In this segment of the interview, Dean Lombardi talks about the depth of the Kings’ prospect pool, and the short-term challenges he faces in managing those prospects’ development. Lombardi also talks in detail about the possibility of Brayden Scheen being on the Kings’ roster next season, and allows all of us (myself included) to learn something important about Schenn’s contract…
Question: You seem to be in an interesting spot right now with the defensemen in the organization. It would seem that some of them are close to being NHL-ready, but there don’t seem to be any one of two obvious candidates. I’m not asking you to rank them necessarily…
LOMBARDI: “I couldn’t. We just went over that yesterday, and this is the unfortunate part. As this is where it all ties together, like when you were asking about Doughty and all that. As hockey people, if you were only looking at a 12-month window, and you say, `OK, we can get a top defenseman or a top forward,’ you could easily make the argument that the top defenseman is more important right now. There’s no question you could make that argument. Because don’t forget, the quicker you get pucks on the stick — and this is why Jack’s improvement is so important — our transition game is still not where it needs to be. Like I’ve said, the reason defensemen are so important is that they make four other people better. When you get pucks quickly on the forwards’ sticks, the forwards become better. So when you talk about our 5-on-5 goals for, it’s not just the forwards. We started charting this in the second half of the year, and everything we saw, everything we charted, showed that our transition game isn’t good enough. We’re not getting the pucks on our forwards’ sticks. So if you do that well, that improves your scoring. You’re in the other team’s end more, with control, versus just getting it out, going back and playing defense and waiting for them to turn it over. It’s a huge difference. And that’s one of the keys to Nashville’s success. Everybody wonders how they do it. It’s goaltending and they’ve got those three defensemen where, boom, they’re on the tape every time. So even though they don’t have the `top forwards,’ per se, the traditional Datsyuk-Zetterberg model, all of those forwards are better because they’re getting pucks on their sticks, with space.
“So my point is, you could make the argument that, to improve this team, the goals for will go up if we get more plays from the back. Very true. Now, the difference is, I’ve got some kids in the minors who could, potentially, do that for us. But it’s whether they’re ready or not. There’s a difference between saying, `OK, one of them will be ready to play a 5-6 role, and the other a top-four role.’ Well, there aren’t very many Drews. So in a perfect world, if you’re planning, you would say, `I’m going to plan this team, and they’re all going to the minors unless one of them comes in here and knocks my socks off.’ Because where they all are now, they’ve all improved to different degrees, and all their learning curves went up and down. Campbell was low, then he went up, then he’s tailing off at the end. Last year, he tailed off after Christmas. Here he tails off at a different time. Muzzin comes in and plays really well after his junior career, but I’ve seen a lot of times when guys come out of junior and play really well, and then their first year of pro isn’t as easy. Hickey is hurt all year. He struggled at times. He gets hurts and he comes back and he’s our best player against Hershey. Hexy said that in Game 6, he took over the game. Then again, he didn’t play much this year. Voynov, the kid is 19. He should have been in junior. We keep forgetting that if he was a Canadian kid, he would have had to play in junior. He couldn’t play in the minors. Teubs (Colten Teubert) is not close. We’ve got some work to do in terms of him getting in line here. Then you’ve got Deslauriers and others.
“So to answer your question, I could say that in a perfect world, to make this all fit with the cap numbers, you’ve got those defensemen coming, so don’t go get them (through free agency or trades), but the thing that might improve you the most is that guy. But he’s not there, in the system, until next year. So then it goes back to your other question. If I wait for a forward internally, is there one there? Well… I’ve got maybe six swings on defense, and I’ve got maybe two swings up the middle, with the centers (Loktionov and Schenn). So that’s a timing issue. So like I said, if the world was going to blow up in 12 months, you might take the back-end guy. But if you’re putting it all together and you want to be a contender, you might say, `OK, it’s not going to be a perfect fit here right now, but I’ve got this coming.’ I’m not saying I have the answer for you, but those are all the issues. It’s very hard to say, `This is definitely the right answer.’ That’s not the nature of this job.”
Question: Schenn would seem to be intriguing, in terms of his potential to make the team. What are your thoughts on the potential of that?
LOMBARDI: “With these young guys, if they’re going to push the envelope, so much of it is about what kind of summer they’re going to have. Simmonds is now your example for what you’re talking about with young kids, or kids who get ahead of the curve. Simmonds, from where he came from, to make the team last year, to where he is now, people forget that this kid slept on a couch and stayed here all summer and would not be denied. So you look back and say, `Nobody predicted him to make this team two years ago.’ I’m only telling you this because you’re asking about Schenn. My answer might be, `His only shot is to have the type of commitment that Simmonds did.’ Because I could go the other way and say, `Simmonds wouldn’t have had a chance in hell here, but he spent the whole summer here and slept on the couch.’ He got his buddy’s car. He would borrow my car at times, because I felt bad for him that he didn’t have a ride. The kid was in here every day, getting better, and he makes the team. So, to answer about Schenn, it all depends on what type of commitment he makes this summer.
“I think he’s got to get healthy. The one thing I’m a little nervous about is, to his credit — and this is one of the reasons I love him, the fact that his draft year, he hurt his shoulder and he refused to miss a shift — he kind of did the same thing this year with the groin and the knee. I don’t think he was totally healthy. The first thing I want to make sure is that he’s healthy. He’s like a lot of those junior kids. He goes to world-junior camp, then he’s got the season and the World Junior tournament, then he plays in the Memorial Cup. The first thing he needs to do is probably get that body back together, and then train it. A lot of those higher-profile kids in that Canadian junior program, they play an awful lot of hockey. His groin and his shoulder have been issues. You can see, he’s not the most effortless of skaters anyway. It’s one of the issues he’s got to get better at. But like I said, all power to him, he never uses that as an excuse. He keeps playing. But first off, let’s get you healthy, and then you decide if you want to take that Simmonds route.
“But I think what he showed this year, him and Clifford, Clifford would be in the same mold. He had a little taste of the minors and stepped right in and did really well, everything from the way he played to… Let’s just say that with Burrows and Bieksa, we’re starting to get a few more guys to deal with that stuff. So he will fit in very well when those guys take liberties. We are starting to get closer and closer to handling that part. Give Clune another year. Westgarth is going to challenge for a job. With Cliffy here, we’ll put some of this stuff to bed. I got a little off-track there, because it makes me mad.
“Anyway, the other problem with Schenn is that we’ve got that junior quandary. It’s the Moller thing, except it’s a higher level. He wouldn’t be able to go to the minors, so now it’s back to junior. I hate that. But now you’re not making the decision based totally on what’s best for him, in terms of where he should be playing. To the kid’s credit though, one thing that bodes well for the kid, in fairness to him, he adjusted his contract. As the fifth pick, he could have demanded X, Y and Z on his cap number, but he recognized that he wanted to play here, so he kept his cap number down to ensure that he’s not left off the team because of his cap number. That’s what happened with Rask. You’re starting to see that more and more with kids, where the cap number is too high for the role. With Rask, if he becomes a No. 1, he’s worth it, but I can’t call him up as a No. 2 at the number, so the kid stays in the minors. So you’re starting to see a little of that. Schenner might be one of the first ones to adjust on his first contract and say, `OK, if I’m going to break in, I might have to start as a No. 4, and I can’t break in as a 4 with a $3-million cap number.”
Question: His cap number had been listed at around $3 million. That’s actually not what it would cost you to have him around?
LOMBARDI: “Let’s just say, for now, that he has showed it’s important for him to make this team and not have that as a hindrance.”