I caught up with Dean Lombardi today, during practice, to talk about some of the latest issues involving the Kings…
Question: How do you recognize the difference between a temporary slump and a bigger problem? Coaches point to specific things that players need to improve, but when do you worry that a team might have wider concerns, and are you concerned about that right now?
LOMBARDI: “No, not at all. I think part of it is just because of the way the league is. Things were going our way. We were playing well early, but things were also going our way. For the most part, during this period, we’ve come out ready to play. I can’t think of any game — Chicago, Columbus, Ottawa — we’ve always come out pretty good. Then, throughout this slump, something goes against us, whether it’s questionable calls, like Ottawa, or you’re not getting bounces, like Chicago, with pucks going in off gloves. Then, at critical moments, everything is so tight and Spezza beats you in Ottawa and Nash beats you. Other than the Montreal game, we’ve been in every game, and all of the games could have been won, or at least we could have got a point. Before, we were riding the wave. Stoll’s goal goes in off a stick, and things are going our way.
“Probably, to answer your question, they’ve shown they have the ability. When you start to worry is when you think the guys don’t have the mental fortitude to fight through it, and I think they do. They’ve shown it to me before. They’ve got themselves, now, with even higher expectations. They’re in a rut right now, and they have to fight their way through it. So to answer your question, overall, it’s probably when you get that sense that they don’t believe they can get it done, and I’m not ready to say that. Like I said, I look at almost every game — Ottawa, even Montreal, until the third goal — and we came out pretty good. It’s just that things aren’t going your way, and now we’ve got to fight through it. Too bad, because things were going our way early. So it’s another one of those tests, like I’ve always talked about. Them, as young players, getting better as hockey players, there’s the part of becoming mentally tough. This is another test for them.”
Question: We’ve talked, in the past couple years, about young teams that have success one season and then dip the following season. St. Louis last year, for instance. Does that start to come into play here?
LOMBARDI: “Well, I’ve said this before. This started last year, when they put the expectations on themselves in January. Now, the expectations have really risen, and you come out 12-3 and the expectations go up another notch. But I don’t care. Like I said, it’s all a part of building mental toughness. I believe it’s in them. It’s no different than learning to protect the puck better. They’ve got to learn mental toughness. They’re not going to learn it without adversity. When things are going your way, like early in the year, that’s easy. Now they’ll find out how tough they are, and I believe they’re going to get through it.”
Question: Is that simply on each individual player? Or do team leaders have extra responsibility there? Coaches?
LOMBARDI: “No. Every player. Every player has got his own challenge, within the team. But that’s on every player. If they’re going to win anything that matters, that’s the way it has to be. Every player has got to be accountable, first to himself, looking at himself in the mirror. Then he’s got to be accountable to his teammates, and it ends there. If you’ve got that, you’ll be fine. More than fine.”
Question: Terry has used seven guys in that first-line left-wing spot. Two of them have been rookies and the current guy is playing on his off wing. At what point do you need to look at that and address it from outside?
LOMBARDI: “That was the other area we looked at in the summer. The emergence of the young players — and I still maintain what I said — is the hallmark of this team. It’s about the best young players getting better, and your core starting to develop and becoming winners. That’s No. 1, and we know who those young players are. Then you’ve got your veterans, in terms of their fit and their character. So we addressed that this summer, but now they’re out of the lineup. The other hole you had was the Parse hole, the skill player. Once we found out that Parse was going to be out for four months, we’ve been looking. That guy [Parse], with that skill set, we wanted to give him a long look. We were able to fill the Mitchell and Ponikarovsky holes, so we wanted to say, `OK, let’s give this kid a good, long look, because he’s got the skill set that’s necessary to be a pro.’ Then he goes out early, right from day one of training camp. The kids in the minors, we tried Loktionov there, and God bless him… We’ve been looking.
“But we also went through that period with Parse, where it was, `Is he going to play?’ Since he had the surgery, it’s fair to say we have been looking to fill that hole. All of those holes, ironically, are ones that we felt we had filled in the summer. Now they’re all out of the lineup. So, on the other hand, it’s telling me that those guys are really good fits. Because we were doing well when they were in the lineup. We got through it without Doughty for a while. Now, if you look at it, all of the holes we cited, during the summer, as being important, are all open again. Then when happens? Just what you said. Now you’re playing a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old. King was in the East Coast league. God bless him, but this time last year he was in the East Coast league. Those kids have done a good job. Even last night, with Clifford and Lewie, that’s kind of a higher level for them than we thought. But for the most part, they’re doing a good job. But they’re still in that stage, where they’re finding their way in the league. To pin it on them, that’s not the way you want to go.”
Question: Are you concerned about the play of Doughty and Johnson?
LOMBARDI: “You know what? If this was 15 years ago, I would be, but I’ve just seen it too much. It’s one thing for guys to play in the league, and it’s one thing for them to have success, and now, going to that next level, to become a top player, it’s the hardest. I’ve seen it with so many young players. You’ve got to believe that, deep down, they’re good people and they’re competitive people and they’re going to figure it out. It’s a tough position to play. It’s a lot harder for a player to have had success, and then push it to the next level and really be a top dog, than it is, mentally, to make the league. There is enormous responsibility on them. The other guy [Mitchell] being out, it hurts the fit. But yeah, we’re counting on them. So if you’re asking me if I’m nervous, no. Because I’ve seen this too many times before with young players. What you have to come back to is, do you believe in them as people, first of all? And then do you believe in them as players? There’s no question that I believe in both of them. They’re too good of players, and they’ll figure it out.
“Don’t forget, the learning curve is not only physical, it’s mental. There are lifestyle changes that they go through. You see this in the NBA all the time. And they’ll get through it. That stuff that they’ve done, it doesn’t go away. But they’ve got to learn, like a lot of pros, to be consistent. When things aren’t going your way, don’t try to do too much. Now, on the other hand, I kind of like the fact that they take responsibility, but you’ve still got to play within yourself and not force things. Again, that’s a part of growth. Stay with it, stay with it, pick your spots. You don’t learn that overnight, particularly in that position. So, no, I’m not concerned about them at all. I think, probably, part of it is that I’ve seen the other side. That’s how Chris Pronger gets traded. Chris Chelios gets traded. You think, `Why is this happening?’ and you think, `Oh, I’ve got to get nervous.’ No. I’ve seen it too many times. Al MacInnis, the struggles he went through in Calgary before he won the Norris Trophy. Ray Bourque. They all went through it. Now, I’d like them to get through it faster…”