A roundup of Lamoriello’s media hits with TSN Overdrive, Prime Time Sports, and his conference call following the announcement of Nikita Zaitsev’s seven-year contract extension.
Take us through the process and why the numbers and specifically the term made sense for your team.
Lamoriello: First of all, I’ve always said — and people are a little surprised when I say this – whenever you sign a contract over a certain number of years, it’s always too long and it’s always for too much money. Unfortunately, there is leverage. In this case, it’s very similar to a free agent. He can go back to where he was. He was a very prominent player there. They wanted [him]. Maybe, if it’s a year more [than it should be] – which we don’t think it is – so be it. He’s in his prime. He’s right in the wheelhouse of the core of the people we have. We feel that this is a fair salary for the overall picture of what we have to plan for when the players come out of entry-level; players who will be demanding certain dollars.
That option to go back to where was playing before was potentially an option here. The Olympics may have factored in as well. Did that come up at all, the idea of him taking a year off and going home so he could play in the Olympics?
Lamoriello: There was never any discussion about the Olympics. It was never a topic. It was simply about him playing here in Toronto, playing in the NHL. I honestly never would’ve gotten into a conversation about the Olympics.
Does he remind you of Rafalski at all?
Lamoriello: Yes, he does. Similar age as when he came over. Brian was in Wisconsin undrafted and then went to Europe and we were fortunate that we were able to get him. He played very well over there and then came over. Yes, they have similar qualities, similar traits. I know what Brian went through in his first year and how he developed, and I think we all know the success that Brian had.
Zaitsev will be 26 in October. How much improvement do you expect from him this upcoming season?
Lamoriello: I think we certainly do expect improvement just by the experience he went through; just by learning the players, learning the style, the smaller rink he wasn’t used to. There are a lot of things that will allow him to get better. Also, he handled a lot of minutes, especially in the early going. He was used in all situations until the latter part of the year when some of our other players started to play a lot better. Mike relied on him heavily in key situations. He played against the top lines. Experience is going to help him. Plus, years ago, we used to say defencemen never really developed until they were 26-27. Now, with the world we live in, because we have to push them along a lot more quickly because of the free agency, we think they are a little older than they should be. He’s a skater. He’s not somebody who is going to hit the wall. We feel very good about it. There is no question he is going to get better.
Your salary cap situation starts to improve dramatically now as some contracts to some older guys fall off and you have some options. Some of that will go to players like Zaitsev. How much flexibility do you have this year and how much money do you have to spend if you want to go out there and really improve your team? Or are you more likely to be restrained for a little while and avoid getting yourself in long-term entanglements after just getting out of salary cap trouble?
Lamoriello: I think the plan that is in place – in fact I know, I don’t think – of having that five-year plan that changes every day is real. We have to look at the people that we have in our organization. We look at — whether they are A player or B players or C players, without names – what their expectations will be at a certain time when they come out of an entry-level, with what potentially the salary will be. Whatever decisions are made, you have to have the big pictures. You want to sustain success for a period of time. We’ve all felt that, once you get your roster to a certain period, history tells us you have about a ten-year run at it because of where the core players are in their age factor. You can supplement and complement it here and there, but you need to maintain the core you have. You have to be careful.
I know we’re not going to get off the plan. Yes, we did make the playoffs. We also know it is going to be extremely difficult next year. We are not going to rush to try to jump-start it for some short return. It’s not going to take much to be restraining because it’s the right thing to do. We’re going to have to have that orchestra playing and try to keep it the right way. The conductor has to keep his back to that audience and not let them influence him in any way whatsoever.
He’s not going to overwhelm you with flash but that steady presence that he brings – is that a key to you with his game?
Lamoriello: No question. You can see the way he was used by our coaching staff. He’s in a unique category as far as his he can be used and how he’s trusted and can really play in all situations if necessary, although that it isn’t what you want to have any defenceman do. You want to have him maybe with two out of the three but not three out of the three [game strengths].
With the term of the deal at seven years and the cap hit at $4.5, do you feel that, with what you saw in Nikita’s game in his first year in the NHL, that down the road as this contact progresses, he could be performing at a level that would in some minds suggest he could be underpaid?
Lamoriello: I don’t ever want to look at anything as underpaid or overpaid. We just felt that this was a fair cap contract — plus the cash end of it, in the way it’s structured – and we could get the maximum benefit out of it with where we’re going to be at a given time when our younger players get to a point where they get out of their entry-level. It is a fair contract, but it is also cap friendly as you said.
A couple of years ago, Mike Babcock was mentioning that he wanted to make this a destination for players. Do you feel, especially with Nikita signing long term, you’re making some progress there? That this is a place where you can attract some free agents to stay?
Lamoriello: I think what Mike said is correct. I think that this year was certainly a platform year for the organization for the direction it is going and also what the commitment is from ownership to success. I agree with that, without question.
A lot of people would look at your roster and say you’re set in a lot of positions but that the defence is a work in progress. Would you be looking for help down the road, either this summer or sooner rather than later at the high end of the defence or the bottom end? Top four or bottom two?
Lamoriello: No matter where you’re at, if you can get better, you can get better. There will be a focus on that end of it with the defence. I think that, right now, we certainly have three individuals under contract in Gardiner, Rielly and Zaitsev right now that bring a certain style and certain dimension. We have a couple of younger players and then we have a couple of free agents that we have to make decisions on. I think we have to add to that group and not make decisions just for simply adding. They have to be people who can come in and help. I think we’ve got one or two players in the minors that we are going to take a real good look at it – one in particular. We definitely are looking at that. I don’t think it’s anything that’s not obvious.
How did you arrive at seven yeas as the right term, instead of three or four or five? Why was seven the right number?
Lamoriello: There are two sides to the table in negotiations and contracts. This is what we felt he needed. We felt it was fair about it. Would six be better? Who knows? But it’s seven. These types of decisions are made for a lot of different reasons.
Where do you think specifically he can still get better?
Lamoriello: First of all, with experience. Different parts of his game. Learning the style of play that is played during the playoffs. Getting used to the smaller ice surface. Even though he played 80-plus games, it’s still the first year. His hockey sense isn’t going to get any better; that’s right up there on the top. He’s just going to get experience and strength as far as how you use your body. I went through that with a player in New Jersey – very similar – named Brian Rafalski. I look at similarities there.