Overdue? Yes, probably, but hopefully you’ll find it worth the wait, as Dean Lombardi talks about the fast start, the recent slide, the rise and fall of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, possible trades and the status of Alexander Frolov. That, and much, much more! (well, maybe not, but it makes the commercial sound better…) Here’s the interview, in its entirety…
Question: A month ago, you were in first place in the conference. Now you’re trying to hold on to eighth. Looking at the team, how do you evaluate that? How do you reconcile it in terms of evaluating where the team is?
LOMBARDI: “Well, the first thing is that, statistically, I think we all see how close everything is. Even to be in first, at that time, it wasn’t like it was a huge cushion. But how do I reconcile it?”
Question: Do you look at this team differently now than you did a month ago?
LOMBARDI: “No, I don’t. The one thing I think — which I like — and it’s another example of why I think this team is ahead of schedule, is that I think now they’re playing with legitimate pressure and expectations. This is the first year I really felt we had a solid chance to be in the playoffs, and I certainly still do, but I think there was that element of them having to go out and do it. They got in first place, and now there’s expectations to stay in that hunt.
“I think, for any team to become a bonafide contender, for any team to establish themselves as a team that’s going to be reckoned with, year in and year out, one of the mental stages, in terms of building a team, is dealing with pressure, dealing with expectations. This is the first time for them, and I think it got magnified because they were up there in first place. Now you’re expected to make the playoffs, because you were there, and you’re going to have to deal with it. But, at some point, this test was coming. It has come quicker, to some degree, than I thought, because of that.
“Because if it had come the other way, which you would have thought, like, `OK, we’ll get better and better and, OK, now we’re in the playoffs,’ vs. coming up here [low] to here [high], the pressure isn’t the same. I think you see all those one-goal games now getting a little tighter. Until you believe in yourself, that you’re going to win these games, you’re really not going to be a bonafide contender or a franchise that’s going to be where you want to be.
“It’s the whole thing — using the extreme example — where it just didn’t happen with the Yankees, where you just know they’re going to find a way to win, or the Detroits of the world. It’s not only that they knew they found a way to win. They knew they were going to win. These guys are going to have to fight through that. We’ve still got one of the youngest cores in the league, the youngest core in the league, and they’re now faced with that test. It’s no different than any other test. It’s not going to be easy. So, they really put the pressure on themselves to succeed, by being up there, and that’s a good thing. Now they’re going to have to learn to deal with it.
“And there’s a big difference too, when you look at other teams. Like Phoenix, last year, had a young team. They were in the same position last year. I think, at the All-Star break, they were fifth or sixth. Then what happened at that point? The pressure hits, and… Then they get rid of all the young kids, and now they have an older team and there’s no pressure. St. Louis last year, there was no pressure when they had the best record in the second half. They’re one of the top teams in the league and they get in. They come into camp this year, and clearly there are expectations from last year, to keep it going. They’re actually a better team, when Johnson is healthy and Kariya is healthy, but the mental part… The expectations are there and then (it goes down). Now maybe they’ll come back, but it ain’t the same as when you’re expected to be there.
“Again, it’s all a part of the growth process. It’s the John Ferguson theory. The only way you’re going to break through is by dealing with real pressure. And I think they’re going to figure out a way. In that room, as a group, I know how much they care. It’s going to be a battle, but it’s as much a mental battle as it is a physical battle, if not more mental in some cases. I think you’re seeing a little of that. The Minnesota game, the Detroit game. Those one-goal games are going the other way? Well, now you’re playing with expectations. Real ones, versus the other ones, when you’re trying to find your credibility. It’s a test.”
Question: So the complexion of the season changes, as opposed to if you had simply been battling for sixth, seventh or eighth all season…
LOMBARDI: “And the one thing about those one-goal games is, we were winning a lot of those one-goal games. Things kind of go your way, with shootouts or whatever. Now, what is it? Eight of these games we’ve lost by one goal? It goes the other way. The one thing I like is, if I’m sitting here with an old team, and I’m capped out, you’ve got a problem. But I’m sitting here with the youngest core in the league. I’ve got the cap space, if I have to do something.
“It’s all a part of the growth process. I’ve been really proud of them. The way they fought through December, with all those injuries and that schedule, all those games, that showed me a lot of their character. That wasn’t frickin easy. There were some tough buildings, but we found a way. But even then, there weren’t total expectations. Now you get there, and boy, it’s tough. The other thing that happens, and don’t forget, is when you get up there, you run into a different opponent. When you’re a contender, you’re not surprising anybody anymore. When you’re sitting at the top of the conference, you don’t think that team is ready for you? Two years ago, or last year even, we would beat a team and you would hear about them getting `bag skated’ the next day. Well, that means, in the end, they didn’t respect you. We’re beyond the bag-skate thing, but now they’re ready for you.
“Just like Kopi found out. You want to lead the league in scoring? Well then, say hello to all these checkers and top defensemen you’re going to run into. So he’s a microcosm of the bigger thing, dealing with pressure and expectations. Teams, now, are ready for you. So, if you’re ever going to be a good team, it’s a phase and you’re going to have to go through it. They’re going through it now.
“Some teams, and you look at Phoenix last year and St. Louis at the beginning of this year, now, if they come back, it’s Cinderella. There’s no expectations. We put ourselves in it. They did it through a very tough stretch, where I really saw them fighting through injuries and not using things for excuses. They’re going to fight their way through this, and learn from it.”
Question: You just touched on my next question. Kopitar, at one point, was leading the league in scoring, but has fallen off quite dramatically since November. When you look at it, is he the same player?
LOMBARDI: “I think he’s learning how hard it is. Look at the point he had the other night. That was a well-earned point. He had to fight off a guy the net. He gets hooked and he fights through and he comes up the half-wall and makes the play. It started with him. So that’s a point, he gets the second assist, and do you know how much work went into that? Well, he’s finding out. I told him, `It’s pretty hard, huh?’ That’s what it’s going to be. Now, when you have that puck, they know who you are, and there’s a little extra to shut you down. The other team, just like we put up their lineup on the board, you can rest assured they’re circling his name. `We’ve got to stop this guy.’ And that’s what happens.
“When you’re at the top of the league in scoring, it gets hard. Now there’s expectations. There’s pressure to stay there and, again, he will have to find a way to fight through that. The thing about this group is, the first thing they have to have in place is, they have to care. If you don’t have that part, you’re not going to get to the next part, where you’re fighting your way and dealing with pressure. Because if you don’t care, you’re not going to want to deal with it.
“That’s why, when I talk about caring about the franchise, it might seem simplistic, but that’s where a lot of teams fade. It gets hard, and it’s `I don’t want to deal with it.’ But I don’t sense that with this team. If anything, I think they try too hard sometimes. Granted, St. Louis was a (horrible) game, but what I mean is, there’s no doubt in my mind that they care. Now, you’ve got to learn to channel that caring into dealing with pressure and competing.
“In a micro level, there’s no question that it’s the same with Kopi. This isn’t a guy who, by any stretch of the imagination, got there and all he started doing was caring about points. He sat across from me here, and I see a kid who cares. One, he puts pressure on himself and secondly, say hello to the best defensemen and checkers that are out there. But I think he’s going to learn to deal with it, and I think, overall, this team is going to learn to deal with it.”
Question: The things you just said, in terms of putting pressure on yourself and trying too hard, is that Dustin Brown right now?
LOMBARDI: “Yeah. I think you see it in a lot of those kids. But that’s a good problem. I mean, it’s not the way to handle it. That’s why I make reference to the guys like Gretzky. It’s not only his talent. It’s the air of a winner who believes that he’s going to get it done. To get that element, you don’t have to be as talented as the greatest players in the world. But that element, of belief in yourself and that feeling of, `Whatever my role is, and whatever my level of talent, I’m going to get it out of me,’ that’s the mindset that every one of them can eventually develop. So you try and use guys like (Gretzky). What he had between the ears… He was good, but he believed he was going to win.”
Question: In that, it’s the difference between playing thinking you’re going to go out and kick butt, versus going out there with the thought that something is going to go wrong…
LOMBARDI: “Yes. And when you go through it, individually, it’s gripping the stick too hard and, boom, the puck bounces away. How many times have you seen that? Those guys are uptight, and it’s not only that they miss, but they have some pucks bounce on them. Then, as a team, one breakdown and the puck is in the other net.”
Question: You lost Smyth for almost six weeks, and you got through it pretty damn well…
LOMBARDI: “Yeah, but then you have the Lou Lamoriello theory. When you have players come back, number one, does that player come back the way he was? That usually doesn’t happen initially. Two, the team almost gets relaxed. `Oh, we’re OK now. Lou grabbed me at the board of governors meeting, because that’s when we were in first place. I said, `Yeah, we got through the injuries and we’re starting to get some guys back.’ He said, `Whoa, watch out.’ I said, `What do you mean?’ And that’s what he told me. He said, unfortunately, guys will stand around and think they’re all OK now because he’s back. Then he’s not the way he was before, too. It’s all a part of the team maturing, that you don’t let that happen.”
Question: And then you lose Williams right away…
LOMBARDI: “Yeah, that’s tough. I can’t deny it. You know, he never got the… The thing about Willy is, he’s really good at connecting the dots. That’s his game. He’s really good in those tight little plays, really smart. He kind of got the third-wheel reputation. You always heard about Smyth and Kopitar, but Willy was the one connecting things. It’s unbelievable, a freak accident. It’s always that way, too. The ones that don’t look bad are the worst. Some guy gets drilled, he looks like he’s been hit by a bomb, and he gets up. It’s unbelievable how that happens.”
Question: You probably know what’s coming here. Now you’re without one of your top guns for probably three months. Does that put you in a different mindset, in terms of trades?
LOMBARDI: “Yeah. I can’t comment on names, but as a practical matter, you might look at players you wouldn’t have looked at in the past. When you’re looking, there are obviously certain things you’re trying to do for your team, now and looking toward where we want to go. Then, when your team gets banged up a little, you might look for something and say, `OK, let’s see if we can fill that.’ That’s not an easy thing to fill. (Williams) is a good player. It’s not like you’re looking to replace a third- or fourth-line guy. Quite frankly, the reality right now is, it’s the same problem you run into every year, right until the end almost. Every team is still in it, and nobody has really got a lot of depth to start throwing guys around, particularly guys of Willy’s stature.”
Question: Does it change your view on the so-called rental players?
LOMBARDI: “The first thing I do is see where we are as a team, obviously. Any time you’re looking at something, you have to be sure in what you have. I think we’ve got a pretty good handle on it, when we make our projections in the offseason. Everything is pretty much right on schedule. Then you’ve got to be able to make some adjustments, whether things don’t turn out the way you thought or you have an injury. But you don’t want to get off the big plan. So when you have an injury, you kind of look at it and say, `All right, let’s see if we can get through this without getting off the big plan.’
“So yeah, you’ll probably look at things you wouldn’t have looked at before, but again, it doesn’t take you away from your big picture. The only difference is, what you’re looking at might still be big-picture, but you’re looking at getting some help right now. I’ve talked to 25 teams and got all my reports, and other than a few teams… I mean, a team wins five in a row and bang, they’re right back in it. There are a lot of buildings that aren’t exactly filled, and the last thing they want to do is throw up the white flag, even if they would like to.”
Question: Are you still talking to Frolov’s agent about a contract?
LOMBARDI: “We’ve got another meeting scheduled this month.”
Question: If, over the next few weeks, it seems unlikely that anything will happen there, does that influence what you do with him?
LOMBARDI: “No. This is the other thing too, another sign that you’re getting better. Certainly, in the first three years, it was very clear. It was all about getting draft picks. That’s the crappy part about building. You’re essentially making your team worse, immediately, and all you’re doing is getting picks. I don’t see us doing anything like that with a player of his caliber, to say, `OK, we’re going to lose him, so let’s get a second-round pick, or a first-rounder.’ I don’t see us taking good players out of our lineup at this stage.
“Two years ago, maybe even last year, you might say, yeah, like with Brad Stuart. Again, it’s those subtle signs that you’re moving along. That’s not even a consideration. So in terms of a trade, you can’t ever say that somebody is untouchable. If you’re asking me, if we can’t get a deal done, if we would trade him for a first-round or a second-rounder, no. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t make a hockey deal, but I don’t see us making our team worse, which is essentially would I did at every deadline up to this point. The reality was, when you’re trading all those guys, you’re making your team worse but you’re making your reserve list stronger. Now, with a guy like Fro, I don’t see that. A hockey deal? Maybe.”