Here you go…this Dean Lombardi interview covers so much ground and I can’t really begin to sum it up. Hopefully you have a lot of time and a comfortable chair. Lombardi addresses the need for a left winger, how the Kings can improve, why making the playoffs next season isn’t a drop-dead necessity, the criticism he got for the O’Sullivan trade and much more. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy the read…
Question: I talked to Brown and Kopitar and asked them, `If Dean asked you how to improve the team next season, what would you say?’ They both said, `Scoring left winger’ without much hesitation. Obvious?
LOMBARDI: “I’d say another thing is obvious too.”
Question: What’s that?
LOMBARDI: “All of these young players have to get better. No doubt about it. Actually, that part is even more important, because if they don’t make the commitment this summer, it doesn’t matter. When you put a bunch of young players together, learning to be pros and learning to make the commitment to be the best they can be, learning to be teammates, is as critical as their physical condition, their play on the ice. That starts immediately after (today’s) game.
“So regardless of what’s not in the lineup, what is in the lineup, if it doesn’t continue to move toward maximizing its potential, it’s not going to matter whether we bring back Gordie Howe. We’ll still be spinning our wheels. So the most important thing is to take care of what you’ve got. If we don’t nurture these guys we have, we’ll just be spinning our wheels. That, to me, is more important than making an addition.
“So, unfortunately, the answer you got from two of my best young players was not what I’m looking for. The critique should be, `I’ve got to get better. And if I get better and Doughty gets better and Brown gets better and Purcell gets better and Drewiske gets better and Quincey gets better, and if we all do our job, and if Dean can get us a left wing, that would be really good.’ That’s the answer.”
Question: One big question that the fans have…
LOMBARDI: “Is he going to get a left winger?”
Question: Well, yes, but there’s a `Part B’ to that. That is, is Dean finds that winger he wants, will he have the ability to spend what it takes to get that player?
LOMBARDI: “I’ll get to that, but there’s a first part. The more important part is, the player has to fit. This team has the capability of improving without one addition. That’s still most important. Secondly, we have to be very careful about just getting a player who has a profile but isn’t the right fit, in terms of the way he plays and his character. If that player is there, and I feel strongly about it, I will go to ownership and I would expect that they will support it, as long as it doesn’t mean going over the cap or spending a ridiculous amount.
“It will fit with the long-term plan, because there’s no doubt that ownership is committed to this plan. They’re going to want to know two things: does he fit, and if he does fit, does he fit financially, to ensure that we’re able to keep the young core we have? If that’s there, I would expect ownership to support that. But I am not going to ownership just to get a big name, because it’s just going to be the same old thing. It will get us to a certain point and then it’s going to peter out again.
“But that’s what I mean about progress. If you had asked me last year, `What do you need?’ you would have gotten 10 different answers from me. `We need a goalie, we need a scorer, we need this and this.’ Now, you can at least start seeing it. So let’s not panic here and just go get any left wing. So that’s the procedure here with ownership. Ever since I’ve been here, that’s the premise that I’ve operated under, and they’ve given me no indication that they won’t support that. Like I said, I am not just going out there to get a big name that looks sexy. He better fit as a player and he better fit with his character.”
Question: What you, agree though, that this rebuilding has kind of reached a fulcrum?
LOMBARDI: “You know what’s weird about it though? It has come too fast. This is what I find strange about this, and this is why I struggle. These last games, even though we’re out of the playoffs, we’re constantly evaluating. There are some things you can look at, to tell you where you’re going, and in the last two months we’ve been looking at everything to see why we were falling. It’s one thing to say, `We’re not scoring,’ but you have to look at why we’re not scoring. What area of the rink? What’s the proper chemistry? But like I said, it’s kind of strange. I did this once before (in San Jose), and I’m struggling with why this is quicker, but also clearly finding the answer.
“It’s about building the reserve list and building the team, and we’re moving along faster now, so that we can focus more on the team. Now we have a team on the rise and we have a pretty strong reserve list right now. In San Jose, we improved for six years in a row, and what was underestimated about that is that we got a little younger each year. So then it really comes together when you have a decent team, and by doing it that way you had a culture established. This team dropped dramatically (in age).
“Last year’s team was not a young team. Your highest-profile guys were young, but we were like 25th in age. This year it went completely the other way. So that’s why, when you say that we’re at a fulcrum, we’re really young, so I don’t know if it’s fair to say, `Well, you’ve got to do it now.’ When things came gradually (in San Jose), I never had that question. It was, `Add a piece, add a piece.’ But this is way younger.
“You can look at it and say, `Well, they only improved eight points.’ Whoa. That’s a big difference, when you’re 25th in the league (in age) compared to one of the youngest in the league. That means your team has upside and, hopefully, is headed in the right direction. So I don’t agree with that. These (young) guys aren’t going anywhere if we run our payroll right. Kopitar and these guys. Look at all these kids who shouldn’t be going anywhere. So to say, `You have to do it now, at all costs,’ I’m not so sure. Why? It’s not like my window (for winning) is right now, or I’m going to lose Doughty and lose Brown and lose Quincey and lose Quick. My whole plan is to keep those guys here, and keep my window open, so I can strike at the right time for the right piece.
“So I’m going to say, `The window is now,’ or `The fulcrum is now,’ now what are you doing? Well, number one, I don’t agree that my window is only right now. It’s still our priority to keep our own guys. Two, how do I know the right player is there? Well, if you say my fulcrum is now, that means I have to get the seventh guy on my list, even though he doesn’t fit, he doesn’t have the right character…but the fulcrum is now so let’s take a swing at it. No. I don’t see that. (The Kings) have had that before. That’s when you got (Jason) Allison. That’s when you got (Ziggy) Palffy. That’s when you got (Jeremy) Roenick.”
Question: So let’s say we’re sitting here a year from now. You didn’t find that `piece’ you were looking for and the Kings have finished, let’s say, 10th in the West. What would that mean to you?
LOMBARDI: “I would look at it as, `Did we get better?’ and `Are we positioned to get better?”’
Question: So you don’t think this team absolutely has to make the playoffs next year?
LOMBARDI: “What is it, `You have to make the playoffs next year to save your job’? Well, if that’s the way you’re going to operate, how many teams have lost their way, and lost their plan? That’s not the right way to view it. You do what’s right for the team. If you want to win a Cup, you get the right guy. We have come too far, in a very short time, to have it drop off. This team, the most important thing it can focus on (this summer) is, `If we don’t add one player, how are we going to get better?’
“You’ve got kids here, like Kopitar and Doughty, who aren’t even close to being trained athletes. Kopitar hasn’t been in shape, as an elite athlete. Not even close. Doughty? No way. Do you know how much upside is in them, if they apply themselves this summer? Then you’re going to bring back the group, and your room hasn’t changed a lot. They have a little chemistry and they know each other. I sense there are a lot of guys who like each other. They know they have a chance to stay together if they do the job. There’s no `mercenary’ element down there. So that’s going to get better by definition, if we all do our jobs down there: coaches, trainers, development people and players. If they get better, that should allow us to get better, period.
“We don’t want to make the panic move, but we have to get better. You have to answer to your fans. Keep showing them that you’re on the right track and that you’re only getting better, and that you’re not going to get loose because you overpaid somebody and you’re going to lose a guy two years from now. Now, again, if the right guy is there, boom. The market doesn’t always act accordingly. You can’t just manufacture a deal on a whim. If you start trying to manufacture, it usually means you’re going to get (taken advantage of), because you’re forcing it.
“You see teams where they say, `They’ve got to make the playoffs,’ and then you see those deals go down. Five pieces go out, and they make themselves a little better, create some buzz and maybe even get the eighth spot (in the playoffs). Then where do you go from there? You’ve got no chance to win the Cup. If our eyes are on the Cup — and that was my order, to build a contender, and not just make the playoffs — then you can’t look at things and say, `You have to do this.’ Quite frankly, that’s the way we’re going to operate. You can’t get in `survival mode.’ You have to do the right thing.”
Question: So let’s say you get the development you want from Kopitar, Doughty, Quick and those guys. What’s the next step?
LOMBARDI: “Then the most telling thing is that we don’t score enough 5-on-5. We’re the lowest in the league, scoring 5-on-5. Of all the statistics that we have to improve in, in order to get to an elite level, that’s where we’re the furthest from becoming a top team. Our special teams are certainly good. Our goals-against, for most of the year, was pretty darn good. It’s been starting to drop off, but it’s been pretty consistent. That was the main goal for this year, that we had to become harder to play against and get the goals-against down. So that’s where we need to improve. And you can take it down further, in terms of size, and loose-puck battles, and rebound chances and all those things, but the bottom line is, we don’t score 5-on-5.
“Now, that comes from the forwards, but don’t forget, when you have inexperience on the back, that’s part of it. It’s those guys on the back delivering pucks on the tape. That’s why I always say that the defensemen are the most important guys in the rink, because it all starts back there. So as much as we made progress back there and we were bigger, we still have to get better at getting the puck up to the forwards, so that they can either make constructive dump-ins on the other side of the red line, or have a chance to do things on the rush and back the defense off. So when you look at your offense, it usually starts in the back, and we still have to get better at delivering pucks to the forwards.
“That said, certainly the forwards have to be better. We weren’t big enough on the wings, we’re not gritty enough in the battles, we don’t go to the net hard enough. Then you’ve still got the skill element. Clearly, and anyone can run the numbers, our scoring 5-on-5 is at the bottom of the league, and there’s no frickin’ way you’re going to win in the playoffs if you can’t score 5-on-5.”
Question: But you’re going to have to go outside the organization to fix that, right?
LOMBARDI: “Yeah, and I’m not arguing that. We’re crossing over some different topics here, and that’s where you get some variables. So, yes. But when you ask, `What are you going to do?’ I’m saying that I’m going to get better just by making those young players better, so that I don’t have to force my own hand and go out and get something I don’t want. But yeah, the home run would be that these guys all make the commitment this summer to get themselves better, and the right player is there, and he fits. Then you get a double-barrel hit. I think the double-barrel is critical. If we go out and get that guy, and these guys don’t show up committed, we’re spinning our wheels. It’s going to be the game. We might be a little better, but we’re not going to be where we want to go. It has to be both.”
Question: If we were betting on this, what are the odds that both Frolov and Johnson will be on the roster in September?
LOMBARDI: “The same as they are for anybody else, I guess. I don’t know how to answer that one. The only thing that would be relevant, to me, is Fro’s contract.”
Question: And Jack’s contract.
LOMBARDI: “Yeah, but there’s a big difference. Fro is like Cammalleri, where he can walk on you.”
Question: But Johnson is also like O’Sullivan in a way, right?
LOMBARDI: “Yeah, but that stuff… I saw that stuff, with Helene (Elliott of the L.A. Times) saying I traded (O’Sullivan) because he gave me a contract hassle. Trust me, Harry Sinden could do that. Glen Sather could do that. There’s no question that, back in their day, they would send a message. Harry loved shipping guys to Edmonton, although Edmonton was still a good team. There’s no question that there was a little of that in the old days, when GMs had enormous power, but if anybody thinks that a GM with half a brain is going to trade a guy because of a contract hassle, there’s no way.
“Cammalleri was a rental for us. If I thought, last summer, that we were a Cup contender — just like Calgary took him, because they thought they were a Cup contender — I would have kept him. But he was a one-year rental, and I just saw no chance of re-signing him. We had to do something, because I was going to lose him for nothing. I’ve been to arbitration time and time again. Look at my history. I’m always the first one to take the player out afterward and say, `Let’s bury this.’ The lawyers, on both sides, they have no concept of the idea that me and the player have to go back and work together.
“With O’Sullivan, I don’t care what people say. That had nothing to do with it. I think, and most people will tell you, we got a pretty darn good hockey player (in Justin Williams). In the last week or so, he’s starting to show what he is. It didn’t surprise me that he didn’t start where he’s capable of, because of his hand, but we knew we were getting that. Handzus took a year before he showed us what we were seeing in him. Now everybody sees it. Nobody competes harder than this guy. With (Williams), we won’t have to wait a year, and he will be more than fine.
“So that stuff is totally unrealistic. The players have enormous leverage these days. If you’re going to do that stuff, and you get that reputation, you’re asking for trouble. Harry and those guys could do it back then, because management always had the hammer. There was no free agency, and there were no holdouts and stuff. That stuff, nowadays, there’s no chance.”
Question: But aren’t you back in that Cammalleri hole with Frolov?
LOMBARDI: “That’s why I was wondering where you were going with this, because you bring up those two guys and they’re totally different. Jack is not a rental. The O’Sullivan deal was a hockey deal. I am under no pressure, so to speak, because my asset value is wearing out in Jack’s case. He’s not going anywhere unless we decide.
“With Fro, you raise a point. There is a little bit of the Cammalleri thing, where he can walk on you in a year. Will that enter into the equation, when we can have some discussion with his agent and see where he’s going? It might. If he comes in and says he wants seven million, we might go, `Oooh,’ but we have to be careful with that too. We’re young and we’re going in the right direction. We might be more inclined to keep a rental because we don’t want to go backward next season. If you trade Cammalleri for a first-rounder, you’re going backward. You’re not as good as you could be. So I don’t think we’d be as inclined to do that now, but I guess it might enter in. But that’s why I see them as two different situations.”