EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – PART 2: After taking New Year’s Day off, Frozen Royalty is back with more from an exclusive interview with Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. In this installment, Lombardi focuses on his team’s future in goal and two of his top defenseman prospects. Check back on Tuesday, January 6 for Part 3 of this series and if you missed Part 1, check out Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi Excited About Defense.
LOS ANGELES — Throughout the over forty-year history of the Los Angeles Kings, goaltending has arguably been their biggest Achilles Heel.
The only Kings goaltender who could be considered to be in the truly elite category was Rogie Vachon, who backstopped the Kings from 1971-72 to 1977-78, winning many games all by himself while playing on mostly horrid teams. Indeed, Vachon was so good that it is a heinous crime that he still has not been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Sure, the Kings got stretches of solid goaltending from the likes of Mario Lessard, Kelly Hrudey and for a little more than one season, Felix Potvin. But outside of that, Kings goaltenders have been mediocre at best, and they often fell far short of that mark.
Much to the dismay of the Kings and their fans, in recent seasons, their goaltending woes have continued, but that might be changing sooner rather than later.
The Kings began the 2008-09 season with veteran netminder Jason LaBarbera and goaltending prospect Erik Ersberg making the opening night roster, with LaBarbera being named as the team’s number one goaltender by Kings head coach Terry Murray.
LaBarbera was inconsistent right out of the gate, but Murray faithfully stuck with him for ten games before going with Ersberg for the next ten. The rest, as they say, was history, with Ersberg not only outplaying LaBarbera but putting a wide gap between the two.
As fate would have it, Ersberg went down with a groin strain in mid-December, putting LaBarbera back in goal and although he pitched one shutout, he continued to struggle. That forced the Kings to recall goaltender prospect Jonathan Quick from the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League on December 16.
LaBarbera would play his last game for the Kings at Buffalo on December 19, when he allowed four goals on fourteen shots before being replaced by Quick early in the third period.
Quick, who was selected by the Kings in the third round (72nd overall) of the 2005 National Hockey League Entry Draft, wound up starting five straight games after that and has not looked back. In his six appearances, the 22-year-old native of Milford, Connecticut has a 2-3-0 record, a 1.73 goals-against average, a .937 save percentage and two shutouts.
With Quick showing that he can so far handle the rigors of the NHL and with Ersberg back in the lineup, LaBarbera became the odd man out and on December 30, he was traded to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for a seventh round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
LaBarbera, who shined at the AHL level, was never able to develop any kind of consistent, solid play with the Kings. He generally relied too much on his size, gave up too many rebounds and was just too slow. As a result, he was never able to lock onto the number one goalie position despite having ample opportunity to do so.
LaBarbera’s detractors have wondered why the Kings wasted their time and money on him, or why they settled for a seventh round pick with the Canucks having serious goaltending issues with superstar Roberto Luongo out with a bad groin injury and with backup goalie Curtis Sanford also out with an injury.
But given LaBarbera’s history and his recent poor play, the Kings were lucky to get anything for him, even with the Canucks’ goaltending problems.
Even more important for the Kings, LaBarbera was, like a considerable number of veterans who have played for the Kings, little more than a cheap placeholder who was filling a roster spot, biding time until one or more of the Kings’ young goaltender prospects emerged and that time has come.
Quick is likely to remain with the Kings for the rest of this season, at least, showing that they could afford to trade LaBarbera rather than put him on waivers and then assign him to Manchester. Indeed, it appears that the Kings have improved their goaltender ranks to a point where they have the depth to not only fill the goaltender spots in their system but also ensure that goaltender prospect Jonathan Bernier will get the lion’s share of the starts with the Monarchs, accelerating his development.
Sounds like a good situation all around. Nevertheless, bringing up Quick was not the Kings’ first choice.
“This has been a recurring theme,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. “When I put that list up there listing how many goalies we’ve used, ‘holy smoke!’ But hopefully we’re starting to zero in on solving this. The one thing I thought I wanted to stick with was [Bernier and Quick] doing time [in the minors]. I remember in camp right away, LaBarbera was our number one. Bernier got hurt but go on to the minors.”
In concert with those wishes, Lombardi tried to acquire a veteran goalie rather than keep Quick up with the big club, speaking to the Chicago Blackhawks in an attempt to acquire goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin as a stop-gap.
After preliminary discussions, the Blackhawks, a solid contender for post-season play, decided they were not interested in trading Khabibulin after all.
“It wasn’t so much [what they asked for], they changed their mind,” said Lombardi. “The problem you’ve got with even talking about trades, number one, the general manager can’t tell you the whole story. If I did that, no general manager would talk to me because no general manager wants to read about his players in the paper. The hard part is answering it truthfully.”
“It was something we wanted to investigate, to see if it was possible,” added Lombardi. “There was some dialogue, but we never even got to the point of exchange. They just changed their mind and I don’t blame them. They’ve got a pretty good team there. It’s nice security to have two goalies like that. They didn’t really want to put him out there. It never even got to ‘I want [defenseman prospect Thomas] Hickey,’ or something like that.”
That now leaves the Kings with Ersberg and Quick in goal, with Quick much improved from his brief stint with the Kings last season. His strong play with the Monarchs, along with his experience, gave him the edge over Bernier, who had been more highly touted.
“[Quick] is a little older than [Bernier] coming out of junior hockey and this is where we made the decision when we had to make the call on who to bring up,” Lombardi explained. “They were both close down there. I thought it was a good situation. Both were playing, both were learning. We had some little ups and downs, but Quick was maybe a little ahead of Bernier so then we just went to seniority.”
“I would’ve liked to leave him there, but I wasn’t like, ‘this ain’t good,’” Lombardi elaborated. “We’ll see. He’s obviously played well here. He’s grown a lot from the kid that in his first year down there was showing up late for practice and wasn’t acting like a pro, and that’s part of the whole minor league experience too, learning to be a pro on and off the ice.”
As Lombardi said, although Quick got the nod, Bernier has not played poorly with the Monarchs. However, he did not get off to the strong start that was expected when he started the season at Manchester.
“I wouldn’t say [he] ‘struggled,’” said Lombardi. “Struggled is probably judged by what you expect and I think there’s high expectations for him. Did he go light it up like you might think for a guy who’s rated as one of the top young goalies who’s not in the NHL? No, he wasn’t doing that, but it’s not like he was out to lunch. Then he started playing well.”
“They were both really close, then [Bernier] had a stinker when I was there in Winnipeg after we just called Quick up,” added Lombardi. “I was with the minor league team in Winnipeg and he laid a complete egg. A little of that might’ve been he wanted to be the guy.”
Lombardi stressed that the disappointment over someone else being recalled is something that Bernier has to face and learn from.
“The last ten days, he’s been really good,” Lombardi stressed. “But that’s part of the growth, too. You know what? If you’re going to pout or not be happy, what’s going to happen when we get in the playoffs and things don’t go your way? You’re going to have to learn there’s no entitlement. Yeah, I know you’re a first round pick, but you’re going to have to earn it. Too bad.”
Lombardi firmly believes that, aside from a few exceptions, spending time in the minors before playing in the NHL is key to a young player’s development.
“I’ve never heard of a guy fail because he was over-prepared,” said Lombardi. “But there’s tons of stories [of the opposite]. I’ll go back to the guy here. Did [former Kings goaltender] Jamie Storr fail because he wasn’t good enough? Or did you throw him in? Was he trained properly?”
Storr, a first round pick (seventh overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, was highly touted by the Kings, but like so many other goalies, was never able to live up to expectations or his potential.
“In his defense, there was no way he was ready,” Lombardi explained. “I know people have their opinion that he was no good in the first place—all the more reason he shouldn’t have been up here. So what the hell was he doing here? Maybe if he had been in the minors for two or three years he might’ve figured that part out, too. But what’s he supposed to think? ‘Hey, this is great! I go from first round pick, I’m in the show, I got it figured out.’”
“That’s what I was saying about Bernier last year,” Lombardi emphasized. “It’s one thing to say he’s the best of the lot if the lot is bad, and it’s another thing to say he’s ready and that’s where we protected him last year and I go back to my history with [San Jose Sharks goaltender Evgeni] Nabokov, [Calgary Flames netminder Miikka] Kiprusoff and [Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Vesa] Toskala. They’re all very talented, but I’m convinced that a big part of their success was that they all did time in the minors and went through the bumps.”
Hickey And Teubert Shining Bright
With the 2009 IIHF World Junior (Under-20) Championship (WJC) tournament underway in Ottawa, two of the Kings’ top prospects are helping lead Canada ever closer to the Gold Medal.
Kings’ defenseman prospects Thomas Hickey, who was selected in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, and Colten Teubert, also a first round pick (13th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, are Canada’s top defensive pair with Hickey serving as the team captain.
“To see [Hickey] captain of that team, talk about growth,” said Lombardi. “That’s about as much pressure as you can get without being in the NHL. There’s more pressure [in the WJC] than in the American Hockey League playoffs.”
“There’s nothing like it in terms of the pressure on those guys,” added Lombardi. “If those kids don’t win it all, they’re failures [in Canada].”
Hickey’s character and leadership abilities are among the biggest reasons the Kings selected him with the fourth overall pick in 2007, well ahead of where he was expected to be drafted.
“That was a big part of why we took him,” said Lombardi. “It’s not only because he’s a smart player, but he’s got a lot of character.”
Teubert has also played a key role for Canada in the tournament, despite still being quite raw around the edges.
“He’s come a little quicker than I thought, but he still runs around too much,” Lombardi explained. “When you looked at him, on the one hand, we really liked him in Kazan, [Russia, at the 2008 IIHF World (Under-18) Championships] when he was running everybody. He was scaring the hell out of everybody. But as we saw when he was here, it’s like you’d rather tame a lion than paint stripes on a kitty cat.”
“He’s got to read, particularly now the way the game is, you can’t hook and hold,” Lombardi added. “You still want that physical part. Anaheim showed that you can still win by playing nasty and I want this team to be able to play in any environment. We’re not just going to be a puck-possession team. We want to answer the bell in every area.”
During the Kings training camp prior to this season, Teubert constantly ran around his own zone, always looking for the big hit.
“[The way it used to be], you could get away with being a little over-active, because you could put sticks on people and maybe getting your elbows up,” said Lombardi. “He has to read now and what he doesn’t always do is read. He’s like, ‘I’ve gotta get’ya, I’ve gotta get’ya’ versus read. But then when you make the decision, now go kill’em. But every time, don’t go kill’em and you can’t cross-check’em in the head every time.”
But that aggressive, physical style, not to mention the mean streak, are the likely reasons he made Canada’s WJC team.
“I know why Canada took him,” said Lombardi. “It was the same reason from when he was in Kazan. They played the Russians. First shift, he went right after [highly touted forward prospect Nikita] Filatov [who was selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round (sixth overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft] with a purpose and Filatov was done the rest of the game. He did not want to come down his side anymore and that’s Canada.”
“There was a game where he was shooting pucks at the Russians before the warm-ups, I’ll never forget that,” Lombardi said with a smirk. “That’s taking it a little too far. The Russians were a really good team with Filatov, [Kiril] Petrov, [and Evgeny] Grachev. That was as a good a Russian team as I’ve seen in the under-’s in a long time. Canada was not the favorite and the Russians smoked’em in the qualifiers. And then they started chirping that Canada ain’t that good and [the Russians are] in their home country. And they were good. But they ended up against Canada in the finals.”
“[Teubert grabs some pucks] and starts shooting at’em from the red line,” Lombardi elaborated. “It should’ve caused a brawl! I remember sitting there with our chief scout and saying ‘I have a feeling this kid’s going to send a message,’ and sure enough. The first time Filatov came down the wing, [Teubert] goes out and misses him. He just wanted to kill him. Filatov ducked. [Teubert] got a piece of him. But at the end of the same shift, [Filatov] comes down again, and now he’s looking for [Teubert], so he’s slowing down, but [Teubert] just smokes him and [Filatov] was done. He didn’t do anything the rest of that game. It was like, ‘I do not want to play against this guy,’ and Canada beat’em 8-0.”
By the time the Kings convene their 2009 training camp, it is likely that Teubert will not be running around in his own zone, at least, not nearly as much.
“That’s where your development program [comes in],” said Lombardi. “You’re going to watch film, we’re going to work on this over the summer. Mike O’Connell [who handles Pro Development and Special Assignments for the Kings] has already been up [to Regina] twice this year. You’re going to learn to read and he has made a lot of progress, but he’s got a ways to go.”
“But this [pointing to his heart]? That’s hard to find,” added Lombardi. “Talking about developing a soul and developing a franchise identity, he’s that Jay Wells-type guy. When I think of Kings, I think of Dave Taylor and Jay Wells. Gotta get some of that here.”
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