Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Dean Lombardi shouldn't be dismissed out of hand

Published by, 4-24-2017

There's a lot of cringing going on in Buffalo at the thought of former Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi being considered for a spot in the Sabres front office. Lombardi built a team in LA that won the Kings their first-ever Stanley cup in 2012 and followed up two years later with another one.

The emotional rebukes of Lombardi amongst Sabres fans are running the gamut from his team-building is already archaic to his mismanagement of the Kings salary cap.

Lombardi's Cup-winning formula was anchored by strong goaltending from Jonathan Quick and a strong defense lead by perennial All-Star and Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty. Up-front he built a heavy, Western Conference-style team predicated on puck-possession and driven by chip-and-chase. When they were on their game, you couldn't get their big bodies off you or get the puck away from them.

Lately the trend in the NHL has been towards quicker and often times smaller lineups of skilled players who hit overdrive as they fly up and down the ice. The Tampa Bay Lightning with a smaller, fast and skilled team made it to the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals using that model and the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup last year using that style of play. Other teams in that vein include the Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets.

All of these teams have had success over the last two seasons with the Lightning and Peguins doing their thing the past two seasons and the Flames, Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Jackets making the playoffs this year after missing last season, although they were all bounced in the first round.

I'd like to think that former Sabres GM Tim Murray had the Kings on his mind when he began his tenure in January, 2014, but it looked as if he tried to alter in mid-flight as his last presser talked about speed and aggressiveness. This past season Sabres fans didn't know what style we were watching as too many factors lead to egregious inconsistencies that often left us scratching our heads. Nobody from management on down seemed to be on the same page and it's been rumored that when Murray was asked by ownership about his team, he had no answers.

That Murray was leaning Western Conference-style ala the Kings and it faltered could be reason enough for fans to be skeptical about Lombardi, the architect of those teams. However, look at how the 2017 playoffs have unfolded.

The Chicago Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups without premier goalies but had forces up front in superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews as well as a future Hall-of-Famer on the back-end in Ducan Keith. Their superstar core remained in tact and they got timely goaltending and are considered a dynasty in the Cap-era. However, the Hawks got swept this year by Nashville. How did the Preds not only break Chicago's playoff dominance over them, but do so in a four-game sweep? Goaltending. Pekka "976" Rinne shut down one of the best cores in hockey allowing them only three goals while finishing with a sterling 0.70 GAA and .976 Sv%.

Why did the Pittsburgh Penguins run over the Columbus Blue Jackets? Marc-Andre Fleury was rock solid in net posting some of the best numbers of his playoff career while superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin smoked the Jackets to the tune of 11 goals and 18 points in five games. Conversely, Columbus goalie Sergei "Bob" Bobrovsky, a 2017 Vezina finalist, was terrible with a 3.88 GAA and .882 Sv%.

St. Louis goalie Jake Allen posted a .956 Sv% as the Blues got by a good regular season team in the Minnesota Wild while a Anaheim combo of John Gibson and Jonathan Bernier throttled the whiz kids from Calgary in a four-game sweep. Any kind of goaltending could have helped the Flames as Brian Elliot was worse than Bob posting the same 3.88 GAA but a slightly worse .880 Sv%.

How did the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs push an extremely talented and deep Washington Capitals team to a six-game series including five overtimes? Timely goaltending from Fredrik Andersen plus a four-game goal-streak from up-and-coming superstar Auston Matthews. The Caps overcame a torrent of flying Leafs with solid, if unspectacular goaltending from Brayden Holtby and gusty performances from its stars and superstars, of which they have quite a few.

Having playoff-caliber goaltending and/or having superstars in the lineup are strong indicators of playoff success. Good coaching doesn't hurt either. In Edmonton, the Oilers only got four points (2+2) from superstar Connor McDavid but with all the attention paid to him, others on the team were put in positions to make an impact, as in former Sabre Zack Kassian's two game-winning goals.

No matter what era you're in, goaltending and superstar power are almost always closely related to success.

The Sabres have some of that formula right now in the form of Jack Eichel and they have some complimentary pieces around him. They also have a No. 1 goalie and thank God there aren't any shootouts in the playoffs.

I get the extreme apprehension when talking about bringing in Lombardi but he does have a few pieces in place with which to build a winner. And he's proven he can build one. Is he married to a Western Conference-style of play that would make it difficult for the team to get into the playoffs? Maybe, but we don't know for sure. He was locked into those big contracts, which were his fault, no doubt, so he was locked into that style of play as well.

And before we go off on the cap-mess he's in, success is the reason he's in that situation. The Blackhawks have been in that same pickle but have managed to wiggle their way out the last couple of years, but eventually success, and the top price one must pay to keep those who lead to that success are gonna get to you in a salary cap world.

What we do know is that he seems to like to build from the goal out, which isn't such a bad idea as the more the league changes, the more it seems to stay the same, at least in the playoffs. We also know that he has one burgeoning superstar in Eichel plus a host of complimentary players that look as if they'll be able to have an impact. And maybe most important at this juncture is that the new GM in Buffalo will have a ton on his plate from the get-go, and Lombardi has the experience as well as th connections throughout the NHL well to get the job done.t

In Buffalo, we shouldn't be putting the carriage before the horse. Before you can win multiple Cups, you need to win one and before you can even think of a Cup-run, you need to get into the playoffs.
That's why I won't dismiss out of hand a GM who built a first-time Cup-winning team.

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