Scouting And Development Are Cornerstones To Dean Lombardi’s Efforts
June 26, 2009 10 Comments
INTERVIEW WITH DEAN LOMBARDI: In the fifth and final installment of this series based on an in-depth interview with Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, we take a close look at two of the Kings’ 2008 draft picks along with their scouting and development infrastructure. We also get a bit of insight into what Lombardi thinks going into the 2009 National Hockey League Entry Draft.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — With the 2009 National Hockey League Entry Draft beginning tonight in Montreal, the brain trust of the Los Angeles Kings, including President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, are going over their lists with the proverbial fine tooth comb, projecting who might be available when their turn, the fifth overall selection, comes around, along with what kind of trades might be out there for them to get in on.
But before Frozen Royalty looks ahead to the 2009 draft, let’s take a step back and look at a couple of 2008 Kings draft picks who were big surprises this past season, in more ways than one.
Indeed, defenseman Viatcheslav Voynov (photo at right, courtesy Manchester Monarchs), who was selected in the second round, 32nd overall, and center Andrei Loktionov, a fifth round pick, 123rd overall, were big surprises on a couple of levels.
First off, both are from Russia and last summer, there was a lot of uncertainty about Russian prospects caused by the possbility of them signing with teams in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. If they signed with a KHL team after being drafted, any NHL team that selected them would, in all likelihood, be wasting a draft pick.
That murky situation scared a lot of general managers and pushed many Russian players way down on just about everyone’s lists. That gave Lombardi and the Kings the opportunity to take advantage and in Voynov’s case, he was good enough to go straight to the American Hockey League.
“Voynov is another one who’s ahead of schedule,” Lombardi said in a June 13 interview. “I thought he would go back to junior, but he came in and played so well he was ready for the American Hockey League and was one of our better players down there. Remember, if Voynov was Canadian, he can’t play in the minors. He would’ve had to go to juniors but because he came from Russia, we had the option of putting him where he was suited in his development.”
“It’s different from [defenseman prospect Thomas] Hickey,” Lombardi elaborated. “He should’ve been in the minors, but that’s about those kids who are caught in between. They have to either play in the NHL or go back to junior. That, to me, has always been a flaw in the system. In Hickey’s case, he wasn’t ready [to play for the Kings]. He was ready for the minors but we couldn’t put him there so he goes back to junior.”
Conventional wisdom had Voynov ticketed for junior hockey in Canada. Wrong.
“Voynov’s case was different,” said Lombardi. “We were able to make an objective determination on where he was in his development. When we drafted him high in the second round we thought ‘he needs to go to junior.’ But he came right in and showed he was ready for the minors.”
“We put him down there [Manchester Monarchs, of the AHL, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate] at the beginning of the season and thought, ‘we’ll see if he can handle it and if, after two weeks, he’s in over his head, we’ll send him [to a junior team],’” added Lombardi. “Not only did he hold his own but he was one of our better players.”
Lombardi explained that Voynov should have been gone in the first round.
“If he wasn’t a Russian, remember, there’s always been that little squabble—unclear whether or not these kids will come over and play because of the [KHL], he would’ve went in the first round,” Lombardi noted. “He [was] there at a high second [round pick]. If he didn’t have that stigma about when Russians are coming over and whether they could get their contracts—all that squabbling was going on and is still going on to some degree whether these kids could get out of their contracts because the Russians were trying to sign all these guys so that they couldn’t go.”
“We’re almost back to the Communist system where you couldn’t get at the guys,” Lombardi explained. “They were trying to get these kids to sign contracts. They put pressure on them, pressure on their families and paid them very good money so you couldn’t get’em for three or four years. Voynov fell into that so there was a risk in taking a Russian. I think on most people’s lists, this kid would’ve been higher.”
But thanks to Lombardi’s scouting staff, he knew it was not as big a risk as other teams thought.
“This is a tribute to our scouts, these guys did a lot of digging, Michael Futa and Mark Yanetti [Kings Co-Directors of Amateur Scouting],” said Lombardi. “This kid will come and play where we tell him. There’s still a risk, but they did a lot of digging and we knew [Voynov and Loktionov] would come to North America, they hadn’t signed the documents and they would stay here after the draft.”
“This is what I’m talking about when your scouts start to function as a team and know where to dig,” added Lombardi. “We knew [Voynov] wasn’t going to back to Russia period, which is huge. That’s why we even stepped up and took him with [the 32nd overall pick] in the second round, which is still a pretty high pick. I think most people thought they could get him in the third [round] just because of all the Russian stigma.”
Voynov, along with defenseman prospect Andrew Campbell, who was also selected in the 2008 draft (third round, 74th overall), were standouts with the Monarchs last season.
“To [Voynov’s] credit, he was pretty good,” said Lombardi. “Him and Campbell were the biggest surprises because I thought Campbell was going to go back to junior, too. Same thing. He stepped right in there and played. Our defense down there was very young. When Hickey got down there, we had four kids who were twenty years old.”
“Our only [defenseman] prospect there when I got here was Richard Petiot,” added Lombardi. “Now we have four or five down there and obviously, we’re young up here too.”
Lombardi may have also found a late-round gem in Loktionov (photo at left, courtesy Ontario Hockey League), who won the Memorial Cup (championship of Canadian junior hockey) this past season with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League.
“Loktionov…this is a classic case where he might’ve been ready for the American league, but probably not,” said Lombardi. “But the biggest thing I loved about Loktionov, I knew he was going to a good junior team and it was the perfect place for him to get acclimated. This is the thing, even with Voynov, that you always go through with the Russians. They have to learn the language, they have to learn to be a teammate and they have to learn the North America culture and psyche.”
“Windsor…we knew they were going to have a good team and with [former Kings winger] Warren Rychel and Bob Boughner and the program they run there, you will become North American-ized in a hurry if you can last there,” added Lombardi.
Despite some early season struggles, Loktionov responded well.
“To see him grow, to see him early in the year—I’d go there, he was barely speaking the language, wasn’t smiling much, it was a whole new change for him,” Lombardi explained. “He had some bad habits on the ice, wasn’t always being a teammate, he was showing some selfish things with the puck. But they broke him.”
“I remember I went in there three times and each time, not only was I seeing him physically mature like he’s growing right in front of you, but his whole body language, how he conducted himself on the ice, how he was off the ice, interacting with people, laughing and smiling and then going out and winning that Memorial Cup is huge,” Lombardi added. “I remember we were talking to him during the Memorial Cup, ‘this is big. This is the biggest tournament you will ever play in.’”
“That’s not usually the case for a European. The Memorial Cup is huge in Canada. It’s the prelude to the Stanley Cup. For him to go through that is tremendous for his development and he’s a really talented player.”
Despite selecting him in the fifth round, Lombardi is high on Loktionov.
“If you look in terms of hockey intelligence…his hockey IQ is probably one of the higher ones on our reserve list,” said Lombardi. “He’s a guy who sees the rink, makes the right play and doesn’t overdo it. Like a lot of Europeans he could probably stand to shoot more. But his understanding of the game is right up there with the top players on our reserve list.”
Lombardi said that Loktionov reminds him of a bit of another Russian player from years gone by.
“I remember when we drafted him and we took him in the fifth [round], another team wanted to take him in that round,” Lombardi noted. “The guy came up me, a Russian guy that I knew who played in the Summit Series in 1972, a really good guy. [Evgeny Zimin] scouts for Philadelphia. He said, ‘this kid’s like [Igor] Larionov.’ I said, ‘C’mon Evgeny. There’s no way. He said, ‘trust me. This guy sees the game like Larionov.’ I said, ‘OK, we’ll see.’”
“I had Igor and Igor is a genius,” Lombardi added. “The irony is that they’re from the same town and Igor has kind of helped this kid. So he’s not Igor, but there are some similarities in the way they think the game and simplify the game. Because if you play the game at that level intellectually, you don’t have to create highlight films. They move the puck at the right time, they understand the relationship between space and coverage and they just make the right play.”
Nevertheless, Lombardi said that as good as Loktionov is, no one should expect a highlight reel on skates.
“It’s not that they’re going to bring you out of your seat and [they’re] going to be on ESPN’s highlights,” Lombardi explained. “But if you really know the game and appreciate the subtleties, you go, ‘wow, is that smart.’”
“It’s nothing that brings you out of your seat, and there’s a lot of that in this kid, but he has to learn…he’ll be back here in another month [for the Kings annual development camp]—I just love to see the cultural thing where I can see that he’s grown culturally by being in Windsor,” Lombardi elaborated. “These are all the things that go on behind the scenes [in terms of] creating hope. When you see things like this, it’s pretty good and you watch’em grow right in front of you.”
As Lombardi alluded to when he talked about the role Futa and Yanetti played in drafting Voynov and Loktionov, his scouting and development staff appears to have finally hit full stride.
“We still had to make some minor adjustments,” Lombardi explained. “Like I said, when you bring in 35-40 people, some are going to work [and] some aren’t. But I’m really happy with where the amateur [scouts] are. We still have to make some adjustments with the regional area, but the core—I remember two years ago when we first put this together right up until draft day to put together our movements. It was a fire drill. We got through it, but that’s not the way to do things.”
“This year, we look back—we were sitting there after the combine and I said, ‘you know where we were two years ago?’ We all laughed [about the improvement between then and now] in terms of where our list was, how prepared we are, how we had already been in the rinks—we had already interviewed every person we met at the combine before we even got there,” Lombardi elaborated. “That’s part of the culture where our guys are working the trenches.”
Indeed, it sounds as if Lombardi now has the scouting and development staff he envisioned—or close to it—when he joined the Kings three years ago.
“The chemistry where guys now understand about where they can trust guys or when they’ve got to go in, or when the area guy says you don’t have to come and see this guy, we’ll put him in the right spot on the list, all that type of thing that goes on behind the scenes among the good [scouting staffs throughout the NHL] has come together very quickly for us,” he said. “I think Futa and Yanetti have just been tremendous. It all comes down to their work ethic. They’re going to make mistakes but no one outworks them and that’s what I expect.”
“The development has been fantastic,” he added. “I think [Coordinator of Player Development and Systems Integration] Nelson Emerson, [Scout Mike] Donnelly and [Mike O’Connell, who is in charge of Pro Development and Special Assignments], took a big jump this past year. I think [with] Emerson overseeing this area exclusively, we’ve taken a huge jump. Their ability to get out and see the junior kids during the year, the integration with Manchester [and] the way this program is set up, and you’ll see it in July—this development camp will be [operated] the way I envisioned development camps. We were still running too much hockey school crap the last couple of years but this one will be at the level I envisioned when I got here.”
Before being hired by the Kings, Lombardi told ownership that he believed that the Kings had to invest heavily in scouting and development, something the franchise had never really done throughout its history, because they were not going to win without it.
“Those are the two areas that are very close to me, the scouting and development,” Lombardi stressed. “I said it would take 2-3 years and I think it’s taken two. As long as we can keep these people together and keep this going, it’s going to pay off.”
“When you look at the solid organizations, you can tell why they’re there every year,” Lombardi noted. “Nine times out of ten, it’s solid infrastructure where people have been together for a long time, respect each other, know their roles, accept their roles—it’s no different than a team on the ice. This group has come together pretty quickly and they’re going to get better.”
Indeed, the scouting and development is already starting to bear fruit.
“I get really excited when I see [how well the scouting and development staff is working],” said Lombardi. “It’s one of those things the fans don’t see and it doesn’t manifest itself until four or five years when it’s done right. But to their credit, when a guy like [right wing Wayne] Simmonds already pans out that is clearly your boys in the trenches doing their job. The way [defenseman Davis] Drewiske came on. He came out of nowhere. No one wanted him. He signed an AHL contract. That’s your pro scouts beating the bushes.”
“Kyle Quincey. [Pro Scout] Robbie Laird…critical moment…banging on the table. That’s your pro scout stepping up, learning to be [part of] a team and knowing when to put his foot down,” added Lombardi. “So there are some signs of things that are starting to manifest [themselves] that are going on behind the scenes that make great organizations.”
The much-improved scouting and development should help the Kings make the right moves today when the 2009 draft begins.
“Overall, I think it’s a pretty good draft,” Lombardi noted. “I think it’s underrated. Last year’s draft was really unique because the top was so good and because there were so many defensemen [and] that’s really unique because defensemen are usually hard to find. But this draft is pretty good, too. Last year’s was really special but I think this draft isn’t far behind and the depth is pretty good. This one maybe isn’t as strong as last year’s, but it’s not far behind.”
“I think we have a chance to get a really good player,” Lombardi elaborated. “I think we have, at this stage, three or four players considered for that number five pick. We’ve done most of our family visits [where they get a feel for the parents and the player is his own setting]. We’ve got the detailed interviews done and we’ll still do some work on valuing slots so we know how to move. This goes back to where you asked how the staff was [coming along]. Another indicator of how good your staff is is how quickly you can react on the draft floor and I don’t only mean in the first round. But if you’re in the middle rounds and you’ve got to decide if you want to give up two, fifth round picks to move up ten spots in the fourth round to get X player, or do we hold onto those picks and let the player fall, knowing that there might be three players in a similar layer?”
Lombardi explained that when the draft comes around, the scouting staff goes into overdrive.
“You practice…it’s sort of like a mock trial,” he said. “We will go through hypotheticals and try and practice what could happen at the [draft] table in any round. When your staff has really been together and is clicking, you are able to make those decisions at the table like clockwork. We had a snafu last year, but we recovered. We got Campbell who is the guy we wanted. But we didn’t operate as efficiently as we needed to. We almost blew it.”
“We did practice a lot last year in terms of moving picks, making that decision and calling the time out,” he added. “So we got through it but we almost blew it. This year, we’ll do it again and I expect us to be better next year. This is one of those things where you’ll never be at the top of your game unless you’ve actually played it. So it’s one thing to evaluate the player and do the list. But to be able to be good and like a machine and moving, the only way to do it is to get experience.”
“Something’s always going to come up that you didn’t expect. But your mind has to be trained to deal with it. Run through the thought process even though the facts are different and do it quickly and come to a resolution so you can make that call.”
Regarding the possibility of trading the fifth overall pick, Lombardi said that he expects to be tempted and will be looking at all possibilities. But for obvious reasons, he gave no indication of what he might do.
“We might not move at all but the decision not to move is a decision,” he said. “You just don’t sit there and wait for your pick. No. You’re thinking constantly and you make that call and it might be to stay.”
In case you missed them, you can still read parts 1-4 of this series:
- Part 1: LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi Talks Defense, Goaltending
- Part 2: Dean Lombardi: Los Angeles Kings Are Ahead Of Schedule
- Part 3: Dean Lombardi: Gambling Big On Justin Williams
- Part 4: Dean Lombardi On Anze Kopitar, Free Agency
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