They are back. And they continue to haunt.
In San Jose and the Bay Area, watching the Stanley Cup finals that begin Wednesday will again be like watching a movie with characters that are way too familiar. With a plot that is way too painful.
Once more, here are the Los Angeles Kings, seeking their second Cup title in three seasons.
Once more, pacing in a suit behind the L.A. bench is Darryl Sutter, who was fired as the Sharks' coach in 2002.
And once more, upstairs in the Kings' general manager booth is Dean Lombardi, who was G.M. in San Jose for seven seasons before being axed by Sharks ownership in the spring of 2003, just a few months after he had dismissed Sutter.
"They are a very good general manager and very good coach, talented then and talented now," current Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said recently -- and Wilson did not seem to be saying it through gritted teeth.
Give credit to him for being so gracious, considering how the Sharks had four chances to eliminate the Kings from this year's playoffs but blew a 3-0 lead in the first-round series and . . . well, no need to revisit that toxic meltdown another time.
But really, now. How can a Sharks fan watch the Kings plow ahead toward another possible championship without some fulminating and puzzling over the Sutter/Lombardi legacy in San Jose? And how can that same Sharks fan not speculate what might have happened if the two men had stayed? Some of the Sharks players from that era must also wonder.
"I contacted Dean this week to congratulate him about making the finals," said Owen Nolan, who was the Sharks' captain in 2002-03 before being sent to Toronto in a March trade deadline shake-up. "And I always respected Darryl. He benched me a few times for having bad games. But I understood why he did it."
So how did it go sideways in San Jose for Sutter and Lombardi? Your memory might have dimmed. Thus, let's revisit the circumstances for educational reasons -- and as a cautionary future tale. Basically, it's a story arc of poignant and weird proportions.
Wilson, who back then was employed as the Sharks' director of pro development, sums it up best: "Some good people probably did some things they wish they hadn't done."
As the 2002-03 season began, seeds were planted for frustration. The Sharks' ownership was transitioning from original proprietor George Gund to a consortium of Silicon Valley investors. They had authorized what was then the highest payroll in team history, $47 million, with such veteran big-money players as Nolan, Teemu Selanne and Vincent Damphousse. The previous spring, they had almost reached the conference finals before losing a bitter Game 7 to Colorado in the second round.
The idea was to keep the same group intact for another strong push at the Cup, with Sutter back for his sixth season as coach. Expectations were high. But there was a problem. Starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov was unsigned and a contract holdout.
Without Nabokov, the Sharks lost four of their first five games. Behind the scenes, Sutter was putting pressure on Lombardi to get a deal done. The two sides finally agreed. But when Nabokov signed, he was not in playing shape. He lost his first three starts.
Meanwhile, key defenseman Brad Stuart was also a holdout until mid-November. The team kept floundering. At one point, Lombardi made a cryptic statement, saying the locker room had developed a "cancer," without being specific or naming names. The players were incensed.
Sutter wasn't happy, either. He had been told by management that after this one strong push for the Cup, the franchise's long-range plan was to reduce payroll by at least $10 million and rely on players drafted and developed from within. No big-bucks players would be coming aboard through trade or free agency to rescue the season or the future. Sutter shared this information with his locker room, perhaps as a motivating tactic. That didn't go over well, either.
"There was a lot going on inside the team at that time," Wilson said.
Finally, after back-to-back December losses to bottom-feeder Nashville and last-place Phoenix, Lombardi called Sutter into his office and let him go. Ron Wilson was hired as coach. The Sharks won four of six but continued to struggle. They fell out of contention as the trade deadline approached. Nolan, the team's best player, was sent to Toronto for Brad Boyes, Alyn McCauley and a draft pick.
"It wasn't Dean's call to let me go," Nolan said this week, but he wouldn't elaborate.
Lombardi's words after the trade seemed to support the theory that ownership had ordered the move. Lombardi told reporters: "We're not as good a team today as we were yesterday."
Lombardi also confessed to the start of a Sharks rebuild: "When you're rounding third and find you can't get to home plate, sometimes you have to take a step back and return to second base."
The new Sharks investors were not delighted with Lombardi's candor. In one stretch, 10 of 19 home games failed to sell out. Greg Jamison, the team's CEO, announced March 18 that Lombardi was gone -- just two weeks after he had traded Nolan and three months after he had fired Sutter.
The rest, we all know. Lombardi found work as a scout for Philadelphia before landing the Kings' job in 2006. Sutter was hired in Calgary and reached a Stanley Cup finals there before rejoining Lombardi in 2011 and installing the usual hard-nosed Sutter ethic.
"You watch L.A. play, they dig down and play with such desire," Nolan said. "They'll do anything they have to do to win. They deserve to be where they are."
If Lombardi and Sutter were still here instead of in Los Angeles, would the Sharks be playing for the Cup? No way to know. Too many variables. But that doesn't stop the wondering. And the haunting. You can enjoy Sutter's scowl and Lombardi's furrowed brow during your Stanley Cup hockey viewing over the next two weeks. Because they're back.
Kings-Rangers series a win-win deal for NHL. PAGE 3
Former Sharks coach Darryl Sutter, center, has the Los Angeles Kings back in the Stanley Cup finals two years after winning the championship.