Lou Lamoriello joined Prime Time Sports for an in-depth interview with Bob McCown and Damien Cox, touching on Auston Matthews’ All Star nod, the progress of Mitch Marner, plans for the deadline, the acquisition of Curtis McElhinney, and more.
Pretty good start to the season for the Maple Leafs, and we’ll get into that in a bit. But Auston Matthews is in the news. Damien and I were just talking about Laine’s injury and what that might mean in terms of the rookie-of-the-year situation. Damien thinks Auston was ahead of Laine, in his opinion at least, already. Depending on how long Laine is out, it may not even be a race. But he gets named to the All Star team. It’s not just a good honour – a great honour – but for a 19-year-old it’s an extraordinary honour. But it’s reported that you’re not sure that this is a good thing for him. Is that true?
Lou Lamoriello: [laughs] No, it’s not true. I really can appreciate the presumptuousness of how people feel and they don’t feel. I think everybody forgot that I had a previous rookie All Star who also ended up winning the Calder in a given year – Scott Gomez.
So the All Star game is not an issue for you?
Lamoriello: It is not. Absolutely not.
One of the things that has come up is your preference in terms of media availability for rookies. Would it be fair to say that you think that they shouldn’t be treated exactly the same in some other ways as veteran players?
Lamoriello: I would say that to the degree that they should be allowed to grow. It’s our responsibility to bring them along, to make sure that we can take away as many distractions as we can, and yet never lose sight of what their responsibility is as a player and what their responsibility is to the media. There is a growing part of it. That’s not something that is any different today, nor do I think it should be any different tomorrow. I think it’s just part of maturity. It’s no different than the ice time. It’s no different than how they grow as a player. As you go on, more and more is done. But access has been, as far as I know, to the highest level.
To you, it’s not about that they should be deferring to veteran players. In your mind, it is about protecting them but also developing them in the way that you think is best?
Lamoriello: That is correct, yes. I think that there is history to this. There is a background to it. I don’t think it’s any different. Everyone has a different way of doing things, but it’s development — development off the ice, development with the media, development on the ice. It’s all a process of getting a foundation so that they can have success. You just lead the way. They determine how much they can get and how much they cannot get.
What do you think a young player like Matthews will learn, can learn, can absorb, can benefit from by attending an All Star game, given the format we have today? Is it important? Is it a long term thing? Is it a tangible thing?
Lamoriello: I think there are more intangibles involved than tangibles. I think when someone like Auston goes to an All Star game there are a lot of players there – in fact, most of the players – that he has been watching growing up as he’s been maturing as an individual. He’ll have an opportunity to see how they handle themselves. He’ll be able to see first hand what the results are of how they handle themselves, how they speak, how the humility is, what affects them… I think there is a tremendous amount that you can take from there as far as a learning process and development. He’s a very mature individual. I’ve said many times over the years, but I’ve had a 32 or 33-year-old who is going on 18 and I’ve had some 18 or 19-year-olds going on 28. So he’s a mature individual. He will absorb. He will soak it in. It will be a benefit to him because he’ll also see how people respond to questions, how they act in the public, how they act and interact as far as superstars together. I think it’s going to be a tremendous benefit for him.
So it’s more about the off-ice stuff than it is that 60 minutes of game time, or whatever it is?
Lamoriello: Oh, I believe so.
It has been impressive, Lou, how he has – it seems from the outside – so easily handled what I call the white noise of Toronto — all the voices, all the media, all the people. He’s handled it very, very well. In your mind, were you at all concerned going into the season as to how he would handle the attention of being a number one pick and a number one pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Lamoriello: You never know, but I was very comfortable because I had several sit down meetings with Auston prior to the draft and certainly after the draft and certainly in preseason. I also had spent a considerable amount of time with his mom and dad and his two sisters when Auston wasn’t there and when Auston was there. I had an idea of what his background was, the way he handled himself and interacted with his parents and all of the others who were in that. You felt very comfortable with his maturity. The other thing is I felt very comfortable because of the people that we have here — Mike and the staff. Also, we had a lot of other young players who were going through the same process who were here before and who Auston did know, whether he played against him or just through training camp or through junior. There was a benefit. But do you know exactly what will transpire and what will not? How will he respond to criticism? How will he respond to success? All of those things are in due course. He’s handled all of this extremely well.
The last time you were on, we were talking about Auston and Marner and the young players, and how things were sort of on line and coming together. It was probably going to be a slower process. The team was playing well at times, coughing up some leads, but then they go on this little run. They are a much better team right now than they were a month ago or two months ago for sure. I wonder how that affects – I’m not going to say changes – your thinking moving forward? If this team in March is a playoff team or in a race for a playoff position – and it appears they very well might be – I’m interested in the kind of conversations you and your guys have. Do you not change the direction you’re going, not change the big picture, but tweak it a bit? Do you have those discussions, or are you committed to a long-term build no matter what?
Lamoriello: I think the way you phrased that you went right around in a circle and came back to the beginning. The foundation of what we are trying to establish is creating a program where the success, when it comes about, can be sustained for a period of time. That is developing your core players and establishing who they are. We haven’t seen who they are yet. We’ve only had a small sample of some 40 games, and where the veterans fit in – who have been outstanding to this point in the season. The improvement of the younger players really is because of how the veterans have been, the way they’ve handled the situation. They went through a lot last year. I think what we’re seeing is the growth of an organization as far as the players and coming together. They have been getting better and better. That’s because they’re very talented, they are getting more used to what Mike and his staff expects of them, and they’re responding to that and allowing their talents to take over. We have some very skillful players and we have some people who are hard working and blue collar. What you have to have to have success is a combination of all of them and getting them all to contribute and accept their roles, and getting the end result to take care of itself. That’s what we’re going through right now. Yes, we went on this run. Things were going well. Everyone was on their full cylinders. That’s what you need to do. And yet there will be peaks and valleys. We’re progressing. We can’t get ahead of ourselves, and yet we cannot be satisfied that we’re okay. The question answered as far as what will happen in March – we’ll let that take care of itself, but there will be nothing done for today that will interrupt the overall process of building something that can be sustained for a period of time.
So you know what your needs are and your needs are probably no different today than they were at the beginning of the year, and that would be your focus, would it not?
Lamoriello: It would be, but your needs really surface as you see what your capabilities are and what those people can do. That’s what we’re seeing right now. There are people who will be better than we felt they could be, which would allow you to look maybe a little different. It’s a changing situation. It’s day by day. I’ve said this for years – you always, in my opinion, have a five-year plan that changes every single day.
You made the kind of move today that you’d like to do which is add a veteran guy in an area of need at minimal cost – a backup goaltender, Curtis McElhinney. My question is what do you think he can bring, and why not let the kid Antoine Bibeau take that job? Was there just not going to be enough playing time for him?
Lamoriello: I think that where Antoine is right now—we would do him the best service and the organization to let him play in a real development time in his career. To play one game out of, say, five, even though he’s practicing…. Get him playing. Play every other day, or every day depending on how things are going, because he will be an NHL goaltender. We have tremendous confidence in him as we have in young Sparks. Now we had the opportunity to get a veteran who has had a reasonable, good year. There was a reason why Columbus made this decision – because of a young goaltender. Whatever their reasons were, we thought we knew why. He gives us a chance to add a veteran who is a character individual, who accepts the role that he’s in, and that takes some of the workload away from Freddie – which we have to do.
This is a tough question, and I don’t mean to put you on the spot by any stretch of the imagination. But here we go. We talked about Matthews. Everybody talks about Matthews. He’s an extraordinary talent and he’s got a chance to be a really, really special hockey player. The other first-round draft choice from the year before in Mitch Marner is proving to be every bit as good as I thought and I think Damien thought. I thought there was a lot of upside. How do you compare the two? How do you evaluate the two? Which of these two surprises you the most?
Lamoriello: First of all, I’m glad you brought Mitch up. He has played tremendous for us. He is getting better and better every game, as Auston is, as a lot of our young players have. He went through a maturing year in London last year from when I first met him and spent time with him back to the first interview when I was with another organization before the draft. I watched him grow and watched him handle himself in the Memorial Cup, and then he came and worked out very diligently during the summer and had a very good training camp. If you recall, we said that he has made the team. He is not on a trial basis. He deserves to be here. He has proven us right. He’s tremendously skilled, very talented, has elite hockey sense, and is an outstanding player. He will get better and better because, not unlike Auston or Willy or Connor or Zach or Nikita, they love the game. They want to be good. They absorb every day. You can push all of them as hard as you want. That’s what is so encouraging about these young players. They have a burning desire to have success. They are not satisfied. They are not reading press clippings. They are team people. They don’t have their name mixed up with the logo, and that to me is why… and Mitch is one of those. He has the talent to take him as far as he wants to go.
Does Marner remind you of anybody, Lou?
Lamoriello: I hate to ever compare or remind or look at that. I want them to be their own individuals. I rather not get into that.
I just mean style wise. We think of Matthews… Matthews is highly skilled, he can score goals, he might score 40 this year as a rookie, which is extraordinary. But, on the other hand, Marner could get 42-50 assists, which would set an all-time Maple Leaf record for rookies. Their skillsets are slightly different; maybe dramatically different. I just wonder if there is another player out there that has had a similar kind of skillset.
Lamoriello: I don’t think I have somebody in mind. But what they both have is a common denominator – they have the ability to make the other people around them better.
Could you see the two of them playing together at some point in their careers, and would it be electric?
Lamoriello: I’ll leave that up to the coaching staff.