INTERVIEW WITH DEAN LOMBARDI: In part 1 of a series of stories based on an interview with Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, Frozen Royalty looks at the Kings’ improved defense and goaltending in the 2008-09 season. Look for part 2 in this series coming soon.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — Looking back at the 2008-09 season for the Los Angeles Kings, what likely stands out to most is their 14th place finish in the fifteen-team Western Conference, not to mention the fact that they failed to qualify for the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.
Indeed, to many, that is nothing more than utter failure and it is difficult to argue with that.
But Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi is looking beyond the standings to gauge his team’s progress since the 2007-08 season and he is looking at his team’s marked improvement on defense. One look at the numbers tells much of the story.
The 2007-08 Kings gave up goals in bunches, ranking 28th in the thirty-team National Hockey League, giving up 3.21 goals per game. They were also ranked dead last in penalty-killing with a 78.0% rating.
To coin a phrase, “Oh, what a difference a year makes," as the 2008-09 Kings made dramatic improvements in their own end, ranking eleventh on defense, allowing 2.76 goals per game and jumping up to seventh in penalty-killing with an 82.9% rating.
Anyone would be very hard-pressed to argue that, based on those numbers, that the Kings have not improved drastically on defense, which was something the Kings focused on.
“I think one thing, very clearly, that we had to get done, regardless of personnel changes, we felt that with some structure that we could improve our goals against,” Lombardi said in an interview on June 13. “That was the number one priority. I don’t care how much offense—we could’ve had [Wayne] Gretzky, [Mark] Messier, [Brett] Hull and [Mike] Bossy up front, but if we’re going to give up the chances we were giving up the last two years, it wouldn’t have mattered.”
“We had to start getting some structure, getting an identity on the back end and put that in our minor league system, similar to what New Jersey has done,” added Lombardi. “We have to establish an identity in terms of how we’re going to play defensively and do things right.”
Doing things right was the message sent to the players on day one of the Kings’ 2008-09 training camp, as head coach Terry Murray preached defensive play as soon as the players hit the ice for the first time.
“Murph [Terry Murray] came in and established that from day one, drawing the dangerous area, the home plate, with the spray paint,” said Lombardi. “That started on day one, that we will start doing things right in our own end. There were some attractive results there. Our shots against were one of the lowest in the league. Our goals against, for a good part of the season, was near the top of the league.”
The Kings are also trying to build accountability on defense into the culture throughout their system.
“The thing about defense…yes, there is a lot of ability involved,” Lombardi explained. “But it’s a commitment, a question of will and doing the right thing. It’s also an as much an attitude, where offense, yeah, there’s an attitude, but it’s also a highly-skilled thing. If you’re committed, you care about your team, and you’re paying attention, we knew we should be able to improve ourselves defensively, regardless of personnel.”
“That whole thing is like the New Jersey culture,” Lombardi elaborated. “Throughout their system, from the time a kid was drafted—this is the other thing we did much better this year, integrating with our minor league teams. We’ll play the same way down there with minor adjustments so that when a kid comes into our system this is the way we’ll play. So they start learning it right away.”
“Even with our development people [and] the kids who went back to junior, [they] were starting to already get instruction on it, like [defenseman prospects Thomas] Hickey and [Colten] Teubert, we would start touching on that even though it might be different from their junior team.”
Goaltending also improved with the addition of Jonathan Quick, who ended the season three games over the .500 mark, even though his team finished 34-37-11 (79 points) for the season.
Quick played in 44 games, earning a 21-18-2 record, a 2.48 goals against average, a .914 save percentage and four shutouts, all impressive numbers, not only for a rookie goalie, but also for one playing for a struggling team.
Lombardi noted that in previous seasons, poor goaltending gave his skaters an excuse.
“The goaltending was a big part of [the improved defensive play],” Lombardi stressed. “I think when Quick played like he did in Washington [on February 5, a 5-4 Kings win in which he made 41 saves], that was the point where the team looked around and said, ‘we can stop blaming the goalie here.’ I think a big part of what happened over the last two years—yes, our goaltending was very suspect. But it became an easy crutch. People aren’t accountable because they could always blame the goalie.”
“When you’re blaming the goalie all the time like it was the last two years—that even carried over until this year—all the questions…who’s the number one, good goal, bad goal, it took responsibility off people who were leaving people open,” Lombardi explained. “One of the things that showed up when we were interviewing in the summer and looking at our team was how many quality chances we were giving up. So it wasn’t even fair to the goalie and our goaltending certainly wasn’t stellar. But because the focus had been on them we were giving up a lot of grade A chances and people weren’t accountable because it was easy to blame the goalie. I think that still carried over until part of this year and it’s a difficult mindset for a team. It’s like a [baseball] team with no pitching.”
But Quick has left the skaters without that excuse, at least for now.
“What happened when Quick came up there was still the question, ‘is he for real,’ Lombardi noted. “But I remember the Washington game when we were on that little run and he stood on his head and he had done very well throughout that whole trip. That was when the team said ‘we’ve got a goalie.’ So now we can start looking at ourselves and not wonder if our goalie is going to stop what he’s supposed to stop. That was a huge thing where we said we’ve got to get this out of our whole psyche. I think that was a huge thing.”
“A part of that whole defense thing, a huge part of it, was the goaltending, but it was as much the mindset of the team,” Lombardi elaborated. “With the goalie now doing his job, now the people who are playing defense, the forwards and the defensemen, better know that they’d better pick up the right guy and defend home plate because you’re not going to be able to blame the goalie anymore. That was a big change that I saw the last couple of years.”
The question now is…is Quick the real deal?
“How kids deal with success—this the other part of building that’s very difficult that the public doesn’t understand sometimes, is dealing with perceived success,” said Lombardi. “How is Quick going to come back this year after starting to establish himself as an NHL player? Does he strive to get better, does he strive to become one of the best, or does he get complacent? Does he come into camp thinking he’s got the job all wrapped up and go through the motions, or does he come in and grab it, say ‘I’m the number one and I’m going to be one of the best in the league?’
Despite being named to the NHL’s 2008-09 All-Rookie Team on June 18, the same question could be asked about defenseman Drew Doughty.
“Same thing with Doughty,” Lombardi said. “Doughty comes in, he’s really trying to make the team last year, he’s paying attention, he does all the little things. How’s he going to adjust now that he’s an NHL player? These are things that have to be monitored during the summer and starting an attitude here.”
Back to Quick…he is one of three young goaltenders who could be “the guy” for the Kings now and for the long haul and that is a far cry from what they had just a few seasons ago.
“Let’s face it, you saw what it was like from [Dan] Cloutier down to [Yutaka] Fukufuji,” said Lombardi. “It was a round robin tournament here as far as who the goalie was.”
“The other thing that I said, just like our defense when I came here…to build this without young goaltending and young defensemen, oof! That’s a challenge,” added Lombardi. It’s like talking about how people are starting to see that there’s hope.”
Indeed, the Kings currently have two bona fide goaltending prospects in Quick and Jonathan Bernier and a better than serviceable backup in Erik Ersberg.
Quite the change from the shoddy goaltending they have had throughout the vast majority of their more than forty-year history.
That alone is a solid reason to be hopeful.
“Before there was no hope,” Lombardi said about the state of the Kings before he joined them. “I don’t care. You don’t have any young defensemen, your defense is 35 years old and I was hoping that [goaltenders Jason] LaBarbera or [Mathieu] Garon could come on. But let’s face it. Both guys have moved on and they’re both in the role that [they probably are supposed to be in]. They’re backup goalies. Garon is in Pittsburgh and LaBarbera is in Vancouver and they’re [number two goalies]. We were trying to use them as [number one goalies]. This is what I mean about starting to see that OK, we’ve got hope here, so let’s stick with it and do things right.”
Lombardi also warned against the temptation to rush prospects to the NHL level, especially young netminders.
“Bernier is a great example of being patient and [being brought] along properly instead of forcing him into the lineup,” said Lombardi. “There’s this whole temptation sometimes when you’re going with young players to put’em in the lineup right away so the fans can have false hope.”
“There’s a way to break’em in right and Bernier is a great example to me of why I was always so nervous—the way he came in and played in Las Vegas [a 3-2 pre-season, shootout win over the Colorado Avalanche on September 22, 2007],” added Lombardi. “I said, ‘I don’t like this.’ There’s mental side that a young athlete has to learn if he’s ever going to be great.”
Lombardi pointed out that Bernier still had some growing up to do as well.
“Remember, he went down back to junior, pouted for awhile and everything else,” Lombardi explained. “Even this year, when we called up Quick, [Bernier] did not work hard in practice. He thought this was going to be an easy ride to the NHL.”
“[Bernier has] always been one of the top goaltenders in Canada his whole life,” Lombardi elaborated. “It’s all been fairly easy because he’s so talented and he thought he would go right to the Kings. When it didn’t happen, he didn’t want to work hard. One of the biggest complaints we had was, ‘you’re not coming up here until you learn to work hard in practice.’ He didn’t do it. When we called up Quick, he kind of went the other way on us. We actually called up [goalie prospect] Danny Taylor. We played him in Manchester.”
Then it was time for a bit of tough love, but Bernier responded.
“[We told Bernier], ‘no more free rides,’” said Lombardi. “You’re a first round pick and that’s great, but you’ve got to get it done. To his credit, in the last month, it’s like the light bulb went off and he said, ‘OK, I’ve got to start looking at myself here and start competing.’”
‘I remember [Kings assistant general manager Ron] Hextall went down [to Manchester] and said, ‘wow…what a change,’” added Lombardi. “He’s working his tail off in practice, he almost got that team in the playoffs, he played really well down the stretch in some big games. Now we can say, ‘OK…now he’s starting to figure it out.’”
“With Quick here, [Bernier has] made progress down in the minors. Now they have to keep going and we’ll see where they are when they come in for development camp and then where we go from there.”
And as Lombardi said, what a difference it is to have legitimate goaltending prospects who are on the verge of making it at the NHL level.
“At least you have hope,” Lombardi noted. “Not taking anything away from those other prospects, but Bernier and Quick are a lot different on your reserve list than Fukufuji, a ninth round pick versus two guys who are bona fide prospects. It’s not taking anything away from Fukufuji, but let’s face it, that’s a long shot. These guys are bona fide, but there’s a still a way to go.”
Looking ahead and re-focusing on the blue line corps, all the improvements on the back end will be wasted if they do not continue next season.
“[The improved defensive play] has to become a staple now,” Lombardi stressed. “You can’t say ‘OK, we’ve got this balanced, move to the next thing, move to the offense.’ That has to be drilled home again and again and again. It’s not going to become part of our culture over one year. Murph’s got to drill that into them again. Just because we need to score goals, and we do, does not mean we forget to do what we did well this past year. Otherwise, we’re just spinning our wheels.”
“What we accomplished was very good but it has to be drilled home again on day one and has to become a staple so that it’s reactionary instead of [having to] think about it.”
Photo: Dean Lombardi. Courtesy Los Angeles Kings.
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