Those who have been readers for a while know that I relish Dean Lombardi interviews for two reasons: (1) They are generally very insightful and (2) they often require a breakdown of what was said to understand Dean’s perspective. Dean doesn’t have a “yes” and “no”, ok next question, mentality. Even leading questions draw us into explanations and we have kept track of these in our Quotable Lombardi page.
Fortunately, I speak fluent Dean and I have broken down after each answer the translated version of Dean’s words. This includes what he states, answers in the form of a question (which is a cue that it is an issue with which he is wrestling) and insinuates by his choice of words. As always, thanks to Rich Hammond for the interview. Enjoy.
Question: How do you recognize the difference between a temporary slump and a bigger problem? Coaches point to specific things that players need to improve, but when do you worry that a team might have wider concerns, and are you concerned about that right now?
LOMBARDI: “No, not at all. I think part of it is just because of the way the league is. Things were going our way. We were playing well early, but things were also going our way. For the most part, during this period, we’ve come out ready to play. I can’t think of any game — Chicago, Columbus, Ottawa — we’ve always come out pretty good. Then, throughout this slump, something goes against us, whether it’s questionable calls, like Ottawa, or you’re not getting bounces, like Chicago, with pucks going in off gloves. Then, at critical moments, everything is so tight and Spezza beats you in Ottawa and Nash beats you. Other than the Montreal game, we’ve been in every game, and all of the games could have been won, or at least we could have got a point. Before, we were riding the wave. Stoll’s goal goes in off a stick, and things are going our way.”
TRANSLATION: There is a lot of parity in the NHL. We were playing well and getting lucky early on. Lately, we have played good enough to win but haven’t gotten the breaks. We shit the bed in Montreal but that was it.
LOMBARDI ANSWER CONTINUED: “Probably, to answer your question, they’ve shown they have the ability. When you start to worry is when you think the guys don’t have the mental fortitude to fight through it, and I think they do. They’ve shown it to me before. They’ve got themselves, now, with even higher expectations. They’re in a rut right now, and they have to fight their way through it. So to answer your question, overall, it’s probably when you get that sense that they don’t believe they can get it done, and I’m not ready to say that. Like I said, I look at almost every game — Ottawa, even Montreal, until the third goal — and we came out pretty good. It’s just that things aren’t going your way, and now we’ve got to fight through it. Too bad, because things were going our way early. So it’s another one of those tests, like I’ve always talked about. Them, as young players, getting better as hockey players, there’s the part of becoming mentally tough. This is another test for them.”
TRANSLATION: We have the talent to win and, as of now, I base my belief that we are mentally tough enough to do so on what the team did last season. This season, I don’t know, we’ll see. I am not ready to say it’s not there. It’s unfortunate this has happened now because I am not sure the team was ready for it but the team has to get mentally tough and fight through it.
Question: We’ve talked, in the past couple years, about young teams that have success one season and then dip the following season. St. Louis last year, for instance. Does that start to come into play here?
LOMBARDI: “Well, I’ve said this before. This started last year, when they put the expectations on themselves in January. Now, the expectations have really risen, and you come out 12-3 and the expectations go up another notch. But I don’t care. Like I said, it’s all a part of building mental toughness. I believe it’s in them. It’s no different than learning to protect the puck better. They’ve got to learn mental toughness. They’re not going to learn it without adversity. When things are going your way, like early in the year, that’s easy. Now they’ll find out how tough they are, and I believe they’re going to get through it.”
TRANSLATION: Making the playoffs put a rising expectation on the team. Coming out 12-3 this season took it to another level. But right now, I don’t care about expectations. We have other issues. Right now, it’s about dealing with this adversity. They got the breaks early on and some of the wins were easy. Now, not so much. We will see if they can handle this or not.
Question: Is that simply on each individual player? Or do team leaders have extra responsibility there? Coaches?
LOMBARDI: “No. Every player. Every player has got his own challenge, within the team. But that’s on every player. If they’re going to win anything that matters, that’s the way it has to be. Every player has got to be accountable, first to himself, looking at himself in the mirror. Then he’s got to be accountable to his teammates, and it ends there. If you’ve got that, you’ll be fine. More than fine.”
TRANSLATION: I am not going to answer your question about coaches. As for the players, each one first has to reconcile whether they are willing to take personal responsibility as a contributing factor to this slump and once they have acknowledged that in the affirmative, then they need to get better on the ice. If each player can do that, we’ll get through this. If not, we may not.
Question: Terry has used seven guys in that first-line left-wing spot. Two of them have been rookies and the current guy is playing on his off wing. At what point do you need to look at that and address it from outside?
LOMBARDI: “That was the other area we looked at in the summer. The emergence of the young players — and I still maintain what I said — is the hallmark of this team. It’s about the best young players getting better, and your core starting to develop and becoming winners. That’s No. 1, and we know who those young players are. Then you’ve got your veterans, in terms of their fit and their character. So we addressed that this summer, but now they’re out of the lineup. The other hole you had was the Parse hole, the skill player. Once we found out that Parse was going to be out for four months, we’ve been looking. That guy [Parse], with that skill set, we wanted to give him a long look. We were able to fill the Mitchell and Ponikarovsky holes, so we wanted to say, `OK, let’s give this kid a good, long look, because he’s got the skill set that’s necessary to be a pro.’ Then he goes out early, right from day one of training camp. The kids in the minors, we tried Loktionov there, and God bless him… We’ve been looking.”
TRANSLATION: We tried to get a first-line left wing in the summer and failed. That failure meant the young players, especially the top ones (read Kopitar, Brown, Simmonds, Doughty, Johnson, Quick) had to elevate their game to make up for that need. The veterans had to play their role and lead. We added a key one in Willie Mitchell and another in Ponikarovsky but have lost them to injury so we lost that leadership. We were hoping Parse would fill that left wing spot but his injury which we did not expect has forced us to re-evaluate and start shopping for a left wing forward. We are looking at potential trades now. We tried to fill that position with players like Loktionov and the other kids but as hard as they tried, they aren’t ready.
LOMBARDI ANSWER CONTINUED: “But we also went through that period with Parse, where it was, `Is he going to play?’ Since he had the surgery, it’s fair to say we have been looking to fill that hole. All of those holes, ironically, are ones that we felt we had filled in the summer. Now they’re all out of the lineup. So, on the other hand, it’s telling me that those guys are really good fits. Because we were doing well when they were in the lineup. We got through it without Doughty for a while. Now, if you look at it, all of the holes we cited, during the summer, as being important, are all open again. Then when happens? Just what you said. Now you’re playing a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old. King was in the East Coast league. God bless him, but this time last year he was in the East Coast league. Those kids have done a good job. Even last night, with Clifford and Lewie, that’s kind of a higher level for them than we thought. But for the most part, they’re doing a good job. But they’re still in that stage, where they’re finding their way in the league. To pin it on them, that’s not the way you want to go.”
TRANSLATION: Parse’s injury put us at square one for the left wing position. Mitchell’s injury tells us that we don’t have the depth we had hoped on defense. Poni’s injury tells us that we don’t have the depth at the shut down wing position. The plan was working until the injuries. We were winning when they were in the lineup. But we are the same team as last season with the same problems now with the injuries. We have nobody from within that can fill these holes. The kids are just not ready to do it, though they have tried hard to do so.
Question: Are you concerned about the play of Doughty and Johnson?
LOMBARDI: “You know what? If this was 15 years ago, I would be, but I’ve just seen it too much. It’s one thing for guys to play in the league, and it’s one thing for them to have success, and now, going to that next level, to become a top player, it’s the hardest. I’ve seen it with so many young players. You’ve got to believe that, deep down, they’re good people and they’re competitive people and they’re going to figure it out. It’s a tough position to play. It’s a lot harder for a player to have had success, and then push it to the next level and really be a top dog, than it is, mentally, to make the league. There is enormous responsibility on them. The other guy [Mitchell] being out, it hurts the fit. But yeah, we’re counting on them. So if you’re asking me if I’m nervous, no. Because I’ve seen this too many times before with young players. What you have to come back to is, do you believe in them as people, first of all? And then do you believe in them as players? There’s no question that I believe in both of them. They’re too good of players, and they’ll figure it out.”
TRANSLATION: I was initially but I have persuaded myself through my long experience that this kind of crap happens with young stars. I have seen too many kids in this league go through it. I want to believe they will figure it out and get their heads out of their asses. The fact they are defensemen makes it harder. Losing Mitchell has made it harder because he is not there to bring stability and take responsibility from Doughty or Johnson. I am asking questions though. Do I believe them to be good people and have the character I expect? I wouldn’t ask this question if it wasn’t an issue. Do I believe them to be good players? For now, my answer is yes. They have a lot of talent and that will help get them through this.
LOMBARDI ANSWER CONTINUED: “Don’t forget, the learning curve is not only physical, it’s mental. There are lifestyle changes that they go through. You see this in the NBA all the time. And they’ll get through it. That stuff that they’ve done, it doesn’t go away. But they’ve got to learn, like a lot of pros, to be consistent. When things aren’t going your way, don’t try to do too much. Now, on the other hand, I kind of like the fact that they take responsibility, but you’ve still got to play within yourself and not force things. Again, that’s a part of growth. Stay with it, stay with it, pick your spots. You don’t learn that overnight, particularly in that position. So, no, I’m not concerned about them at all. I think, probably, part of it is that I’ve seen the other side. That’s how Chris Pronger gets traded. Chris Chelios gets traded. You think, `Why is this happening?’ and you think, `Oh, I’ve got to get nervous.’ No. I’ve seen it too many times. Al MacInnis, the struggles he went through in Calgary before he won the Norris Trophy. Ray Bourque. They all went through it. Now, I’d like them to get through it faster…”
TRANSLATION: Remember also that we are in Southern California and these are young kids. They have money and the chics are coming in flocks. It’s just like the NBA and all of their youth and the trouble they get into. Doughty and Johnson have to learn to keep that crap off the ice. They are also forcing the play and trying to do too much out there. They need to play a simple defensive game. I am not ready to give up on them yet. I saw Chris Pronger and Chris Chelios go through it. Same with Al MacInnis and Ray Borque. They all got through it. Johnson and Doughty need to get their act together and get through it as well, preferably sooner than the others did because I don’t want to trade either of them.