Lombardi, on improving
The next part of the Dean Lombardi interview focuses on the future. How can the Kings get better next season? How much of the improvement will have to be done internally, and does Lombardi believe that he will have to be active on the trade and/or free-agent markets this summer? In this part, Lombardi talks about the potential his young players, the issue of Drew Doughty’s contract extension and his thoughts about adding players to the organization…
Question: At this time last year, we talked about the possibility of you adding pieces to the team, and you said that, by far, the most important thing was for the young players to improve. As we sit here a year later, would you have the same answer going into this summer?
LOMBARDI: “You can start seeing the core of this team develop, and yes, I would say that is still the key. Because none of them, to me, have reached their potential. When they left, I told them that it starts right now. No question they took a step, a large step, and there are things that show up when your best players have to lead in all categories. Like Kopitar and Doughty, for instance. They raised their conditioning from awful, dead last, to average. So take those two guys, for instance, who are obviously key guys. Quick, you could probably throw him in there, too. Jack has always been pretty good about it. But using those two as an example of the core starting to develop, they have to now raise that to being at the top of the chart. And I think it was reflected in their play. Kopi, he used to look really tired at times. You didn’t see it as much this year, and a huge part was that he showed up in average condition. His scores this year were at least average. Same with Drew. Drew came from being 30 pounds overweight in junior, to losing the weight to putting it back on. He’s just beginning to learn to train. He came in a little below average. So I’m expecting those guys, when they come back in September, to start getting to the top of that list. That’s leading by example, not only maximizing your abilities but also showing that, `Follow me.’ If we’re going to be a contender, our best players have to be at the top in all of these categories. So there’s no question that that still holds.
“But, just like last year, that didn’t stop us from going and getting two pieces. I think it’s similar this year. If they were maxed out on their potential, if they were 27 years and basically they were in their primes, then they would either be maintaining or going backward, and our focus would have to be, `OK, we’ve got to change this mix.’ But when you’re at this stage — and I’ll probably say the same thing next year — they’re nowhere near their potential. But there’s too many times with these kids, whether it’s too much money or getting lazy or complacent or bad environment, they peter out, and that’s it. That’s not good enough. So like I say, as good as Kopi is, he’s got to raise himself to that Datsyuk level. Same with Drew, in his own way. He’s still not Lidstrom yet. But those guys have the potential. Same with Simmonds. `OK, you got some time on the first line, but you’re a long way from Brenden Morrow.’ So yeah, I’m going to stick by that, knowing, like I said, that it doesn’t stop us from doing other things. And I’ll answer your question next year the same, until they reach their maximum potential.”
Question: Looking at things that you might want to do this summer, roster-wise, does Doughty’s contract extension hang over your head? Is there any thought that you need to get that done first, to see what you’re going to be working with, cap-wise?
LOMBARDI: “Well, I don’t think that’s practical, but it does hang over your head. Washington kind of went through this a little with Backstrom. I called George (McPhee, Washington’s GM) before Backstrom was done. Obviously they’re putting together a core there in Washington, and I said, `Take me through the whole thing.’ Because they tried to sign him right away. It’s two things, like he was saying. It’s trying to get the contract done, but it was also knowing what you were going to have to pay, so you could go get other pieces. So, in talking to him about the whole thing — and we talked for a couple hours, because I wanted to know the whole scenario, and, `If you had this to do different, would you have done this different’ — it’s really hard, like he was saying, and obviously it didn’t get done until the end. So when you ask about it hanging over me, it hangs over you in a different sense. Because you’re not going to lose him. The difference between `hang over me’ because he’s a year from free agency is very different from `hang over me’ because, even though he’s a guy we intend to have here a long time, I don’t know what else I can get until I know what his number is. So that’s where it hangs over you. As a practical matter, we’ve had very preliminary discussions, but it’s awful hard to think we’re going to get this thing done here, ideally, before July 1 so that you know. I just don’t think it’s practical. I wish it was.”
Question: So how do you go forward then, in terms of adding other pieces?
LOMBARDI: “It’s just pounding away. You can make fun of all my charts, but you end up looking at 50 different options. `If this happens, that happens. If that happens, this happens.’ I guess the good part is, it’s safe to say we’ve got a player. At least the box is filled.”
Question: Is it particularly hard to project with him? There can’t be a lot of comparables out there for a 20-year-old Norris Trophy finalist.
LOMBARDI: “That doesn’t complicate it as much, for me, as being able to learn this system. It’s just mind-boggling. I was at a similar point in San Jose, when I had those three guys up, Marleau, Nabokov and Stuart. They were all good, young players, all on their way up. They held out on me. It was the year I got fired. All three of them held out. It just started us off on the wrong track. But I was arguing about $1.5 million to $2.5 million. I would love to have that argument now. It’s just mind-boggling. Sure, these are great young players, some of them, but that whole trend, to think that the system has gone from arguing about $1.5-$2.5 million to already talking about the numbers we’re talking about, it’s mind-boggling. As good as Drew is, there have been a lot of good, young, top players. Don’t get me wrong. Obviously I think Drew’s potential to be special is pretty good. Still, there used to be the element of experience, the thought that a guy who had put six years in the league, because he was more `predictable,’ had value. Because that’s all you’re doing when you’re paying a guy, unfortunately. You’re predicting what he’s going to be worth.
“So obviously when a guy has six, seven years under his belt, the `unknown’ factor becomes less. To think that, now, you have to predict, when a guy has two or three years in the league and has played in one playoffs, and we’re already talking about the numbers that we are, it’s just… I think back to the way it used to be, before the lockout, and the way it is now, and there’s no question that this part, before the lockout, made a lot more sense. So when you ask me if it’s difficult with Drew, because of the `uniqueness’ of the player, no. Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s a special player, but it’s more about this other stuff. You could be looking at a $90-million contract for a guy with two years in the league. As good as Ovechkin was, at the time he got (his new contract), he hadn’t played a playoff game. That’s what is difficult for me, sometimes. That’s when I have to slap myself and say, `Stop acting old and deal with it.’ But I find that more challenging than the fact of, `OK, what’s a guy worth who has been nominated for the Norris Trophy?”’
Question: When you talk about improving the 5-on-5 scoring margin, particularly on the “goals for” side, do you believe you have the manpower within the organization to improve that, or will you have to go outside and add pieces?
LOMBARDI: “It depends on what position. Because if you look at it, two our better prospects are centers, in Schenn and Loktionov. Loktionov is 19 years old, and he’s already played in the (AHL) conference finals as the No. 1 center. Schenn is the fifth overall pick, so obviously we think he has serious upside. So those guys have potential, certainly, to be in your top seven. I think that’s fairly strong. You’ve got two guys there with the upside to get to a No. 2 center, which is pretty good.”
Question: In general, though? Do you think the issue can be resolved internally?
LOMBARDI: “I don’t have a problem admitting that, in our system — and I don’t want to take anything away from a guy like Clifford, who was really good down the stretch, but he doesn’t have that m.o. that you’re citing, that sniper instinct. Moller is the guy who has that sniper instinct, that release. In the end, is that on the reserve list? It’s fair to say it’s not. There’s one kid in the minors. How do you address it? It’s not only free agency. Like you’ve heard me say before, one of the reasons you build up your system is to be able to make trades. So it’s not only free agency. It could be trades too.”
Question: Are you at that stage now? For the first few years, you were all about acquiring those draft picks and prospects and building the reserve list. Are you at that point now, where you can loosen the grip a bit?
LOMBARDI: “Yeah. I don’t have a problem with that, if it’s the right player. It’s still got to be the right fit. The difference is, before it was basically non-negotiable. It was easy to make a decision, because there was no other decision. You could make all your phone calls and do all your homework, but the reality was, you probably didn’t have enough to trade anyway, and it wouldn’t have been smart for the plan. Now, I can look at these things and have things that are attractive, and it fits into the plan. That started at the trade deadline. You heard me say that at the trade deadline this year, that it was a subtle sign of progress. I wasn’t a seller, I was a buyer. It still has to be the right price and the right player, and as you know, I didn’t get the guy who went to New Jersey. I just thought the price, at that time, was too high. I wasn’t moving top players for a guy who could walk on me in two months. I do think that your willingness to sell the house, so to speak, when you see teams really expend part of their reserve list, is because they think they can win the whole thing. So if I had done the deal that was proposed to me, to get that big guy at the trade deadline, the only way I could have conceivably thought about that was, `OK, we’re going to win the Cup here, so I will expend this level of player.’ But I wasn’t prepared to say that, and have this guy walk on me. Then we’re going backwards.”