EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: As we end 2008 and ring in the New Year, I sat down with Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi to talk about his team, their progress in their rebuilding plan and much more. Part 2 is coming soon right here on Frozen Royalty.
LOS ANGELES — As the Los Angeles Kings near the midpoint of the 2008-09 season, they continue to surprise many because they have managed to avoid the bottom of the league standings and are still in contention for a playoff spot. After ending the 2007-08 season tied in points with the last-in-the-league standings Tampa Bay Lightning, that is a considerable improvement.
Of course, with just slightly more than half the schedule remaining and with a torturous road schedule ahead of them—27 of their final 39 games will be on the road—the Kings could still find themselves plummeting in the standings as their road record this season has not been good. Nevertheless, this team has already shown growth and progress over last season, and their future looks even brighter at this point in time than conventional wisdom would seem to dictate.
A big reason is the faster-than-expected emergence of some of their youngest prospects, most notably, rookie defenseman Drew Doughty, who was selected by the Kings in the first round (second overall) of the 2008 National Hockey League Entry Draft last June.
Although many expected Doughty to make the Kings lineup this season, few expected him to be such a huge impact player, let alone their best player in many games.
“Who would’ve thought Doughty would’ve made this impact right away,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi prior to his team’s contest against the Columbus Blue Jackets on December 29. “If I had said that in August, you know—I mean, I thought when we drafted him that he was going to be a good player but I didn’t think he was going to be doing this already and that’s a huge part, particularly with Jack Johnson getting hurt.”
“Once I saw that Doughty was like [center Anze] Kopitar two years ago, where he comes into camp, you’re watching the kid, then he goes through rookie camp, then the rookie games, then the exhibition [games], this was one of the biggest problems when I took over,” said Lombardi. “You had no young defensemen. Forget the goalie problem. If you’re not good at the back end you’re not going to be good, period. Let’s see how Detroit holds up without [injured superstar defenseman Nicklas] Lidstrom. With [Doughty’s] growth [coming] so quickly…the plays he’s able to make—defensemen make other people better.”
Doughty has played so well that he finds himself on the ice in all situations and at key times in a game. He leads both the Kings and all NHL rookies in ice time, averaging 23:46 per game as of this writing.
His strong play, especially for a nineteen-year-old, has given the Kings’ much-maligned defensive corps from previous years a huge boost, as has the addition of veteran players who can play a physical game, something sorely lacking on the Kings blue line in recent seasons past.
“The other thing I like on the back is that I knew we were going to have an identity,” Lombardi explained. “We went from the smallest defense in the league to, I think, third in the league, with [Denis] Gauthier, [Sean] O’Donnell and [Matt] Greene. I knew we weren’t going to get pushed around. That was the other thing. We said we’re going to be young, we’re going down this path, but we will not be pushed around anymore.”
“Those three guys gave us character as well as some size,” Lombardi elaborated. “We’re not easy to play against. It’s not always pretty sometimes, but at least the other team knows this isn’t going to be an easy game.”
Perhaps the biggest sign that the Kings have improved defensively is that their goals against and shots against numbers are way, way down from last season.
Going into action on December 31, the Kings lead the league, allowing just 26.1 shots per game. Compare that to the 2007-08 season when they were ranked dead last, allowing 32 shots per game—to say that is a far cry from last season would probably be a candidate for “Understatement of the Year.”
The same goes for goals allowed per game. In 2007-08, the Kings were 28th in the league, allowing 3.21 goals per game and they were just 0.03 goals away from allowing the most goals per game.
In stark contrast, the Kings are allowing just 2.65 goals per game this season, ranking them eighth in the league.
“We gave up way too many chances last year so when we were evaluating the goalies last year, it was a combination—we gave up a lot of ‘A’ chances,” said Lombardi. “So at least now we’ve got structure.”
Lombardi said that learning to play in your own end—committing to playing solid defensively is a sign of progress.
“Those are the little signs that you’re getting better and quite frankly, if you don’t do that well, you’re not going to win the big ones anyway because you’re growing,” he said.
“If we can get that as a staple of our game and these kids at a young age can start learning to do that, now you’re starting to form that identity of what it means to be a King,” he added. “You will play that—that’s your new jersey. You do this all the time. We’re doing that in the minors now. People might say that’s boring at times but it’s doing things the right way. Part of that is that we’re much more structured. From day one, Murph [Kings head coach Terry Murray] went in there, and that’s been his hallmark going back to Washington.”
And if you think all that sounds promising, their blue line is expected to become even stronger when defenseman Jack Johnson returns from surgery to repair a torn labrum in late January, and one gets a clear sense of excitement from Lombardi as Johnson gets closer to returning to the lineup.
“We haven’t had Johnson,” Lombardi explained. “I’m real curious. We had a little glimpse of [Johnson and Doughty] on the ice together in Colorado in an exhibition game. I’m sitting up there and they had a shift together where we completely controlled the play because both of them were smart—tandem play. They’re looking off each other. If there was nothing there, they gave it to [someone else]. All of sudden, they’d circle back and boom! We picked’em apart in four regroups like that and that’s your [Scott] Niedermayer–[Chris] Pronger thing. That’s when I thought, ‘whew.’ We haven’t had a chance to see that much together.”
“We’re going to get him back in another month, and the only thing that’s going to happen with Jack, one thing with Murph coming in, we knew we were going to get structure, there’s going to be no more nonsense and you’re going to do things the right way and you’re going to do them again and again and you’re going to learn how to play in your own end.”
If you think that sounds like a big positive, there’s even more. Down on the farm, the Kings have two young defensive prospects who have been a big surprise.
“The biggest surprise are those two kids we hit in the second and third rounds [of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft], [defensemen Andrew] Campbell and [Viatcheslav] Voynov,” said Lombardi. “We got two kids who have no business being there, they should be in junior hockey. It’s the same thing as [Wayne] Simmonds and [Oscar] Moller up here. Probably the biggest surprises. Campbell is only nineteen. Voynov is only eighteen. He’s back in the World Junior Championships.”
Campbell, a 6-4, 208-pound stay-at-home defenseman, has two goals and four assists for six points with thirty penalty minutes in thirty games for the Monarchs this season, while Voynov, who is 6-0 and weighs 190 pounds, has four goals with eight assists for twelve points with eighteen penalty minutes in 24 games for Manchester. He is currently representing Russia in the World Junior (under-20) Championships in Ottawa.
Sure looks like the Kings’ blue line corps is definitely on the rise and it appears to have a boatload more potential than ever seen in this organization.
“I said, when I took this team, there were no young defensemen,” Lombardi stressed. “When Johnson comes back, you’re going to have [Kyle] Quincey at 23, Greene is 25, Doughty is 19 and Johnson is 22. You’ve got two of the top players for Canada in [defenseman prospect Colten] Teubert and [defenseman prospect Thomas] Hickey who are still in junior [both are representing Canada in the World Junior Championships] and those two guys in the minors. That’s not even including the other guys in the minors who I think still have a chance.”
“But these two—I had them projected as going back to junior,” Lombardi elaborated. “I go [to Manchester] now and I’m going, ‘jeez…Voynov is pretty talented.’ And the other guy, if you look at our mix, he’s big and he’s going to get bigger, he’s a stay-at-home type guy. If I look at the whole mix of what we’ve got, whoa. This is way better than the group I had in San Jose, potential-wise.”
The potentially loaded defensive corps alone should have most Kings fans drooling all over themselves, so to speak, with anticipation of what is to come.
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