Dean Lombardi On Anze Kopitar, Free Agency

INTERVIEW WITH DEAN LOMBARDI: In Part 4 of this series based on an interview with Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, he talks about what he believes is the biggest way his team can improve as well as the challenges and decisions he faces when it comes to the free agent market. Be sure to check out parts 1 – 3 right here on Frozen Royalty. The fifth and final installment of this series will be published on June 26.

EL SEGUNDO, CA — Since the end of the 2008-09 season for the Los Angeles Kings, a common message coming from both Head Coach Terry Murray and President/General Manager Dean Lombardi was that their young players needed to get in the gym this summer to become stronger and to be in top physical shape by the time training camp begins.

Further, both said that this was the most important way for the Kings to improve, above all else.

In an interview on June 13, Lombardi said that he is starting to see signs of that happening, as more players have stayed in the Los Angeles area to train together. But Lombardi added that his young players still have a ways to go and he pointed to his best player as one who needs to set an example.

“When I see a lot of these kids, but in particular [center Anze Kopitar’s] case, you talk about a culture, we have a lot of work to do in terms of our best players learning to prepare in the off-season, learning how to prepare as pros physically and mentally,” Lombardi stressed. “And you can’t be prepared mentally if you haven’t prepared physically because if you show up in training camp ready to go, it means you have taxed yourself mentally and challenged yourself to get to the next level.”

Lombardi believes that getting his players to become stronger and to come into camp in top shape is even more important than adding talent through trades or unrestricted free agent signings. At least, that is what he is saying publicly, perhaps as a warning to anxious fans who are tired of waiting for the Kings to finally make a splash in the playoffs and are demanding that Lombardi acquire a scoring winger to fill the hole he has on left wing—he may not make such a move this summer…more on that later.

“We can talk all we want about ‘let’s go out and get this guy and that guy and this guy,’ said Lombardi. “But unless Kopitar, as one of our key players and with the commitment we made to him last summer in terms of locking him up, gets on board and learns that he has to take on [physical center Ryan] Getzlaf [of the Anaheim Ducks], and that means preparing in the summer and showing up in top shape where not only are you at the top of your game, but we also expect you to set an example for the all the other young players considering he wears an ‘A’ [as an assistant captain]. That is the most critical thing to this franchise.”

“If we just go out and get another guy and Kopitar doesn’t figure it out in terms of making a commitment, all we’re going to be is, at best, an average team,” added Lombardi “That’s the most important thing in my mind for improving this offense.”

His motivations notwithstanding, Lombardi is dead on about Kopitar needing to get into the gym, despite the fact that he has a 6-3, 219-pound frame. Indeed, if Kopitar builds enough strength to be able to take on the likes of a Ryan Getzlaf, who many believe is the epitome of a physical, number one center in the National Hockey League, he would add an entirely new dimension to his game, raising his play to new heights because he will be better equipped to create space for himself, fight off checks, win more loose puck battles—Kopitar would certainly improve upon his goal and assist numbers.

To be sure, 2009-10 will be a critical season for Kopitar, one that will go a very long way towards determining if he has the ability to become a legitimate number one center in the NHL, perhaps even an elite player, or just a better-than-average number two center. Getting stronger and improving his physical conditioning will go a long way towards that end.

It will also help determine Lombardi’s future moves.

“Once I see how good he can be and the commitment he makes, it makes it easier to decide what we need to add to the equation,” Lombardi explained. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to look [this summer]. But you ask me what’s most important? No question in my mind because it’s not only the player. It’s a culture builder. We’re at a critical stage with some of these guys and if we really want to have a culture that stands for something, it starts with players like that.”

Lombardi said that Kopitar has remained in the Los Angeles area this summer to work out, but has not started training yet.

Drew Doughty has already made the commitment,” said Lombardi. “I can see, already going into his second year, this guy is driven to go to the next level. He’s already started training, where he used to do no training. All these guys have got to figure it out. Just because you’re out of the playoffs, finished on April 15, Detroit and those other teams were working for the next two months [after their seasons ended]. This isn’t a license to be sitting around on extended vacations.”

“They’re a long way from learning to be pros,” added Lombardi. “Our best young player, to whom we’ve made a commitment, has a ways to go. Now this is not unusual. [Colorado Avalanche superstar center] Joe Sakic went through it. [Former Detroit Red Wings superstar center Steve] Yzerman. It usually takes’em awhile. But it’s getting to be the time here for Kopitar to be able to bring his ‘A’ game every night.”

After all that attention to improving his team’s strength and conditioning, the question now is: even if the Kings improve dramatically in those areas, will that translate into enough wins to get them into the playoffs?

Given how much the Kings need to improve in order to get an invitation to the post-season party, Lombardi will likely have to add a scoring winger to help provide that extra push.

“[Some are saying], ‘You know, we’ve gotta add this guy or that guy,’” Lombardi explained. “[No]. [Improved strength and conditioning is] number one. You want to talk number two? Sure. Yeah, I’d like to make some additions. I think our right side is pretty good but our left side is an issue, our creativity, our scoring. There’s some things we can do internally, but I’m not denying that we have to investigate those areas.”

“This is the other thing as a general manager right now…when you talk about hope…it’s very different from sitting in this seat two years ago, or one,” Lombardi elaborated. “I can look at this team and say, ‘all right, if I could add personnel, it might be one guy there, another guy there.’ I can look and see three or four boxes. Two years ago, I had twelve boxes. Thirteen. That’s why I had to go out and get seven free agents just to fill holes. So I see progress as a [general manager] that now, when I talk trade, I don’t have to talk about the other team’s whole roster. I can say, ‘OK, I need this, this and this.’”

Indeed, what a difference a few years of true rebuilding makes instead of just giving lip service to rebuilding as the Kings had always done earlier in their history.

“Those are the little, subtle signs of progress that when I look at my team now, I’m now talking to general managers [and I have] a specific menu versus two years ago when I could use anything,” said Lombardi. “Secondly, I have things to trade that people want now. We’re recognized as having one of the better, younger systems between our team here and Manchester so people call me and I have things to trade. Before, there was nothing really that I could trade and the things that I could trade, I didn’t want to trade, like Kopitar and [Dustin] Brown, because I needed [them]. But I didn’t have a lot of cards, I couldn’t trade my first [round] pick. I could never even consider it.”

This year, Lombardi just might trade his first round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, coming up on Friday.

“I could even consider that this year,” Lombardi noted. “Those are signs that you’re getting better when you’re sitting at this desk and that tells me that my reserve list is stronger and when people are asking about trades and when I’m looking at my holes, I only need certain things and one of those would be a top forward, I’m not denying that.”

“Overall, I think we made progress in lot of what I consider to be significant areas,” Lombardi elaborated. “The one thing about this year is that a plan is starting to manifest itself. When I said, two or three years ago, when we had to go out and get a bunch of free agents and everybody was excited, I said that’s not the way to build a team. Essentially, a lot of this was buying time to get to the draft table so you can draft, develop and build a culture of your own players.”

Going back to the issue of adding a scoring winger, no matter what, it is not as simple as just going out and spending some money.

“First thing you’ll look at…there are two avenues,” Lombardi explained. “Free agents and how many of them really are there. Everyone thinks there’s a lot of players there. For one, there’s not a lot of players and then of the guys who are signed and then you look at it two years later, how many [teams] are really thrilled with it?”

“Arguably, [there really aren’t very many] significant free agents from thirty teams last year,” Lombardi elaborated. “I think a lot of times people think in free agency there this whole big market. [Looking at the list of 2007 unrestricted free agents]…how many of those [teams] are happy with their signings? You think Philadelphia likes that [Daniel] Briere signing? [Chris] Drury [with the New York Rangers]? There’s not a lot [of unrestricted free agents] there.”

“In 2006? Talk about impact players…[Zdeno] Chara, [Patrik] Elias and [Ed] Jovonovski. The point is, in free agency, there’s not a lot there. Then you look at this year’s list, how many guys do you have? [Marian] Gaborik? [Martin] Havlat? [Marian] Hossa? Maybe Steve Sullivan? Then it drops in a hurry. So your market isn’t that big, which tells you why some of those contracts get like they do—because you have so few quality players for thirty teams.”

With the NHL salary cap expected to drop significantly in 2010-11, the league and its general managers are treading into unfamiliar waters.

“The reason it’s gotten that way is because the cap hasn’t stopped [increasing] yet,” Lombardi stressed. “This is the first year where it might stop [increasing] and it’s the first year where there is a significant chance next year it might go down [2010-11]. So the cap is now becoming a cap.”

“Next year’s free agent market—there’s not going to be a lot of money there so there is a solid chance that you can get a guy at a reasonable price and make sure he fits in with your structure and where the cap is going,” Lombardi added. “Or teams are going to be in dire straits and may even pay you to take a guy. That might be there.”

And this summer, a few teams with a lot of room under the cap are all in search of top-tier talent, which is likely to create another challenge.

“You also have an issue where there are three teams with huge cap space—Toronto, Montreal and [the Kings],” said Lombardi. “That could lend itself to whew! [a bidding war].”

All that leaves Lombardi with a huge decision to make. He has acknowledged that he has a hole to fill on left wing and he needs a sniper to fill it. But if Montreal and Toronto go all out this summer and drive unrestricted free agent prices sky high, it may be wise for Lombardi to sit and watch from the sidelines so that he does not risk being unable to sign players such as Drew Doughty, Alexander Frolov and Jack Johnson over the next two seasons, creating new holes in his lineup.

In any case, Lombardi must weigh his options carefully. Does he jump into unrestricted free agent waters or does he remain a spectator if the cost (in terms of the salary cap) are too great?

“It’s an option,” he said. “It depends on who the player is, how he fits, his contract, what you have to give up to get him and then balance that against other possible decisions, including the idea of getting better from within and waiting to strike.”

“That’s the issue right there,” he added. “I wouldn’t say I’ve made that decision, but those are the two options. At least, by putting that up, like anything else, when you sit in this seat, for the fans, often times there is no right or wrong answer. Particularly with some issues, it’s not like it’s 50-50. But at least there’s a rational basis.”

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6 thoughts on “Dean Lombardi On Anze Kopitar, Free Agency

Add yours

  1. Another great piece Gann. I am still not confident in the way he is painting the situation. I can easily counter his statement of “What if,” on Kopitar not getting stronger and them getting a player and ending up average.

    Ok Dean, “What If,” Kopitar doesn’t get stronger and you don’t get a player to pick up the scoring hole? Instead of being average, you are picking in the Top 3 next year and you are out of a job.

    He needs to choose his words carefully because he is talking in circles and pointing too many fingers in an effort to divert attention away from him basically doing what he did last Summer: nothing.

  2. I think it’s interesting that some fans have taken Lombardi / Murray’s comments on improving the fitness level of their current players and interpreted that as an admission that they will not add a scorer by free agency or trade this summer. But the focus on improving the current players is something that has to happen regardless of whether they get outside scoring help. I think he’s right to push Kopitar to match up against the top centers in the league. He’s no longer an unknown, teams key on him, and he’s going to have to be able to dominate despite that.

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