I figured I’d get the Crawford interview out of the way first, since 1) he’s the coach and has a lot of pertinent things to say, and 2) it’s (by far) the longest interview and I wanted to get it out of the way…
Below, you’ll find Crawford talking about his hopes for the camp, his reflections on free agency, his view of the new additions and some of the Kings’ younger players and, everyone’s favorite topic, the goaltending.
So, here you go. I’ll work on getting some of the player interviews up later today…
Q: This camp is obviously a chance to look at the future. What do you hope to get out of the week?
A: It’s really one of the few times that you get to spend time with the young prospects. With the way we’re doing it now, with the smaller groups, you get more individual time with the players. And that’s good, because I can honestly say that what I was going through — and I’m sure most of the players would tell you the same thing — is that usually you don’t get a lot of time and you don’t get a lot of input from the head coach or the assistant coaches, because they’re dealing with so many people. As the camp goes into the third and fourth days, we’re going to have 40 people here. There’s only so much time that you can spend with them.
When you look at the defensemen, there are only eight of them. I dealt primarily with four of them on the ice today and you get a really good feel for them on the ice, watching them do the same drill over and over and over again. There is a real purpose to repetition and it also helps in the sense that we get to know them a lot better, from watching them do the repetition. Now, you get to know their skating styles and you get to know their tendencies on the ice. That helps you in terms of giving some instruction. From the other standpoint, we get to talk to them more than we do in big groups, and that’s always a positive too.
These are development camps. We’re not worried so much about competition. What we’re worried about is getting quality reps and improvement in the skill sets of the players. That’s what we devote our time to, and we think it’s the right way to do things. It has a byproduct that we didn’t think would happen. Because we’re not worried about the flow of the drill and the flow of the practice so much, we’re getting a lot more rapport with the players. There will be lots of time for us to bark instructions and do some of the other stuff as we get into the regular training camp. The summer camps, I think they’re excellent for a number of reasons, not the least of which is for us to get to know the players, as people and as players.
Q: What are your thoughts about the free-agency period and the players you ended up signing?
A: I think Dean (Lombardi) would probably tell you that we wanted to add some people into our group that were going to be here for a number of years, and we’ve done that. We got a four-year deal with (Michal) Handzus and a four-year deal with (Tom) Preissing. They now become a big part of what we’re building with. The other three guys that we signed — (Kyle) Calder, (Ladislav) Nagy and (Brad) Stuart — are all on short-term deals and in some way, shape or form, they’re gambling a little bit on us and we’re putting our stock in them. I think that from an age standpoint, they’re the right age. From a talent level, they’ve got the right talent level of what we need.
I think Nagy gives us another highly skilled forward. Calder gives us another competitive, determined, gritty-type player. Stuart gives us another defenseman in that age category that we so desperately need. He’s a nice blend of strength and skill. Should they pan out… It’s a great challenge for us to get them to pan out and it might end up costing us some money if they work out well and we didn’t sign them longer term, but also it’s great that they’re looking at us and saying, `Hey, we like what’s going on here and we’re willing to gamble on this organization as well.’ We’re really pleased about it.
Dean knows Stuart very well and he’s very confident in him as a person. Nagy is a great calculated risk for us, because we know he and Handzus play so well together. So that’s why we made that decision. And Calder is a bit of a wild card. I don’t think last year was the true Kyle Calder. I watched him a lot in Chicago and I know that he had, like a lot of players, they’re going to have ups and downs, and he probably had what he would categorize as a down year last year. We’re confident that we can help him to regroup.
Q: Were you stunned to see some of the seven- and eight-year contracts, or is that just where we’re headed?
A: I don’t think I was stunned by it. I knew that it was going to be crazy. When you look at the top, top guys, there are so few of them and everybody wants to try to add them. It’s the old supply and demand. Any time that there’s a short supply and a high demand, prices are going to go up. And I’m talking about high-end, high-end quality people. Any of those big three forwards, whether it was (Scott) Gomez, (Chris) Drury or (Daniel) Briere, they’re all high-end, quality people. There were no issues with any of those players. It’s the same with `Captain Canada,’ Ryan Smyth, and Paul Kariya. Same thing. Again, those are guys you know are going to help your team, so consequently their price went up.
We really felt that we needed a Handzus-type person in our lineup. We feel really strongly that he’s a guy we can build around. I know a lot of guys who have had Handzus on their team, including (assistant coach) Jamie Kompon, and I’ve been a big fan of his for a number of years. All of a sudden, we’re a big center-ice team with him and (Anze) Kopitar. Let’s face it. When you play against Anaheim and Dallas and San Jose, as many times as we play those big, big teams, we’ve got to get bigger too.
Q: You’ve signed some veteran wingers and you have a lot of young wingers as well. Is training camp going to be a challenge for some of these younger guys to step up?
A: I think it’s twofold. One, if a player shows, like Kopitar did last year, that he’s ready to play quicker than we had envisioned, that’s great. That’s a healthy problem to have. The other half is that the right way to develop people is the traditional way, in which they take steps up the ladder and they make their mistakes in an environment where it doesn’t cost you a NHL playoff position. They do their learning in the right way. We’re certainly not at the caliber where we can shy away from anybody being a surprise here. We want that to happen. That’s healthy competition.
On the other hand, guys being able to develop together and develop at the right stages, I think that has some merit as well. There are people who are further along the line, like Patrick (O’Sullivan). I’ve talked to Patrick already, about how positive it’s going to be to have better players around him. Now we can put him in on a line with some real healthy NHL people. Maybe `healthy’ isn’t the right word, but with some really accomplished NHL people. That’s the way I told him to look at it. `It’s an opportunity for you. You come into a better team, you solidify your position here and you solidify it on a better team.’ We all should want to be a successful team, not just successful individuals. Hockey is definitely like that.
Q: Are you confident that O’Sullivan is ready to take that next step now?
A: Yeah. Nothing is written in stone, but if he has a great summer and gets himself in top physical condition… He’s got to improve his conditioning and he knows that and we know that. He’s got to pay that price. If he does that, we’re going to give him every opportunity. The only thing that would cost him there is if he didn’t do what he was supposed to do. Then obviously he’s gambling that his talent is enough, and I don’t think anybody can afford to gamble on that. There’s just too much at stake for us and there’s too much at stake for him.
I think when players get to Patrick’s age, when you’ve seen two years of the NHL or pro hockey, you realize how hard people work. He realizes how much work he’s got to put in in the conditioning room, doing the sprint work and realizing that his legs and body are able to withstand the rigors of a NHL season and the strength of NHL people.
Q: How about the goaltending? I know that must have been a frustrating part of last season.
A: It was and it wasn’t. You can only do what you can. We knew that last year. I could have done a better job with the goaltending, and that’s the only thing I look at. How can I be better here, as the head coach, for the goaltenders? You look back on it, and we should have had a little more competition with the people we had. I think we underestimated how much rust there was on Dan (Cloutier) from not playing the year before. I really believed that he would come back without much difficulty, and that was a miscalculation. I take responsibility for that.
It was complicated by the fact that he was hurt. He tried to play through being hurt and I’m sure in his mind he sat there and said, `Hey, I’ve been injured before and I don’t want to get a tag as being an injury-prone guy.’ He tried to fight through it and it ended up just complicating things even more. He is healthy now, and I think the best thing we can do for him is to make him earn absolutely everything that he can earn. I think he will appreciate that, his teammates will appreciate that and certainly the fans will appreciate that. We put him in a bad spot last year. He didn’t put himself in a bad spot. We put him in a bad spot by handing the job to him. I don’t think that was without some thought, but we should have given it even more thought than we did.
So from that standpoint, you learn from the past and we’re confident that we’re going to be better this year because Jason (LaBarbera) had a great year. As much as he was the guy who drew the short straw last year, he ended up making chicken salad out of it. You have to admire how he handled himself. Last year we were all really impressed with his attitude and the improvement he made in his own game. He didn’t let adversity knock him down. He looked it straight in the face and he rose through it. That’s great. He’s going to get a great opportunity this year. If you look at where we are now — and you can’t say this without disrespecting some of the goaltenders we had here last year — I think we’re better. The talent we’ve got down there, with Jonathan (Bernier) and Erik Ersberg, is stronger than what we had. We are in a better position.
We also know that where we were, it wasn’t even close. We were bottom five in the league in all the goalie categories, including save percentage, which is crucial, and goals against. It’s everything. When you look at special teams, our special-teams goaltending was near the bottom of the list. Those are elements that we have to strive to improve. It will be the biggest factor in the improvement of our club. I’m quite convinced of that. While I don’t think that we’re going to have the type of dramatic turnaround that a team like Vancouver had last year with the addition of (Roberto) Luongo, I do think that with the people we’ve got — a healthier Dan, a year-older Jason LaBarbera and some young, up-and-coming guys like Jonathan, who’s getting closer with every passing day, and Erik Ersberg — I really believe that we’re going to do the right thing this year. We’re going to give it the more thought that we talked about.
Q: Do you go into camp thinking that Cloutier and LaBarbera are even for the job?
A: Absolutely. I don’t know that there’s going to be a distinct No. 1 goaltender. And we’re not going to limit it to just two either. The guy that plays well in preseason will get to play more early. We’re going to consider all the factors and we’re not going to be pigeonholed into saying, `OK, you won three games in the preseason and the other guy lost three so you’re in.’ We’re going to put all the thought into this year that we should have put in last year. We’re not going to make rash decisions. We’re going to try to weigh all the options that we’ve got.
Q: Realistically, is there any chance that one of the young goalies could step into a role?
A: I would put it like this. Last year, we really thought that Kopitar was going to start in the American league. He was so good in camp last year. When he came back at the end of the summer, there was a complete determination and a complete transformation. Are we above that (with the goalies)? No. We’re not good enough to be above that. We have to be open to everything. I don’t think it would be fair for me to say, `No way,’ but we’re also very traditional here in the way that we develop people. So it would have to be some type of a performance like Kopitar’s was last year.