OK, this is where we really get into the meat of my talk with Lombardi. This is where he grabbed the marker, went to the board and illustrated, line by line, how the team could look in a couple years. Dean will be the first to admit that it’s far from a science, and there’s no way to determine how close to reality this turns out to be, but I found it to be a fascinating look into his thought process and a window to how he thinks the Kings will turn things around. The bad news is, well, I didn’t have a pad and pen. Rule No. 1 for journalists, right? Right. But afteward I wrote it all down from memory as quickly as I could, and I was able to faithfully recreate it.
Remember, this is a couple years down the road, and if you have questions like, “What about (fill in player’s name)?” well, that’s how Dean wrote it down. Of course, he has only taken into account guys who are under contract right now. Therefore, it doesn’t include unsigned prospects or potential free-agent signings, so don’t take it as the gospel. Below, you’ll also get the long-awaited update on the goaltending situation, in which Lombardi is quite candid, and an update on Cammalleri’s contract situation.
There will be one more part to the interview, and hopefully later this week I’ll get to sit down with Lombardi again and get to some more topics. Click below for this installment…
Lombardi went to the board and started with the first line: Frolov, Kopitar and Teddy Purcell, the kid the Kings just signed out of Maine. A surprise? Yes, but remember that as many as 10 NHL teams were after this kid. Dean said, “He’s a scorer and he’s got good hands. He fits that role, but again, you have to be careful about how you project that.” The second line had Cammalleri and Brown on the wings but a hole at center. Dean said, “That’s a big problem. We have to fill that,” and said a future draft pick could be the answer. The third line had Cliche at center and Lewis on one wing, with Brady Murray or Tukonen on the other wing. The fourth line had Kevin Westgarth, a kid the Kings recently signed out of Princeton, along with Boyle and Zeiler. Dean said, by way of caution, “You don’t want to start putting kids in boxes because then you’re dreaming. You have to be careful. But you look at it, and the only real reach is (Purcell). Everything else is reasonable.”
Then came the problem areas, defense and goaltending. Lombardi had Visnovsky and Johnson inked in as top-four guys and Harrold as a fifth or sixth guy. Lombardi left the possibility of Blake coming back as an option and…this is where it gets tough, because Dean tossed out a couple names that I can’t disclose right now, because it would be tampering. I’ll say this for one of them…think recent past, very recent past.
Here’s what Lombardi said about the defensive group:
“That’s reasonable for (Harrold). He might be better than that, but that’s reasonable. I’m not putting him in the top four. (Johnson) is going to be a top four. The only question is whether he’s a one, two, three or four, but he’s top four. I need another kid (to go with Johnson). The middle group is (Visnovsky) and hopefully a free agent this year. Then (in the third pairing) you’ve got (Blake), a veteran King, and this is why I’m glad we kept him.”
Then Lombardi moved on to goaltending, although he could only write in one name for certain. Dean said:
“Then the major problem is (in goal), because all the kids are way too young. You’ve got LaBarbera, and then I’m going to have to do something. I’m looking at an ’81 to ’83 (born). I’m probably going to get a guy from Europe. I’m not sure. Nothing is going to look good until the goaltending is squared away. It shows up everywhere. .905 was the lowest save percentage in our conference that made the playoffs. It was Detroit, but their shots against was 220, which was the best in the league. So next year, or the year after, we have to get our shots against way down. We have to find a way.”
“So maybe there’s a deal out there, or you bring in a guy or you just try to hold the fort. You can’t win without it. That’s the thing about San Jose, is that I always had goaltending. I had Vernon and Shields, which bought some time, then Nabokov, Kiprusoff and Toskala came up. That’s why we were able to make the playoffs all those years as we were building, because we got solid goaltending. Not great goaltending, but solid goaltending.”
At this point, I asked Dean if he looked at Cloutier as someone he could count on next season. He said:
“If we had to do it again, we would have gone slower in evaluating the three (Cloutier, Garon and LaBarbera) and let it play out. Because then we lost access to LaBarbera. Carrying three goalies… I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, because historically in hockey people say you can’t carry three. Well, I’ve been thinking, where does that come from? (People say) it’s a pain in the ass to practice. OK, that’s true. Well, what’s the next reason? `Guys can’t get into their roles.’ `They don’t get enough playing time.’ OK, so you’re telling me, let’s go through a season like last season, where guys can’t stop a basketball, instead of having a little creativity in practice? And, guys aren’t going to be comfortable with their roles? Well, nobody should have been comfortable with their role last year, because nobody was stopping the damn thing.”
“Well now, we’re looking at what we can do going into next year, and we might not be able to do anything because the market isn’t great. The way we handled it last year, we just didn’t do a good job. We should have been more patient, carried three, let it play out and see what happens. The bad part is, it sucks going into camp not knowing who your No. 1 is. On the other end, it sucks going through a year like we did last year. So right now we’ve got Jason and Clouts under contract. You need a third guy and (Jon) Quick is there but he’s not a No. 3 guy. So you need a third guy in case the first two go down, and then you’ve got to look at other options. Who knows? There are always deals that come along that you don’t anticipate.”
“Last year, Danny was clearly the (No. 1) guy, and given his experience and track record, he probably deserved it. The guy had 30 wins a year and was preordained No. 1. All we’re saying this time is, this is wide open. Whoever performs is going to be the guy. And as part of that we might, might be willing to carry three goalies through that process. We’re going to let it play out. We hurried (last year). With good teams, everyone is in place and they know their roles already, but as you’re building, you have to evaluate maybe a little more than you’d like to. Nobody likes evaluating their pitching staff going into the season. That’s just a reality.”
At this point, I changed focus and asked about Cammalleri and whether Dean thought it was a priority to lock up Cammalleri with a long-term contract. Dean said:
“Yeah, he’s a guy you want to lock up. Now you get into the age-old cap question of locking him up at the right price. Now when you do your payroll, and this is what we’re looking at right now, is the percentage of your cap dedicated to players and certain roles. In Cammy’s case, would you like to lock him up? Yes. The kid’s a competitor and he cares, but remember, all of these kids haven’t been exposed to a lot of winning. They have to learn to win and take responsibility. There’s a big difference between a 35-goal scorer on a playoff team and a 35-goal scorer on a team that’s third- or fourth-worst in the league. So when we look at locking him up and making him part of our core, we have to make sure that (contract) number fits, not only now but down the road. That’s the temptation now, when you’re not a good team, is just to get it done. You need it, because you’re not very good and you need that 35-goal scorer, but then if it cuts you off from getting pieces that you’re going to need 24 months and 36 months down the road…you have to be smart about it.”
“In Cammalleri’s case, the thing you like about him is his competitiveness. He cares about winning. One of the things, when you go through a season like we had, is that these young kids have to learn to take responsibility for winning. First they want to play in the league, then they want a role and finally they want to win. They have to be pissed off. They can’t just be like, `Oh, I’m playing in the league and I’m getting my goals.’ In Cammalleri’s case, he gets it. He wants to be the man and he cares about winning and losing. That sounds simplistic but it’s not. Not everybody cares the right way. It’s not easy to play well and lose and be pissed. A lot of young guys can’t do that. If they lose and play well, they’re OK.”
Picking up on Dean’s theme about the young kids, I asked him if the temptation was there to simply go “all in” with some of the kids and let them play at the NHL level. Dean said:
”You have to be careful in this day and age, especially with the number of holes we have. I think you know enough about me now to know how much I care about development, and a big part of development is timing and making sure they’re trained properly. There’s a big difference between putting in a young kid who is ready to play and ready to contribute versus putting a kid in there just so you can say, `Hey, we’re getting younger.’ That’s (B.S.). That never works. Teams that try to go down that road, it ends up rebounding in your face. You have to get younger with a purpose.”
“The problem with last year is that we didn’t have a big youth movement because we didn’t have the young players to put in. Who did we put in? John Zeiler. So it wasn’t really a movement toward youth. The assets went into draft picks, to make sure that part of the reserve list would get stockpiled, but we didn’t have anybody to bring up. … So the only guy we really brought up who’s on the (long-term) board is Zeiler. We didn’t have a movement toward youth in the sense that we were bringing up young kids. There was nobody to bring up. That’s the problem we have in Manchester right now.”
At this point, Dean returned to the dry-erase board and wrote names like Matt Moulson, Trevor Lewis, Kevin Westgarth, Richard Petiot and Jon Quick on the board as possibilities for Manchester next season. Dean said:
“This is young. … (If) you can win (in the minors) with young players, that’s great, because they’re playing in the playoffs and it’s intense. One playoff game is like five regular-season games. But that’s a problem. We’re old down there. Next year, we’ll have a slew of young ones. I’d like to be able to keep them there, but then you have the problem of where we are now (on the Kings’ roster). To fill holes, if you go free agency they’re going to be too expensive. You can do one or two but you’re going to overpay, dollar wise. Then the temptation is, `Hey, we need bodies, we’ve got to play these kids.’ But then you’re not playing the kids for the right reasons.”