spin their wheels, revamping their scouting departments every year and having so much turnover."

The Kings are on the right track with Lombardi, who might have helped the Isles get on that track a bit sooner. But he has faith in Snow.

"You can only get moving with experience in that job," Lombardi said. "From talking to Garth since he took over, you can see he gets it."

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