Dean Lombardi Q & A: On Nic Dowd, Kevin Gravel, Michael Mersch & Derek Forbort
Lombardi expands on Dowd, Gravel, Mersch & Forbort's auditions in LA this year + why Kings development model still works + makes obligatory football and baseball references + talks how Reign/Monsters parallels Kings/Sharks in 2014
Jewels from the Crown: Do you see similar parallels between this Reign-Monsters series and 2014 against the Sharks? Down 3-0, beaten in uncharacteristic ways, feels like the team hasn't played close to their best yet?
Dean Lombardi: Not really because the first two games in San Jose that year, we were completely outplayed.
I think it's different too in a sense that because minor league team personnel changes. One of the burdens of any team is expectations. So a lot of times, that changes because there's so much change in personnel...with the NHL level, you might not have that.
But that said, the parallels are how you handle it. I know it's a cliche, but you gotta take one game at a time, obviously. But that's just reality. And as you move up through the process, you can start seeing momentum shift.
So I don't know if it's parallel to getting down 3-0. Because like I said, we were badly outplayed in San Jose that series. I don't think that was the case, those first two games [here]. Those first two games were in San Jose versus the first two games were in Ontario.
I think last night, obviously, was our worst game. I think there's an element there...I think one of the things that shows up is they're not used to making the three-hour timezone change. Because nobody had any real legs last night.
But I think where you find a parallel is if you're going to get back into it, like I said, it is a cliche, but you stick with it and momentum starts to shift. The thing is, you got enough guys out there, that know how to win. They've been there before. So that certainly helps a lot in terms of understanding what it takes to win a series.
One of differences is that we have some younger guys that won last time that didn't have the same roles, right? They were kind of in a lesser role, and now they're in bigger roles. So it takes more responsibility on them. So I think there are some parallels, but I think it's more the issue of how you get out of it.
JFTC: What are some individual player impressions from this Reign playoff run so far?
DL: You look at it as a team as a whole. It's very different when you evaluate players down here. You got the issue of whenever you're trying to develop players, winning is a part of that. Learning and winning...how to win, that's a thing you can't map out on paper like goals and assists, but the effect upon a player in his development cycle of understanding the importance of winning and putting them into situations when they're under pressure to win.
So you're kind of seeing how guys respond. And like I said, seeing how some of these guys respond now being down 3-0, with this type of adversity, certainly goes into the mix as far as where you have some of these players.
But that said too, don't forget, you're looking at a body of work. So when you evaluate a player here, it's not only how he's playing now, it's how far he's come. Where was he last year at this time? Then there's the projections: Is there still upside? Is there things that he can get better at?
So, you got to be careful about just looking at a snapshot at this level. Because you've got a dual role which you don't have with the big club, which is, here is winning, but it's also making sure players develop who can help up top, where up top is all about winning. So, we'll see.
JFTC: Are you pleased with the response that you've seen so far from the players?
DL: Well, I think [Thursday night] is the big test. I think certainly, first two rounds, they showed a lot. They were clearly on their game. I think the other thing that happens, they don't see a team like this, a very good team we're playing, so it catches them a little off-guard, in terms of some of [Lake Erie's] speed and skill. But [Ontario] showed in the first two games when they get in their game, playing hard, playing heavy, which is a signature copy of our organization, that they can be successful. You just can't have the lapses. Part of that too is, I think, having a little more respect for the opposition, understanding what you're up against. Clearly, they know that now.
JFTC: What were your thoughts of Dowd, Gravel, Mersch, and Forbort's auditions with LA this year?
DL: I think what you're looking at there is see how quickly they can adapt. It's a huge step, just like when these guys go from junior or college to here is a huge step. And up there, it's the biggest step.
You're very seldom as a player come up and make a difference, even the top guys that we've had come through our system...Voynov, Muzzin, Toffoli, Pearson, the whole slew of them. Jonathan Quick.
You don't expect a player to come up and take over a game, be the dominant player. And they're also in a different role, right? Their ice time isn't unconditional. So you're just looking for little signs that they're capable of adapting and looking for parts of their game that easily translates up there.
So again, it's not that you're lessening your expectations for them. It's just, you gotta be careful, you know, that there's a process here.
So you see a kid like Mersch, yeah, he only has three points [in the NHL]. But you're looking to see, is he involved in battles? Is he making his plays off the walls? Where does he get exposed because of the speed and size up there versus down here? Those are the things too, that when the off-season comes, you have to work on.
So all those kids showed enough where they're capable of...you see enough where you say, "They can probably fill a role up here someday." But there's an issue of timing, when they're ready for it, how much they can handle.
The other thing that happens to these kids that's always been a mistake in the National Hockey League, I think, and it's started to change...I feel that nobody has ever failed from being overprepared. You see it in quarterbacks in the NFL. Like the whole thing about throwing guys in because they're top picks and people say, "Well, he's better than the guy there." That's not the issue.
The issue is maximizing that player and preparing for him to be that guy. So to just go on the stance, "Well,why isn't he called up? He's better than the veteran you've got there." No. It's about making sure that he has a foundation in place to clearly exceed that player someday, even though he might be a little better now.
If you put him in an environment he's not ready for? And you destroy his confidence and everything? You ruin him. Like I said, there's no better example than what I see in the NFL, the way, the trend is to say, "Well, Johnny Manziel is better than that guy, so play him." No. He's not ready to be that. It's about making him the star. And that doesn't entail throwing him to the wolves out there.
It's a process where you gotta push these guys and put expectations on them. But you gotta understand it's a process that like anything else in life...it's going to be like this. And when you're down like this, you gotta make sure you can pull 'em up. Otherwise, you're just going to go down, down, and destroy 'em, and what happens? Sometimes, they need a fresh start. They gotta go somewhere else. They lose confidence in themselves. You need to make sure you stay away from that.
JFTC: From the players I just mentioned, what's the "little thing" you can point to for each of them that impressed you? That you think will translate to the NHL?
DL: Well, I don't think there's any question, like when you saw Dowd come up and play that game in Minnesota. Within two shifts, he dominated a shift, drew a penalty, was all over the puck. So you see that, now the issue becomes, okay, you're all wired up and things. And that's good, you should be. But you gotta be able to sustain that at this level. So that jump and juice that you're showing there because it's your first game in the National Hockey League, you gotta be at that tempo all the time. And that's something too, at this level, he has to take more responsibility for winning. And he's done a lot of that. He's made great progress. So his audition, so to speak, you saw a lot of good things. But I'm also cognizant that once they get a little comfortable, you have to make sure that slacking back and not taking it as seriously as you were...has to go.
Gravel was same thing. You saw some good things with him. He did some things that...everybody talks about how he caught that guy from Calgary with his speed. The problem is, he made a mistake in the neutral zone. The beauty of it was he has the skill level to actually come back and catch a guy like that. He moves extremely well. Well, let's not cause that fire drill in the first place. His ability to go back and get pucks...it's very different at the NHL level. They're bigger, stronger, faster...not that it's not hard down here too. But you saw enough of him to say, "You know, that's a pretty good play. Now you gotta make it seven out of 10 times."
Talking about Mersch's goal in Edmonton. There he is, he's in front of the net. He's just a junkyard dog around the crease. His game below the dots clearly translated to the NHL level. On the other hand, that play he made last night, right? In the neutral zone, he turns it over. Can't have that. So that's what you look and say, "Okay, we've got to make sure that this kid is batting a .1000 when he makes that play to the center." Because as you saw last night, that happens in the NHL level, a coach is going to be sitting him on the bench.
So again, there were all signs with these kids when they did come up.
Derek Forbort, he's got a lot of good qualities. He's clearly improved. But the thing is, he's gotta find that M.O....you kind of look at guys, and say, "Okay, what NHL player has had success [like him]?" You kind of look at him at times, and say, "Could he be a Scuderi?" [Scuderi's] had a 15-year career. And what is he? He's just solid, makes plays to his partner consistently, plays long. Derek's got a really good stick now. When he came out of college, he really struggled with that. His gaps are so much better than they were. And that could easily translate some if he takes the next step into a Scuderi who's had a 15-year career and has three Stanley Cups.
So...going back to what I originally said, they all showed signs of what they could do. The thing you look at too is, a kid comes through, is he ready for the next challenge? And I think we're starting to see some of these kids who are getting called up, that's the case. Well, now whether they're capable of being "it," well, you judge it here. What they do in the summer is critical. And then they're ready to graduate to the next class. But whether you're going to go from a junior to a senior depends on whether you can pass that course, that you're ready for it.