Talking defense with Dean Lombardi

Defense has been a topic of discussion early in the Los Angeles Kings’ season due to the absence of veteran stay-at-home types in Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene and a week-to-week injury to Alec Martinez, who had seen his minutes increase from a season ago. Though Slava Voynov’s emergence as among the more exciting young defensemen in the Western Conference has been a positive and much-needed development, there have been those perplexed by Drew Doughty, who is without a goal and has registered a minus-10 entering this weekend’s action.

6-foot-4 defenseman Andrew Campbell, who was recalled for the second time this month after spending four and a half seasons with AHL-Manchester, was the first topic of blue line discussion with Los Angeles Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi.

“The one thing about it, he’s paid his dues in the system,” Lombardi said of Campbell. “I think, obviously, when you lose Greene and Mitchell – because they’re guys with size and are hard to play against – he does bring that element. A lot of times when you bring up defensemen, until you put them under fire, you really don’t know for sure. All I can say is he’s paid his dues in the minors. He’s ready for his opportunity. His game will have to be: be physical, be strong below the dots, make the simple play to your partner – the first pass – and basically play that sound defensive game that Scuderi and Mitchell play. But, again, you’re talking about a kid that this is his first go at this level. But that’s what his game would have to translate into if he’s going to have success.”

Los Angeles recently traded for 24-year old defenseman Keaton Ellerby, who is looking to make the transition from being a talented but developing defenseman into a consistent, full-time player on the back end at the NHL level. Prior to joining the Kings, he had appeared in 125 NHL games over parts of four seasons with the Florida Panthers.

“There’s a lot that goes into that,” Lombardi said over the process of identifying, scouting and negotiating for a defenseman that would be an appropriate fit for the team. “We had been talking, actually for quite a while. Obviously, I had been in the marketplace looking for a defenseman for three, four weeks now, and essentially, there was nothing there in terms of a proven player, so to speak. A top-four defenseman – they’re more rare than left-handed pitching. So the next step for us was to find a player that we thought had the upside to maybe fit into that role someday, and also gave us that dimension.”

There were aspects of Ellerby’s game that appeared to fit within the current needs of the team as well as developable aspects that could allow him to grow alongside a young core.

“He’s big. He can be physical. He can skate, and he’s a classic case, I think, of a young player, as a 10th pick overall that had too much too soon,” Lombardi said of Ellerby. “I don’t like to use the [term] ‘fresh start,’ per se, but I think it’s an opportunity for him to regroup and get a foundation in place. I know a lot of these kids that are top picks, they bypass the foundation. His game right now has to be solid in his own end, be physical. He was really good in St. Louis. We saw flashes of it below the goal line in here. Have a good stick, get your picks, rub guys out, make good reads, and then like in St. Louis, too, where he kept that gap. Don’t back off too quickly. He can do all those things, given his ability. But he has to get in again and need a foundation. Then, go to the next level and worry about all the things that were probably, you know, when you’re the 10th pick overall, that you’re supposed to be a rock star right away. So I think it’s a good bet. He’s at that age where I think he’s learned from his mistakes. I knew the kid his draft year – we had interviewed him – I can already tell he’s way more mature. So this made a lot of sense for us, to hope we find a young defenseman that can grow with us, and considering that the only thing in the marketplace was essentially “6” guys – you knew that they were sixth defensemen, and that’s it.”

Acquiring top-four defensemen in this year’s trade market is a lesson in futility. Including yesterday’s Dustin Tokarski-for-Cedric Desjardins goaltender swap between Tampa Bay and Montreal, 19 trades have been made since the implementation of the new collective bargaining agreement. Of those 19 trades, only two included defensemen who had logged 100 NHL games at the time of their exchanges – Edmonton’s acquisition of Mark Fistric from Dallas for a third round draft pick on January 14, and Los Angeles’ acquisition of Ellerby from Florida for a fifth round draft pick on February 8.

“I mean, you see what happens like when a Wade Redden gets out there, and there are like 10 teams after him. What is he, 40 years old, and a guy who was playing in the minors for three years, and gets out there – that alone tells you, when you’ve got 10 teams after you, like, wow. Sometimes this goes in cycles. I said this when I first took the job – that’s why you sit and you draft a lot of defensemen. And it’s hard position to play. You just try and get as many good ones as you can, and hopefully some of them pan out…Historically, it has always been an issue, but I think it’s even more pronounced now.”

While some eyebrows have been raised over Drew Doughty’s start to the season – he has four assists and a minus-10 rating in 11 games – there’s still more to his game and evolution as a defenseman than the numbers depicted on the scoresheet.

“What I’m so happy with Drew is that he showed up in shape,” Lombardi said. “When I talk about the growth of these kids, that alone – because Drew two years ago, given those months off, we all saw what he was his first two years pro. That’s the first thing I say. He’s definitely grown up. Secondly, look at the minutes he’s playing. He’s still not where he needs to be physically to deal with those minutes. That’ll come. In junior hockey, he played 40 minutes [a night]. Eventually you want him to get there, but he’s playing an awful lot of minutes now, and quite frankly…he wouldn’t be playing those minutes if we were healthy. I think with Drew, the thing I’ve noticed, given that he’s started to take care of himself off the ice – again, Ray Bourque, they all went through it – when Drew struggles, it’s because he’s trying too hard. That’s something, like I’ve always said, I’d rather tame a tiger than paint stripes on a kitty cat. I’ll live with that. He’ll figure it out. Like, his subtleties, too, despite even, OK, is he putting up the numbers? No. But I’m not really judging him on that right now. Does he have to get better getting pucks through? Yes…You see his shots on goal should be a lot higher. OK, that’s something where I think at times he did better his first couple years, but now people are packing it in more. They know who he is, and he’s going to have to get better at it. In terms of his vision and seeing the iceyou still can’t teach that, and he makes a lot of that look easy.”

“A lot of the subtleties that guys like him have – Pronger had it. MacInnis had it – that’s still there. Does he need to get better? Absolutely.”

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