INTERVIEW WITH DEAN LOMBARDI: In part 3 of a series of stories based on an interview with Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, Frozen Royalty focuses on what Justin Williams is likely to contribute next season, as well as the higher expectations the 2009-10 Kings will face. Look for part 4 in this series coming soon.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — Despite seeing his team fail to qualify for post-season play for the sixth consecutive season, Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi expects his team to end that long drought in the 2009-10 season.
One glaring flaw with that expectation is that he seems be banking rather heavily on winger Justin Williams to not only provide a significant boost to the offense, but also to stay relatively healthy.
But Williams has hit the thirty-goal mark just twice in his career and has otherwise struggled just to remain in the lineup, suffering from a myriad of injuries, including two serious knee injuries, casting serious doubts on his ability to regain his thirty-goal form.
Indeed, the odds against Williams returning to form, let alone staying healthy, would seem to be very, very high, if not astronomical.
Nevertheless, Lombardi is counting on Williams to add to the offensive production of his younger players to help lift the Kings into the playoffs.
“All of our young players should get better,” Lombardi said during an interview on June 13. “You’ve got Justin Williams for a full year. Yeah. If I just look at the numbers, I do think it’s possible.”
“Don’t forget…we’ve got a lot of insight into Williams,” Lombardi explained. “I knew him from his draft year and we had him in [Philadelphia], so we know him inside and out as a person, which is a huge advantage.”
Lombardi likes Williams’ competitiveness and the way he thinks the game.
“Williams is a competitor,” said Lombardi. “He was a late first rounder. One of the reasons he fell was because he wasn’t a great skater at the time. But just like [Philadelphia Flyers forward] Mike Richards, everyone overlooks his hockey sense and his competitiveness.”
“Williams is a smart player,” added Lombardi. “He makes a lot of subtle plays and that’s reflected in his numbers when he was healthy.”
Remaining healthy has been more than a challenge for Williams, but Lombardi is willing to gamble on that, despite the seemingly high odds.
“As far as injuries, I don’t think he’s injury-prone,” Lombardi stressed. “I guess you take a risk with any player, but Williams is not a soft player. He will play hurt and he’s only 27 years old. This is not an old player and he’s signed for three more years.”
Lombardi alluded to the fact that Williams is now in his prime, despite the injury factor, and said that he fits well in the Kings lineup.
“Williams is that in that [Matt] Green-[Jarret] Stoll phase where they’re middle group guys who can clearly be a part of this when we’re contenders and I like the idea that he’s got a [Stanley Cup] ring,” said Lombardi. “So I get a 27-year-old with a ring who knows what it takes to win, is a proven thirty-goal scorer on two occasions and I know from his character that he’s a competitor.”
“The other similar player that I had…when I got Mike Ricci in San Jose, remember he had been hurt a lot,” added Lombardi. “Everybody said ‘he’s always hurt, blah, blah, blah.’ Yeah, he had a string of injuries in Colorado, but when I got him he played 82 games every year. So you never know.”
“As long as the guy competes and knows he’ll play hurt. That’s the way Ricci was and again, because I know Williams, there are some similarities there with Ricci in terms of the way he loves to play. I know he knows the difference between ‘hurt’ and ‘injured.’”
Looking back to the 2008-09 season, Lombardi wondered what could have been if Williams could have contributed upon his arrival from the Carolina Hurricanes instead of being ineffective in the few games he was able to suit up for.
Before joining the Kings, Williams was on injured reserve after suffering a broken hand when he was struck by a shot by Carolina teammate Anton Babchuk in a game against the Buffalo Sabres on February 15.
“Don’t forget, we’re going to have Williams the whole year,” Lombardi noted. “There were so many games [last season] where we were right there that could’ve gone either way that would’ve been the difference between being in the playoffs and not.”
More favorable scheduling is likely to help the Kings as well.
“This isn’t an excuse and this is a credit to this team that they never used it as an excuse,” said Lombardi. “But don’t forget, that schedule from January on, we essentially had three home games and I love the fact that our players never complained, but I don’t know who could’ve stayed in the hunt the way those guys were on the road.”
“When I say ‘three home games,’ I don’t consider it a home game after being on the road for a week when you come home and play one game at home and then you’re on the road again? I don’t really consider that being at home,” added Lombardi. “That’s just a pit stop and to their credit, they never quit. I was on the road with them the whole time and I was beat up. I was thinking, and I remember we were in Nashville, that I’m beat up from being on the road so much and these guys are playing. I’m not playing.”
“I’m thinking how many points that would’ve been. That’s changed with [Vice President/Hockey Operations and Legal Affairs] Jeff Solomon fighting with the league and making sure we get the building dates Downtown. That’s probably six points at least. But what I loved about this team, not one guy complained. Not one. I heard one comment that whole February and March when we were on the road the whole time and in the playoff hunt. They could’ve taken the easy way and they didn’t.”
Something new will be added to the plates of the young Kings…greater expectations, namely post-season play.
“I think it’s time for them to deal with some expectations, to start dealing with pressure,” said Lombardi. “It’s all part of the growth. How many leads did we lose at the end of games? You’ve got to get those points boys because that would’ve been the difference, whether it was late goals against where we didn’t get any points, or where we didn’t get two points. Also, psychologically, I think it hurt us at times to have lost critical points where you get on a run and things start going your way. Now you’ve got to learn from those so that this year, when those moments arise, you don’t sit there and say, ‘I hope we win.’ [Rather], it’s ‘You know what, we’ve been through this boys. We’re going to win this game tonight.’”
“That’s a whole mindset where the athlete goes through ‘I hope,’ ‘I think,’ and ‘I know,’” added Lombardi. “Detroit knows it’s going to win. Pittsburgh has probably risen to the point where they know they can win. This year, we’re at the stage where ‘I hope we’ll win.’ At times, it was ‘I think we’ll win.’”
Indeed, the time has come for the Kings to start believing in themselves.
“When your team is ready to be champions, it’s not only the physical, it’s the mental and it’s believing in yourselves,” Lombardi emphasized. “And for these guys to start learning to believe in themselves, we’ve got to start placing some expectations on them. We have to kick’em in the butt so they don’t get complacent but, on the other hand, we have to start letting them believe they are good and start holding their chests out and getting it done.”
“When you really break down the psychology of a team, it’s fascinating,” Lombardi elaborated. “This is about the feel for your team that you can’t diagram. Watch them get off the plane, how they walk into the rink, how they look you in the eye. Those are all the things about the mindset of your team developing into a champion.”
“That’s a long process but it starts with giving them expectations—’let’s go. We’re going to kick you in the butt here so you don’t get complacent.’ But on the other hand, you’ve got to believe that you’re good because when those critical moments arrive it comes down to not only work, but confidence in yourself. It’s working hard, working smart and believing in yourself that you’re going to get it done. I think they’re ready for the challenge right now.”
Photo: Justin Williams. Courtesy Los Angeles Kings.
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