The good folks at NHL Live, on SiriusXM radio and the NHL Network, got an easy 20 minutes of programming today by asking Dean Lombardi seven questions. Lombardi is now back from his East Coast scouting trip, and I still might have a couple follow-up questions for him the next time I see him, but this interview does a good job of covering the major issues of the moment involving the Kings. Here’s the transcript…
Question: We get a lot of emails from Kings fans. Do you get that same level of response?
LOMBARDI: “I do get a lot of emails, and like I’ve said, when I first got here, I was actually shocked by the core of fans that are so passionate about this team. The real test of your fan base is when things aren’t going well. My first couple years, in the building process, we weren’t a very good team, but boy, we had Fan Appreciation Day after the last game of the season, and we’d be 30 points out of the playoffs and those people were going crazy, like we just won the Stanley Cup. Like I said, there’s a real passionate base. A lot of them have paid their dues, throughout the history of this franchise, and they really care. We started getting the building filled there last year, and they deserve it. It’s very underrated, the level of passion out here for this team.”
Question: What are your thoughts on what is going on with the team right now?
LOMBARDI: “Well, there’s a myriad of things that you could probably look at, but if I could capsulize it, I’ve been through this once before, in San Jose, through the building process. Fortunately, when you have experience you’re probably better able to deal with it emotionally, rationally and work your way through it. What I found in San Jose, when we were building, is that the second year is always the toughest. Your first year, as you’re going through the building process and you make the playoffs, you’ve got that kind of Cindarella fell. There’s no expectations. You’re able to sneak up on people. You really don’t have the respect of the opposition, and there’s no real price for failure. The second year, you come back and it’s a very different mindset. There’s expectations, and it’s just very different. In any walk of life, when you have expectations to get it done, it’s very different than when there aren’t any expectations. Like I said, the second year in San Jose was our toughest. You know, we went on that six-year run, with that foundation put in place, in terms of making the playoffs. But I always remember, looking back on that, getting them through the stage of dealing with expectations. The difference here, than when I went through it before, is the spiking. We come out 12-3, go 0-7. We regroup and go 9-3-1 and now you’ve got another 1-7 run. Usually, you don’t see that type of spike. The biggest thing, I think, overall, when your team is building its mental identity, is that dealing with success is something tougher than dealing with failure. When we had success there, at 12-3, and we looked like world-beaters, you can either become complacent and start thinking it’s easy, or to a degree you can get full of yourself, and you’ve got to learn from it. So it’s like I said. Sometimes dealing with success is a harder lesson than dealing with failure. And I think we’ve gone through a little bit of that, and now they’re going to have to figure their way out. Each individual has to figure out what to do in order to be the best they can. In the end, from the management all the way down, you’ve got to stick with it, and when you get through it, you’re going to be a lot stronger. I do have the faith in this group, that they’re capable. They’ve shown they’re capable, and most important, I know they care. But they’re going to have to figure out how to care in the right way.”
Answer: Do you see any possible moves coming, or are you more likely to stand pat?
LOMBARDI: “I really think, in today’s game, with the cap and the way things are, the overall structure of the league, trades are certainly important, but I really think that in a lot of cases, they’re a smaller part of the job, particularly when you’re trying to build an infrastructure and a culture. The management of what goes into the day-to-day, when you’re trying to put in a culture of doing things right and establishing an identity, the whole thing about moving pieces around isn’t always the answer. Secondly, as a practical matter it’s not the answer. I think we have a pretty fair handle on where we are, in terms of our physical ability, what we’re lacking overall in terms of becoming that contender that can control its destiny. But to think you can go out and get it, you don’t have that. When everybody is still in the playoffs, when everyone is all bunched together, it’s harder and harder, in a 30-team league, to make deals, because people don’t have the depth, where you can fill a hole and not create a hole. That’s the ideal thing about making a deal. You usually want another piece that goes into the hole you created, and solidify yourself in another area. But that’s not practical. Every GM does his job. You get to the 20-game mark, and everybody calls around and everybody sees what’s available. You just walk away, sometimes, thinking, `What was that exercise for?’ Other than having some nice conversations, or maybe laying some groundwork for the future. But as a practical matter, when everybody is still in it, the only way that you can find a trading partner is with a philosophical change. I did this three or four years ago, where I was trading veteran, proven players for draft picks. That’s a philosophical match. But to find players, to be able to go back and forth, it’s really not a practical option. Then, if you get in that mode, where, `I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to do something,’ 99 times out of 100, it’s stupid. You see all these trade rumors out there on the blogs and everything, and I’ve got to tell you. You talk to the GMs sometimes and you say, `Gee, did you hear that one?’ and we’re just going, `Where in the world did that come from?’ So, are you looking? Obviously you continue that part of the job, that you’re always surveying the landscape, but often times, it’s just not practical, because nothing is really there. Or, because of the cap, even if you find something, it has to fit, cap-wise. That cuts down on a lot of your ability to maneuver.”
Question: That experience you had, building in San Jose, how much does it help you now?
LOMBARDI: “No question. When you’re in this position, it’s about keeping your wits about you and keeping everybody focused. Emotion is a big part of this game, on and off the ice. It’s good to be emotional, but not to where it clouds your judgment. I was very fortunate when I was young. I was the youngest GM in the league for a long time, but I was very lucky to have guys like Bill Torrey, Harry Sinden, Cliff Fletcher, Lou Lamoriello. They would just give you that emotional uplift, to say, `Stick with it. You’re doing the right thing. You know how teams are built. Don’t let all the outside influences affect your judgment.’ So a lot of those men, I owe them a debt of gratitude. The other thing I learned, when I was working for Philadelphia, to be exposed to Bobby Clarke was just incredible. You talk about a winner and an athlete who established a culture in a franchise, not only as a player but carried over as a GM, his ability to focus and do the right thing was just incredible. So I’ve been very fortunate to have some great teachers.”
Question: Is this the most critical time of your years in L.A., or is it just part of roller coaster?
LOMBARDI: “To be honest with you, I think everything is critical. I know it might not make sense from the outside. Draft day is critical. Your development program is critical. I just spent two weeks in Manchester, seeing where our young players are at and how far away. Every guy in your franchise — it’s the Lou Lamoriello thing. It’s an orchestra, and everybody is critical to making the right tune. I do think, though, if you want to put some label on it, I do think we’re in some critical teaching moments right now. I do think our mettle is being tested. I think you’re going to find out about these kids learning mental toughness. That’s essentially what has gone on here. When you see this team, they’ve had some stretches, obviously, where they’ve shown what they’re capable of. But the mental side, the mental maturity of the group, that experience, you can’t define it. It’s like the judge said about obscenity. I know it when I see it, but I can’t define it. So, in that sense, it is critical, and that’s where, as management, as coaches, as trainers, everybody, you stay with it. You focus through it and you believe it and, yeah, some of them need to get their chest out and start believing in themselves. Others need a kick in the butt. But one thing I said about this group is, I know they care. Right now, they’re just not caring the right way. I would probably characterize it more as being a critical teaching moment, for us to get through as a team.”
Question: You got Jack Johnson locked up. Is there any update on Drew Doughty and contract talks?
LOMBARDI: “We’ve had very general discussions with the agent, but I don’t think it’s as pressing. One thing about Jack that made us able to do it is, one, he is further along in terms of his age and where free agency kicks in. In that sense, he’s closer to the free-agency period than Drew is. Secondly, he was more than prepared to do a long-term deal. So that’s kind of unusual, with most of these young players. They like to take it up to free agency and then go for the big kick at the can. So when we saw the opportunity, and you’re gauging where Jack is going to be down the road, we thought it was a fair deal that we could move forward with. In Drew’s case, like I said, there has been very general discussion. But there’s no doubt that we’re going to get him signed. The issue is, too, whenever you’re doing a contract, you’re looking at 20 contracts now. You know how Solly [Jeff Solomon] works, in terms of fitting all these pieces together. You can’t do one contract in a vacuum. When you’re putting a core together, like we’re trying to do here, it’s like I’ve told the fans. `You’ve gone through three or four years of hell here. It’s not going to make sense to have it, and then all of a sudden, guys are walking because we can’t keep them.’ With some of these other kids, you might keep it short-term, see when these veterans come off. Then you can give them the big ticket, and keep it in place so they can stay together. The object of the game is, I don’t wan to concede this short-window period. This whole concept of , `We have a two-year window,’ maybe it’s the stubbornness, going back to those guys like Torrey, who put together franchises that just epitomized winning for a long time, but Detroit has shown they can do it. It doesn’t necessary have to be that way. When you have that culture in place, players want to stay there and you can get a reasonable price on your core, and then the fillers coming, it can be done. But we’re trying to do two things at once. One, you’re trying to get them together, so they can build a culture. Detroit already has the culture in place. In the cap era, there’s no caps on mental toughness and culture. There’s a cap on talent. But the process of putting that culture in place, that is invaluable, and nobody can take that away from you, regardless of how much you spend. In Drew’s case, like I said, I don’t see any way that he’s not going to be a King for a long time. It will eventually get done.”
Question: What about Brayden Schenn, and his development?
LOMBARDI: “I think that was a huge tournament for him, in the World Junior tournament. He needed to do what he did. He’s a top young player. He went on the world stage and, tying the record and winning every big award there, obviously other than the gold medal, the way they collapsed at the end, that’s the type of talent he is, and that’s where he needs to be. The idea of what he needs to do, and this is what we told him when we finally sent him back, is like a lot of junior players. They have to learn to play in their own end. That’s critical when you’re a center. It’s something that, when you’re a top junior player, your focus tends to be on points, and that tends to lag. So he’s in Saskatoon now. There’s enormous pressure on him, being in his hometown and on a Memorial Cup contender, but he’s got to learn to deal with it. So I think he’s in a great environment. in terms of learning some mental toughness. Then, when we get through this season, obviously you want him, in the summer, to start focusing on his defensive play. But with him, and one of our best other young prospects, Loktionov, the creativity that Loktionov and Schenn are capable of bringing is something that, when you look at our overall mix, is something we probably need. It’s coming in the pipeline, the connect-the-dots guys who make those little five-foot passes that allow you to keep possession. So, I think that’s coming, but we’ve got to do it at the right time. Nobody, again referring to Detroit, you see how long they’re able to leave an Ericsson in the minors, how they can bring along Helm. Even when they brought in Datsyuk, they didn’t put it all on him. They had Yzerman there, to cover him while he learned to be a top player. In the long run, if you can slow down the process and do it right, you’re better off, but it’s awfully difficult today. But in his case, we definitely thought another year of learning his trade would be best for him.”