I hope everyone’s holiday weekend is going well so far. Since a lot of people probably won’t be around their computers a lot this weekend, I’ll roll out the Lombardi interview stuff slowly, starting with his general thoughts on the playoff series and what he took from it. This is, I believe, the Lombardi franchise record for longest answer to a single question, but hopefully you will find it interesting!
Question: Could you just share your general thoughts about the playoff series? What did you see that was encouraging, and what did you see that might influence the way you go about your plans this summer?
LOMBARDI: “I think, whenever you’ve got a young team, there’s a saying that one playoff game is worth 30 regular-season games, in terms of the growth of a player. I thought our young players handled it really well. Certainly there were times when they showed their nervousness and inexperience, but I was really impressed that so many of them, who are 20, 21 years old, showed that they belonged. I said that during the year too. When I said we were ahead of schedule, remember that we approached the playoffs from the top down, and what I meant by that is that we didn’t get in by being Cinderella. We were in it the whole way, and we went through a tough period and basically put expectations on ourselves. So that was the first thing.
“But I saw those kids, once they got their feet wet I really thought they were taking responsibility for trying to win, versus just being happy to be there. I really got that sense, too, in talking to them before they all left. I’ve seen it before with a young team, where they’re just happy to be there and they think, `Oh, we did great, we got in,’ and they kind of feign like they’re upset about losing. But these guys genuinely thought they could have won that round. So I think we saw a lot of growth this year in the young players. Like I’ve always said about a young player, first he’s just happy to be in the league. Then he wants his role in the league. Then he wants to win in the league. I’ve seen these guys rapidly moving toward, `I want to win.’ Sometimes it takes years for guys to get to that, but these guys are doing it very quickly. Our younger guys were some of our best players. Some of them, too, like Jack (Johnson), I thought after coming back from the Olympics, you saw a growth spurt in his game. So there’s a lot of positives in that.
“Now, that being said, there are things that showed up. There’s a lot of things that I look at, statistically. You’ve got your overriding thing and then you’ve got subheadings. Well, without getting into the intricate science of the stats, if you look at our 5-on-5 goal differential, that’s still an issue. Before the lockout, that was always the strongest indicator of a playoff team, because if you couldn’t play 5-on-5, you were going to get exposed in the playoffs. It’s hard. You’ve got to compete, you’ve got to play defense. You’ve got to go to the hard areas. Whereas sometimes in the regular season — and we saw it coming out of the lockout — there are a lot of power plays and people were wondering whether 5-on-5 was important, and special teams were taking over this game. Then we saw the penalties get cut back and we saw more 5-on-5 play. So hockey people are always debating whether that’s still the hallmark of a quality team, the 5-on-5. And I think it has come back to that. If you look at Vancouver, they were over a plus-30 in 5-on-5. I think we were plus-10. That’s a big gap. Our 5-on-5 goals for was still only 18th. We took a huge jump. We were dead last, last year, but we’re still 18th and that’s not good enough. Now the goals against, 5-on-5, went to second in the league. So we were sixth, I think, the year before. We took a huge jump. The goals against went way down. We set what we wanted to do two years ago, which was to clean up our own end. That was Murph’s No. 1 thing, that we can’t be giving up all these chances. It doesn’t matter who the goalie is. We took that down to sixth in the league, but our goals for was dead last, by a long shot. We were 12 behind the Islanders, so it wasn’t like we were in a cluster at the bottom. We were at the bottom. So we actually raised both. We had the whole thing with the shot mentality, that we had to have people go to the net and score ugly goals, which was one of the reasons we got Ryan Smyth. So we’ve obviously raised that, and our goals against went to No. 2, but this 18th still has to get better and we still have to maintain the defense. That’s why that differential wasn’t where it needed to be. Vancouver, at plus-30 in 5-on-5, that’s a solid team.
“So you can look at the disappointment. I think there was a point in that series when we had them. When I talk about building a team, it’s about getting to that point where you have expectations and you meet them. That’s why I talk about the regular season, and the growth of having expectations in December, and meeting them. Now you’re in the playoffs. But like I said, that’s a very good team, as some of their critical numbers showed, never mind from just watching them. But we did have them at one point. In Game 4, there were some critical moments, and if we could have got it to a Game 7, you never know. You could sense that, with a break here or there, we could have won this thing, but we didn’t capitalize in those critical moments. They were one of the top three teams in our conference. I think it’s a toss-up between them, Chicago and San Jose.
“The reason I talk about that is, I know the feeling. I was in San Jose in year three, as an assistant GM, when we beat Detroit. We were the eighth seed and Detroit won the President’s Trophy. It wasn’t the same, but it was a similar thing, where the pressure was on them. We were a good team, a hard team. That’s one of things we did this year. I would like us to be harder to play against, but when I talk to other GMs, most of them see us as one of the hardest teams to play against. Now again, I’d like to see us go to another level. But when it gets into the playoffs, it gets harder, and if you get a couple breaks then mentally those guys can get a little fragile. And I think you saw that, too. When Luongo let in those goals in Game 3, and then he was holding his wrist and stuff, I thought, `Maybe we’ve got him.’ But I’m trying to explain how you can sense that there are critical moments, where you can make that fragileness your advantage. The same thing happened in San Jose one year when we beat St. Louis, after they won the President’s Trophy. We got a few breaks, we were a hard team to play against, and they were kind of fragile and their goaltending was a little suspect and we won that series.
“So I kind of sensed a little of that. There were times when we could have taken advantage of their fragileness, and we kind of didn’t. But again, ultimately, if you look at some of the critical numbers, they’re a better team. We got exposed. You can break it down a lot of different ways, but that 5-on-5 number says a lot, when you’ve got that big of a gap. We still have to shore that up, and continue to be hard to play against and keep that defense up. We’ve got to raise that up from 18th. That’s not good enough if we’re going to be contenders.”