What follows is the transcript of Dean Lombardi’s conference call with reporters today regarding the firing of Marc Crawford. All…27…minutes…of…it. There’s audio of it on the Kings’ website, and tomorrow I will figure out how to link it, but at the moment I’m starting to see double. So please pardon any typos below. Tomorrow, we can also start the process of talking about some of the likely candidates. Should be an interesting few weeks…
Question: What led to this decision?
Lombardi: The most important thing is where we’re going. Since the season ended… We have the overall plan, on how we want to build this into a contender, and obviously you have to make adjustments within that plan. You either accelerate it or whatever. I think we looked at what’s happening in free agency, where the payroll is, where it’s going… We had the time to look at the draft and how that could affect us next year. We had the time to look at some of our young players and where we think they’ll be, in terms of integrating them. Then it just comes down to, I guess, fit. There’s no doubt that we’re committed to the way we’re going. After my meeting with ownership this week, it’s clear that they’re committed, more than ever to, for lack of a better term, the old-fashioned way.
So taking that all in, you’re just making a gut call on the fit for what we project our team to look like. I think we have the illusion of being young, in some cases, because our players are young, but in terms of our overall makeup of our team, particularly on the back end, there’s a transition that has to take place, to where we in fact become a young team. Like I said, you just come down to a gut call on the fit (of the coach). That’s everything that goes into it, but that’s where you end up when you have to make a decision like this.
Question: Did you have someone in mind?
Lombardi: I think for the most part, I think we’ll start our search here after today and look for what you hope will be the right fit, as you project your roster. That’s the hard part in these cases. It started to become clearer to us, in the last month or so, the direction we were going with the timing of the youth, so to speak. We’re going to take our time here and go through the process and hopefully get the right guy. I think Marc’s record speak for itself, in terms of his winning record, and I guess this just comes down to a question of `fit.’
Question: Why now, at this point, rather than at the end of the season?
Lombardi: One of the things you look at as you evaluate, whether it’s a player or a coach or scouts or whatever… I think it’s fair to say we did not expect the team to be out of the playoffs in January. I don’t think we were kidding ourselves, in terms of thinking that we were world-beaters, but I think we had realistic expectations. Again, I don’t think it was reasonable for us to be out by January. Now, certainly that enters into an equation when you’re evaluating your coaching staff and your players and things, but the most important thing for me was going forward.
In terms of going forward, again, there’s a lot of work that goes into this process, and I touched on a few of those. It becomes clear how we’re going to use free agency. It becomes clear, with the way payrolls are going and the way some guys are getting paid, how we’re going to have to do this to keep the young core together, and when we play them. You look at the draft picks that are out there. I spent a lot of time in Toronto there and down the stretch (in the AHL) trying to gauge if one or two of these players could be ready, conceivably. We’ve had time, since the playoffs ended in Manchester and with some of the things we do, to evaluate where those kids are in terms of being in our lineup. And ultimately it comes down to a meeting with our ownership at the end of it all, and their committment to staying with this plan. They’re not changing the course, in terms of building a core the old-fashioned way. It’s safe to say we might be accelerating this, or there might be more of a commitment than ever, to doing it this way.
Until you go through this process, and until you confirm with ownership that this is the way we want to go, then I step back and say, `OK, what’s the best fit for this?’ So if you’re only going to evaluate it on the past, sure, we weren’t as good as we thought and we should have been better, but were we bad enough to make a change? I didn’t really think so. Particularly with a coach who had a good track record in other organizations. But then you look again, just like you would with a player, and you think, where does he fit in the overall plan? Then you make your decision.
Question: Might you look at someone from the minors, or will you look to someone with NHL experience?
Lombardi: One of the things I see, and this is with a lot of the kids that are coming up now, in the draft and through the system — and this is one of the advantages of being on the road myself, meeting parents — I think the ability to communicate and build trust with young players is critical. Because the fear factor with young people is not there anymore, as it was in the past. I don’t care what type of leadership role you’re in, whether it’s sports or business or anything, the building of trust — and I don’t mean `trust’ as in backstabbing — the trust that you can push that athlete or that employee, that’s based on trust. And now it’s time to sit down with these kids. So if you’re asking me, going forward, whether it’s a minor-league coach or a coach with experience, it’s going to come down to that being a very important element if you’re going where we’re going, in terms of staying with this. It’s not easy, but if we’re going with this route I think that becomes paramount. If you’re going a different route, maybe that quality doesn’t have to be accentuated that much. But it’s very clear that ownership is committed to doing it the hard way. As a practical matter, quite frankly we haven’t had the time to look at things at this stage. We did all our work up until this week and we were solely focused on where we are and where we’re trying to go.”
Question: What about the rest of the coaching staff?
Lombardi: There’s two things there. I haven’t had a chance to meet with them yet. It’s hard and I know Marc wanted to spend time with them. I think I want to talk to Mike Johnston about the possibility of being considered for this role and see where he’s at, and Nelly (Nelson Emerson), but I think as they go through this they’re probably more in a state of shock. We’ll see where they’re at, once they’ve had some time to reflect. After that, as we start searching, the coach has to have some say in who his assistants are. But obviously I think those are two seasoned, experienced assistants (Johnston and Dave Lewis) at this point.
Question: You talked about meetings with management and ownership. Who was in those meetings?
Lombardi: I think you might have misheard… In meetings that go toward managing free agency and managing the payroll, that was not even here. The only thing I wanted to hear from ownership was the commitment to stay with the idea of building with young players. That was it. When you put that together and you see where some of these young players might be, in terms of using them, there is a school of thought that says in a perfect world off, instead of trying to play a 20 year old or a 19 year old, and you use your minor-league time to its fullest. That’s not totally irrational but it’s also not practical at times. So I put all these plans together, and the only thing I want to hear from ownership is, `Are you still committed to building through the draft and with young players? And (the answer was), `Absolutely.’ If anything, they’re stronger on it than even when I got here. That’s the only thing I need to hear from them.
And once I hear that and see where we want to go, and I look again…and it’s hard to explain, the timing of it. When you look at the marketplace, the challenge is not only to get the young players but to keep them, because of the way the the money is going, that also enters into it when you make the commitment. So that meeting with ownership was only, `Here’s the schematics; are you still committed?’ It’s not easy, as we’re finding out. You go through these down cycles and (you ask), `Are we sticking with it or not?’ And like I said, they’re more firm than ever in terms of going down this route.
Question: So was this decision yours alone, or were you pressured into it?
Lombardi: No. I can’t stress enough that all I wanted to hear from them is where they were in terms of the plan of building with young players. As you’ve seen in organizations time and time again, when it becomes hard sometimes it’s easy to want to switch course. And they have a right, ownership, to say, `Whoa, whoa, this is not what we expected’ or, `We have to make an adjustment here.’ The easy thing to do, sometimes, is to say, `Let’s do a hybrid,’ and then you’re caught in between again in terms of trying to put together the muscle to win the Cup.
Then it’s, `OK, let’s try to do it but let’s do this,’ which is something that might hurt us down the road. All I heard from them was, `No, no, you continue down this route to put together a core that’s going to make us a contender.’ In the end, they set your parameters. They tell you what kind of car they want you to build. But they’re staying with this and, if anything, we’ll go even harder after it. So it’s clear to me what we’re doing. If anything, we’re proably accelerating the process, and then it’s, OK, do I have the right fit for this (as coach)? That’s what I wanted to hear from them, and then I make that decision.
Question: I know it’s a moot point, but did you ever come close to making this move in January or December?
Lombardi: Not really, and that’s the truth. I know there was a lot of speculation and everything. Like I said, I think it’s fair to say that we expected more from this team, but I wasn’t at the point where I thought (firing Crawford) was the right thing to do. The whole process of getting to this decision today, it was all toward the evaluation of how we project our roster. And that’s not an easy thing to do, because it’s the timing of young players. You see kids coming out of the draft, or where they are coming out of their minor-league system and how much they’ve grown and you say, `OK, I think we can go with this.’ But that’s an ongoing process and finally, again, at this point it’s more about a decision going forward. In the end, you can put it all in the hamper but if often just comes down to your gut.”
Question: Did you think, in your meetings with him, that there was an ability to change his ways, or did you think this was just something that was necessary, going forward?
Lombardi: Change his ways…
Question: In terms of dealing with players. You mentioned the importance of trust and how you can’t operate with a fear factor these days.
Lombardi: I think probably all of us who have come from that generation, where it was, do this or get a slap on the back of the head, it has taken us all time to adjust and to learn. I understand it, but I didn’t understand it as much seven or eight years ago. As I always say, you better be prepared to answer, `Why?’ when they ask the question. So when you say, `Change your ways,’ I think it’s about adapting to the players you’re dealing with. I think we all have to do that. (Assistant GM) Ron Hextall, he says it all the time, it’s very different than when he came through the ranks, in terms of dealing with players and the impact that agents now have. These kids have agents at 14 years old. They learn in junior hockey that if you don’t like playing somewhere, you can manipulate to the team you want to play for. You go back, like with Hexy, and you say, `Holy smoke, I never had a choice at that age.’ Now they do. It’s a different challenge.
Question: Just to clarify, are you considering anyone else on the staff other than Mike Johnston?
Lombardi: I think right now we’ve committed to considering Mike Johnston. I think he’s pretty well-respected in the industry and I think that’s where we’re leaning right now, but it doesn’t mean that later we wouldn’t open it up. We’re going to try to keep this small. We’re going to be methodical and we’re not going to rush into anything. It’s a critical hire. We’ll get through the development camp in July and hopefully make the right gut call in the end.
Question: Is there some sense of urgency, just in terms of getting the guy you want before another team does?
Lombardi: That’s a pretty good question. Guys that have options, they have to decide which challenge they want. It’s not only a guy who fits with where your team is and where you want to go. But there’s a different landscape for every organization. Hypothetically, if you go to San Jose or Ottawa, there’s no question that those teams should be Cup contenders. Now everything has been built, the infrastructure is in place and now, go ahead, ride it to the top. Or do you want to `get on the ground floor,’ build with young players, help establish a culture and maybe go through the hard times but also have the satisfaction of starting something from the ground up? I think the hockey people are looking and starting to say, `Hmm, there might be something good there (with the Kings), if they can get the back end and keep the youth up front. That could be a good place to go and grow with.’
I think that’s important because every job brings its own challenge and a guy has to want that challenge. When I was looking at three or four teams (for GM jobs), I said, `This reserve list is a challenge and this is their history.’ Every one presented a different challenge. I know the enormity of the challenge here but when I took it I said, `Hey, this is part of what we’re going to go through,’ but if you can win here, a place where they haven’t, the satisfaction could be enormous. You bring in your own young crew and hopefully it grows. So to just go out and carpet-bomb everybody and a guy comes in and says, `Oh, I want this job, I want this job,’ he’s not understanding which job fits him best. There might be six teams (with coaching openings), but how many are in our situation? We’re at the bottom and there’s a young nucleus starting to take shape. The ownership wants to go with the young players. Is that what you want to be a part of? That’s very different from other organizations, so take your pick before we will consider you.
Question: Given that scenario, is it fair to say you would be looking for `new blood’ in terms of NHL coaching experience?
Lombardi: I guess what I’d say is that I’m open to it. I’m not married to experience, I guess. But I think one of the things is that experience can cut both ways. A guy can be set in his ways and not adapt, or experience helps you because you know the M.O. and you have a guy who has been under fire and you know how he’s going to respond. Regardless of what a guy looks like with no experience, you’re not going to know until the bullets start to fly. What I would say is that I’m open to it. I’m not afraid to hire an `inexperienced’ guy if I feel it’s the right guy and he wants this type of challenge.
Question: Do you help formulate your final decision by hearing what the players say in the exit interviews?
Lombardi: No, because if that was the case we could have made… Particuarly when a team had the year we had, you have to be real careful. You start opening up that forum…it still comes down to players critiquing themselves. Until we have a strong enough nucleus of players that I’m convinced can critique themselves and are part of the plan, I don’t know if you open up that type of forum to players and make decisions based upon that. They still, particularly the young ones, they still need to be held accountable and start understanding that they have to take responsibility for winning. So I’m not sure that’s a smart thing to do with young players at this stage. You hear the scuttlebutt or whatever, but to open up that type of thing in an exit interview, no. This is why I said earlier, you have to go through the process. If it was only that, I could have made this decision back in April. It was more about not the past but where we intend to go. That could only be formulated as we saw things develop in the last couple months. I would say that that venue, in terms of making this decision, was miniscule at best.
Question: The timing of the decision, with Crawford having one year left on his contract, was it a situation of you not wanting him to be a lame-duck coach?
Lombardi: That goes more to the issue of how a coach can respond to pressure. Some coaches have no problem with that, and actually relish the challenge, and others, it makes it really hard on them. With the fact that he only had one year left (on his contract), maybe if things started going a little sour and the patience wears thin because of the situation… I guess you could say you look at it a little. Crow has been around a long, long time. I’m not so sure how that would impact him. Your ability to be patient, so to speak, probably does wear a little thinner if you’re in that situation. But again, there’s not one (particular) thing that goes into this. You throw it all in and then it comes down to your gut. But I would probably attach minimal significance to it.
Question: Was Marc surprised when you told him he was fired?
Lombardi: That’s hard for both parties, no matter what the situation is. I don’t know. I think even if people know it’s coming, it’s still a surprise. I’m not sure how to answer that.
Question: Obviously when you hired Marc, you thought he was the right man for the job. Looking back, do you think, `I miscalculated,’ or is it that the league has gone with young players and that sort of thing?
Lombardi: Well, like I said, on the front end of it I did expect us to be… I thought we were capable of being in the hunt for a longer period of time. Then you come back to, well, the goaltending completely went south and then you get into, well, why did that happen?
Question: I guess that’s the wrong term, miscalculated, but obviously you thought really highly of him when you hired him in the first place.
Lombardi: Yeah, I mean I think we’re talking about a guy, a young man with a lot of wins. You know, this is different from Colorado and different from Vancouver. I said this during the year at times: this is not an easy team to coach, when you have to go out and get `bridge’ free agents to buy time for your young players and something through the draft and through your system. That, in itself, is why you’ve got to realistic in terms of your expectations. Because you’re not really able to build that whole camaraderie-type thing in that setting. I look at free agency and (needing) six or seven guys. That’s not the way to go. That’s a hard team to coach.
So I don’t think Marc even confronted that type of building scenario, even though he had a wealth of experience obviously. When you go to the evaluations, you say, `Yeah, we should have been better.’ You can say `miscalculation,’ but I don’t know. When you’re in that situation, the bridge towards the build, I don’t think he had to face that yet. I always said that with Darryl Sutter. I thought his best coaching years, when we were together for six years in San Jose — and don’t get me wrong, I thought all the years he did were phenomenal — but I thought his toughest years were years two and three, when he basically willed the team into the playoffs, as we got younger every year. Then, once the foundation was in place, it just kept going. I thought his toughest (job) was when he was still dealing with young players and bridges and found a way (to win). And again, that was tough and you look back and say, `Whoa, that was a marvelous job, how he did that.’ But anyway, I’m getting old, reminiscing.