First, looking ahead to tonight’s game against Nashville, the Kings held a normal team meeting this morning and then only last night’s scratched players were on the ice. Based on this morning, it would seem as though there won’t be any lineup changes from last night, with the notable exception of Jonathan Bernier starting in goal. Beyond that, I spent a chunk of the morning talking to Dean Lombardi and getting his thoughts on the start of the season, the recent skid and how to pull out of it. Here goes…
Question: It’s 14 games into the season, which is not even one-quarter, but certainly things aren’t where you want them to be. What is the appropriate level of concern right now?
LOMBARDI: “The first thing you want to see is the effort. The Pittsburgh game, we certainly played hard. Even last night, we certainly came out ready to play, and we got ourselves in trouble in the second period with penalties against a very good team. You can’t do things like that. But in terms of effort, in the last two games, I think that’s what we need to see consistently. That’s always the first step. In the players’ defense, it’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to rush to judgment, because of what they went through early in the season, in terms of getting their feet on the ground after the three-week road trip and coming back. The first time, I think, we were able to really get in our rhythm and sleeping, rest routine, was probably prior to the Edmonton game, when we had the four days. That was probably the first time. So, even though our effort at times was in and out, even when we were 6-2 there, I was a little hesitant to rush to judgment. Now the Edmonton game, certainly, was one of our worst games, but in the last two games I think we’ve seen the effort we need to see. That’s always first and foremost.
“Secondly, we’ve always said that we want to add to our game, and part of that was obviously adding to our offense without losing our defensive identity. We’re still caught there. We’re one of the best defensive teams in the league, but offensively we’ve been one of the worst. We have to continue to address the idea that we’ve got to put more points on the board without sacrificing the defensive identity. So there have been some good things. Obviously our top-end scoring has certainly held its own. The power play has been much better. Our penalty killing is good. There are a lot of good things going on, even though I don’t think we’ve been able to throw our best effort out there. I think the thing is, too, I don’t think there’s a player in that (locker) room who doesn’t think we’re capable of doing more. We’ll work through it here. We’re still not at the 20-game mark, and usually you start getting a handle on exactly what you have to adjust when you get to that 20-game mark. Like I said, I was a little hesitant to rush to judgment here until I could see these guys start to get into their rhythm, and their personal life and rest and that sort of thing. But I do think we’re at that stage now.’’
Question: Talking about the offense, from the day you got here, you talked about that defensive structure, and everything you and Terry Murray have done here has been about being from the back end, having that structure. That said, is there anything that can or needs to be done, from a coaching, system, strategy standpoint, to improve the offense, to open things up?
LOMBARDI: “Well, I know the coaches are looking really close at it. Once you get to the 10-game mark, you start talking to all the general managers, and it is a recurring theme with most of the general managers. We’re certainly near the bottom of it, but so many teams are saying how they’re having trouble scoring. Part of that is — and this is to answer your question, with the adjustments the coaches are going to have to make — is that when you make changes to the rules of the game, they don’t manifest themselves right away. I think we’re all looking at, with the red line taken out, the biggest thing you’re seeing is more — like San Jose last night, particularly when they got the lead — with five guys standing from the red line back. So, how do you get through that? You’ve got to make good dump-ins, and then the defensemen are already back there to get it. This kind of started with Tampa Bay. So I know they’re taking a close look at what most teams are running into.
“The thing that, I think, they’re starting to stress is the idea of making plays, holding onto the puck more and entering with possession. That was a big reason why we wanted a guy like Mike Richards, a guy who makes smart plays. That is something that I know they’re trying to emphasize, and it’s not going to happen overnight. So they’ve looked at that. It’s like I’ve always said, if you had to put it in a nutshell. Defensively, we clearly have an identity. I do think we’re in search of an offensive identity. So in terms of what you’re asking, with the adjustments the coaches can make, I think they’re learning too, as all coaches are.
“Another example, too, is, remember when everybody said taking out the red line was going to open things up? Well, when you see three guys standing behind the red line, that’s probably not the case. And you’re seeing, also, that a lot of the plays are, throw it up to the winger and he deflects it in. Bob Gainey calls it ping-pong. Well, that has changed. I certainly know the coaches are working on it, but it still comes down to, you’ve got to play hard. Are there tweaks within that? Yeah, I think they are working on that within the context of identifying how the game has changed. And you’re right. So much emphasis was on the defense. Now, adding to your game without changing that part, that’s a process.’’
Question: But you’re confident, in general, that the coaches are getting through to the players? I know it’s a cliche, talking about players tuning out the coaches, etc., but are you concerned at all that things might be getting off-page?
LOMBARDI: “No, I’m not prepared to say that. Usually that’s an issue of effort. The last two games, the effort has been there. If we had played, like we did in those other games, like we did against Pittsburgh… Pittsburgh is a very good team. We probably played one of the best teams in the East and certainly one of the best teams in the West (in San Jose). Other than the way we shot ourselves in the foot with penalties — that’s just not playing smart — I don’t question the effort. What you’re talking about is reflected in effort. I’ve certainly seen that in the last two games.
“The other thing I judge, and I give the players a lot of credit, is that after everything they went through, I didn’t hear one excuse. It wasn’t easy on them. You go through what they did for three weeks, come back and have to stay on the East Coast, and that’s a tribute to the coaches too. Coaches never complained, players never complained.’’
Question: Knowing that it’s not totally fair to single out one player, you look at Dustin Penner, a $4-million player, with 30-goal potential, and he’s sitting on the same number of points as Jonathan Quick. Are you seeing things that give you hope there? It seems like he has his solid moments, and then other times he’s out in left field…
LOMBARDI: “The first thing you look for is whether a guy is getting chances. One thing that was encouraging last night was that he got chances. You really get nervous, when a guy who should get you 20, 25 goals — I know he’s had 30, but in today’s game it’s harder — and he’s not getting chances, that’s when you really get nervous. Last night, he had three quality chances. I don’t think he’d had that in three weeks. So you’ve got to build on that. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s pressing. That’s the biggest thing. When you’re pressing, you’re caught in between, or the legs feel really heavy. I’m encouraged by the fact that he got chances last night. Hey, you’ve just got to keep working through it. This is a guy who has done it before. We’ve got to find a way to get it out of him.
“The one thing, to his credit, he’s not in elite shape but he certainly made the effort to get in average shape, and he is continuing here. I see him here, working out in the gym before practice, something that he never did before. So he is making that effort. A lot of this, now, is between his ears. Similar to a number of our players, it’s, `Just play.’ He’s an important guy, and we’re going to have to find a way to make him more productive. When you talk about depth in scoring, he doesn’t have to go out and give us 40 goals or anything, but certainly he’s capable of making a contribution.’’