Toronto Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello sat down with TSN’s Pierre Lebrun during draft combine week.
The draft combine and the evolution of this event — what do you make of it?
Lamoriello: We both know — we go back a few years — it certainly brings everybody on an equal footing. I think it gives everybody an opportunity to see the same things, have the same period of time to interview. The way the league has formulated this, there is just a certain amount of testing. Everyone gets the same information, whereas years ago you were able to bring players in individually and spend some time with them over a period of a couple of days and test them with whatever protocol you wanted. I think, like the parity in the league, there is parity in information today.
What do you look for when you talk to these young men? What is it that you’re looking for from them, generally speaking?
Lamoriello: I can only speak for myself. I’m pretty much a bystander in the room. This is the scouts’ day and week, and [it’s certainly their] draft day. All of the effort is put in by them and the number of times they see people in the interviews. So what you try to do — that is myself — is absorb as much as I can on the questions that are asked, the profiles I read before coming in here, and also the information that our scouts have briefed us with — in particular Mark Hunter — as far as who the players are as players and as people. I think that’s what you’re trying to do is tie that together and see what you get out of it, and occasionally ask a question that you feel comfortable with.
You have the 17th overall pick. Of course, the age-old debate at the draft is taking the best player available or picking by positional need. It’s well-documented that you are a team that hopes to get better on the backend as time goes on here, but how do you think things will fall as you get to that 17th pick in terms of that debate?
Lamoriello: I’ve always felt, without question, that you always take the best player available because you can never have enough quality players. Now, if it was a call between two equal players, then you would look at a position and have a choice. When it’s the best player by some sense, I don’t think you should have a choice.
How difficult is it, though, to go out and upgrade your blue line in an offseason in which it is clear there is a long list of teams that have identified wanting to upgrade their blue line as a top priority, and yet there are not that many teams actually selling defencemen? There is a market imbalance. How do you navigate through that?
Lamoriello: That’s a great question. If I had an answer, then we’d have a solution. Like the old proverb, there is supply and there is demand. For certain positions right now, there is more demand than there is supply so we’ll just have to do the best we can. We’re very comfortable with our defence, with our young players we’ve got coming, and also the addition of a couple of Swedish defencemen. We’ll just have to wait and see. I don’t feel you’re ever good enough in any position, provided you can get better without subtracting to make another hole. You never fill something by making another hole. So we’ll just have to wait and see.
You made an interesting comment at your end-of-season media availability when you said that one of the factors with Vegas coming into the league is that there may be players who suddenly become available that maybe you didn’t think were available, as sort of a domino effect on the market. Have you since then discovered, in your conversations, exactly that?
Lamoriello: We’ll just have to wait and see. You knew what you were going to get there.
What do you make of the Vegas factor, though? Certainly, it seems everything seems to be gravitating around George McPhee and the decisions he’s going to make here over the next few weeks. What do you make of that?
Lamoriello: Having been through some of the expansion drafts, it’s very similar. Being one team, as it is, is certainly different from that factor. But George has done an outstanding job. He’s put an outstanding staff together. They’ve been out on the field. Right now, until they get the lists from each and every team — like all of us, I’m sure they’ve put potential lists together on what people can and can’t do, knowing what the criteria is — I don’t think anything can and will happen. That window — the number of days that he has — is going to be very interesting between not only the expansion team but the [other] teams themselves.
The team doesn’t have a captain and it didn’t have a captain this past season. Is that something that you see the team addressing before next season, or is it something that can wait another year?
Lamoriello: Right now that isn’t something on the forefront. I think we’ve had tremendous leadership this year with a lot of young players. I don’t think that right now is something that is on the forefront or is being considered at this point. I would not be surprised if we did not have a captain next year.
You’ve got some players entering the final years of their contracts in Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov. Some teams like to extend those guys one year out so that they don’t enter their walk year with their contracts expiring. What is your philosophy on that?
Lamoriello: My philosophy is really not getting into any type of conversation on it until a decision is made as far as what we will or will not be doing. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t speaking to people. It’s just that I think that’s a private matter.
Curtis McElhinney ended the season as your backup goalie. He is a UFA on July 1st. What is your sense of the backup goalie position, whether it’s Curtis or someone else?
Lamoriello: First of all, I think it’s a very important position. I thought he did an outstanding job for us. No decision has been made at that position at this point. Certainly, not much can and will be done, I don’t think, until July 1. We are going to certainly fill that position, whether it’s with Curtis or whoever we feel is the right person that is available.
If we are sitting here 12 months ago and we’re able to see into the future and we see your young team surprise and make the playoffs, what would’ve been your reaction at that very moment?
Lamoriello: I think we could go right from the beginning of the year to, say, the middle of the year and where we found ourselves… if we would’ve looked back in September and said we are where we are today, we’d take that even though you never get satisfied. When we had a chance to get into the playoffs, would you take where we are rather than being 10 points into the playoffs? You certainly would.
There was a big unknown. After going through some 40 or 45 players the year before, and the job that Mike Babcock and the coaching staff did in getting the players in the first year to buy into what he was trying to create as far as an on-ice system and accountability… once those players came, we didn’t know what we were going to do with some of our younger players. We didn’t know that Mitch would make the team. We didn’t know how certain players would adjust after the year before. There were so many unknowns. They took jobs away from veterans that we took in trades for different reasons.
You have to feel very good about the season, and the players themselves have to feel very good about what they did and how they did it as a unit, how they trusted each other, and how the young players bought into everything that was asked of them on and off the ice; how they came together as a group and the effort that was put in through that first playoff series. As I said, you never get satisfied because when you do that, you get comfortable. But I thought, with the job that they did, they should feel very good about themselves. Right now, it’s time to look to the future. That’s in the past and you can’t rest on it.
You mentioned the parity in the NHL. You see a team like Ottawa surprise and get to within one win of a Stanley Cup final berth. Nashville is in the Stanley Cup Final as the 16th seed. I think Leafs fans are excited. This was a surprising year. There is a great future ahead for this team. How do you manage expectations for the market in that regard?
Lamoriello: I think what you are is just honest and straightforward. I think we said this right after the last game. You can’t look beyond it. We’re still in a process. A lot of things went well this year. I’m not trying to manage expectations by any means, but — just as you said — there were teams at the beginning of the year that we predicted would be in the playoffs and be contending that didn’t make the playoffs. They’re not going to stay there; they’re going to come back. The competition is going to be very difficult and it’s up to us to maintain that what we did this year was a flaw and keep improving and keep getting better. Work at everything that has to be done, not think about what could potentially happen.
That just takes care of itself if you do the right things. It’s not something easy. I think that maybe we snuck up on teams sometimes this year. Unexpected. I don’t think that’ll happen [next year]. We have to be prepared for that. I think the Leafs fans should feel very good about what is there. I despise the word potential because it means nothing. We have to do the things that we have been doing and not let anything get in the way; not push the envelope as far as trying to do too much or thinking that we’re there. We’re not there yet.
Final question, Lou, is about yourself. When you came on as Leafs GM, it sounded like maybe a short-term proposition, but you’ve obviously enjoyed it. You like working with Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock. How long do you think you’ll be Leafs GM?
Lamoriello: First of all, the relationship with Brendan and Mike has been exceptional, but not only [with them]. There’s Mark Hunter, Kyle Dubas, Brandon Pridham. The whole staff, in and out… I think Toronto is very fortunate to have the group of people they have with the players on the ice and the people off [the ice]. As far as what the future brings, I’m leaving here and we’re going into a meeting for another interview.