Below is a full transcript of Bob McKenzie’s in-depth pre-season interview with Toronto Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello. The video is available here.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were so bad, for so long, and then last year they had a terrific season. It was on the back of a first-year rookie who looks like a potential franchise number one center in Auston Matthews and a bunch of kids, like Nylander and Marner, who got the fan base so energized, which makes it all the more exciting for the future. I’ve lived in this city my whole life. I’ve sensed that optimism among the fan base is a runaway train of optimism. I have a funny feeling I just met the breakman for that train today.
Lamoriello: I don’t know what you mean by that, Bob, but it’s understandable that there is such an optimism for the reasons you said. Maybe there has been a couple of years where things haven’t gone as well. We went through something a few years ago — some 47, 50 players — and the veterans that have stayed on have just been fantastic. The job they did last year, and then the infusion of some young players you mentioned; collectively, they just did an outstanding job. But that’s only a stepping stone. We’ve done nothing really other than create excitement. We haven’t won a round in the playoffs yet. We’re still in that process. Did that process speed up a little? Absolutely, because of the way the older players improved and the way the younger players came a little more quickly, but we’re in [a process] right now.
How long have we known each other?
Lamoriello: We were talking about that when we came in. We go back to the early 60s!
Not that long, but 30-plus years. I’ve got a story that was a little bit illustrative. I was the editor in chief of The Hockey News. You were at this point the GM of the New Jersey Devils. I called up the Devils and said, “I want to put that flashy young defenceman on the cover. We don’t want to use an action shot. We want to get a studio shot. We want to set up a shot with Niedermayer in studio.” The answer came back from the New Jersey Devils: “Scott is not available by himself. If you’re interested in putting Scott, as well as several other players from the Devils, in the shot, you can do that.” Obviously, you’ve got values, you’ve got principles. You’ve got an idea of how you think a team needs to be built, a team needs to be protected. With a young player coming along like Niedermayer, in that case, or in this case Auston Matthews, how directly involved do you get to ensure those players are going to get the kind of protection from the pressures that come along with what Auston Matthews did last year?
Lamoriello: Well, I don’t think it’s any different. It’s an interesting parallel that you remember that far back. You just have to treat them with the respect that they deserve as far as what they’re accomplishing, but also do the best you can to take as many distractions away that get in the way of success. Both individuals, whether you talk about Auston or Scott Niedermayer, are very mature. Fortunately for us, our other young players that we’ve had here last year, and the job they did with reference to how they handled the media and the pressure… we have an outstanding public relations staff run by Steve Keough who knows how to give to the media, especially the Toronto media, what they need. On the other hand, they still have to be players. They still have to grow as individuals. People might not always get what they feel they should, but we have to do what we feel is right for the team.
How much time and effort do you put in between yourself and Mike Babcock, team wide, to make sure the players have their feet planted firmly on the ground, unlike the fans who might have their head in the clouds dreaming of Stanley Cups, when — as you say — they haven’t won a playoff round?
Lamoriello: First of all, I think that’s probably our greatest asset — our coaching staff with Mike and the people that we have here with him and also Brendan; the experience we have in the front office and the coaching staff and treating everybody exactly the same and having the type of players that we’ve all had over the years, the elite players that have had success. We are humble in the process of having success. It’s just an example you can give them. You can only educate them. They have to be receptive in that. I think that’s where we are most fortunate. These are quality individuals who want to be good and want to be the best they can. They’re receptive to whatever guidance you can give them.
Is it harder to do that in a place like Toronto than it was in New Jersey? Or is it that much harder in 2017-18 than it was when we were working back together in the 1990s?
Lamoriello: Honestly, I don’t think it’s any harder. All you have to do is try to set what the parameters are. Look at both sides of it. Don’t just look through your eyes; look at the other set of eyes and also what’s necessary. When I say necessary, the fans still want to see and hear about the players. But it has to be in a controlled atmosphere where it doesn’t get in the way of success. You’ve heard my expression before over the years — you have to give up your identity if you want to have success. You can’t mix that name on the back of the shirt with the logo. There is a fine line without question, but you have to get everybody to appreciate that. I think our fans have. I think our media and the job that Steve has done with his group has given them what’s necessary.
Let’s talk about Auston Matthews. Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby are perceived to be the face of the game now, but in many ways, Auston Matthews — as big as he is for the Maple Leafs — he is also big for hockey in the United States. It’s an amazing story; a mother from Mexico, a father from California, grows up in Arizona a Phoenix Coyotes season ticket holder. In many ways, he has become the face of US Hockey, and there will come with that a whole new set of responsibilities. The recent NHL media day, where all of the best players in the league were invited, he had the flu and couldn’t go. I don’t doubt for a minute he had the flu, but a lot of people looked at it and said, “Maybe he had the Lou flu. Maybe Lou was saying, ‘Let’s try to shield him from the spotlight’.” How hard is it going to be to balance those two things for him on the ice and off the ice?
Lamoriello: First of all, he did have the flu. The best part about Auston Matthews is his maturity at the age he is at. He is used to what he is going through right now. Certainly, the magnitude moves along at a higher level, but he is a mature individual. I think we saw that the first game he played where he had the success he had. When he was asked about his success, the first thing he said was, “I let my man go in overtime.” I think that says it all about Auston. He wants to be a player. He wants to be the best he can be. He has tremendous respect for his teammates, and he gets along. It’s just great seeing the interaction with some of these players behind the scenes. I feel very comfortable that he can handle whatever is given to him.
You grew up in a college hockey environment in Providence. Is the sophomore jinx a real thing, or is that something you can have control over and it’s just a figment of people’s imagination?
Lamoriello: I never believed in it. I’ve never believed in it in pro sports, nor do I believe in it in college. It has a lot to do with the preparation of the individual or the individuals and how they handle it between the first season and the second season, especially if they’ve had some success. Have they taken it a little lighter? Do they think they’ve already made it? Had they worked out six or seven days a week the previous summer to get ready? Did they now go to four because they now have some social events they didn’t have before? All of those decisions they make between that first and second year have a bearing on what success they have. That’s where I do have confidence in this group we have and also the job that our sports medicine staff has done during the summer along with Mike in keeping in touch with the players and communicating the things that have to be done. Not worrying about a sophomore jinx; just concentrating on the necessities to have success.
Did the successes of last year’s team surprise you a little bit?
Lamoriello: Oh, I think so. I think that the growth and the way the players adapted within the framework of the system… I think in the previous year what we went through was Mike bringing in an up-tempo system and we had to really educate the veterans who were here before to play that and find out how many could. The teaching was really into the veterans. The people who really survived that were perfect at it so Mike could focus on the younger players last year. The veterans really helped the younger players by doing it right all the time. Also, the receptiveness of the young players — we didn’t know how quickly they would come. We didn’t know that they would adjust that quickly and have the success they have. I would have to say [it surprised me]. We weren’t different from anybody else. We were a little ahead of ourselves.
Brendan Shanahan has had this plan. We jokingly refer to it as “The Shanaplan.” Does the accelerated performance of the kids last year and the overall team accelerate the Shanaplan in any way?
Lamoriello: No matter what you do, you have a plan. Brendan came in with a vision. The approach I always have is a five-year plan that changes every day. What allows that to change, whether it be the success you’ve had or acquisitions you’re able to get, or injuries… We were very fortunate last year that the progress of the players was on a consistent basis. We saw, at a certain point, where they deserved a little help. They deserved some veterans at the trade deadline to help them along and get it through. We acquired a player or two that really helped us. We saw what transpired going into the playoffs. We’ve made some decisions over the summer, collectively, to bring in some veteran players who can help that along. Whether it speeds up the process or the plan, only time will tell. During this period of time, during this growth, we are still in that growing stage. We are still in that process. “A game at a time” — that’s what we’re trying to do.
The obvious goal for any team in the NHL, no matter whether you’re the defending Cup champion or the last-placed team, is to make the playoffs. Once you’re in, you have a chance. Beyond that obvious goal of just trying to get back to where you were last year in the playoffs, what should the expectation be for this team and what’s the goal for this team? Is this a team that could contend for the Cup?
Lamoriello: I think that’s an unknown. Every team, as you said, coming in wants to make the playoffs. As far as thinking beyond that, I’ll leave that for the fantasy people and the reporters. All you have to do is go back to all the predictions from the start of last season. That’s what you do. You just sit back and listen. The most important thing for us, Bob, is to just concentrate on what we have control over each and every day. Do it right, and let the end result take care of itself. Once you get ahead of yourself, you run into yourself.
One of those things you have no control over is injuries, obviously. The Toronto Maple Leafs were obviously one of the healthiest teams in the NHL last year. I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that the Buffalo Sabres are as far as long in their evolution as the Maple Leafs, but Jack Eichel… when you lose a player of that magnitude for 20+ games to start the season, if the Leafs had been in a similar situation and lost Auston Matthews for a quarter of the season, I dare say maybe the Leafs season would’ve been a lot different. That said, going up and down your roster, there is a lot of NHL talent there. There is a lot of competition for jobs. You made it even more so, going out in the offseason and getting the free agent Patrick Marleau at 37 years old on a three-year contract for $6.25 million per year. Why Patty Marleau and why now?
Lamoriello: As we mentioned in a previous question earlier, at this time with where our team is, a player like Patty Marleau with the experience he’s had and the disposition he has as a human being and the reputation he’s had throughout his career — he could only help bring a long a lot of our younger players when things are not going right. We can, from management or coaching staff, only go so far. That locker room is so important. The veterans who can help along people who haven’t been through the experiences of when things don’t go as well… and that will happen throughout the year.
Not only that, he can play. Put aside the age. There is the skating ability he has and the hockey sense he has, and to me even more important is the experience he’s had playing for Mike Babcock. He’s not coming in here not knowing what to expect. Also, he looks at the roster and feels as though there might be something nice here.
All of those attributes that you listed — is that why you were prepared to give a guy at 37 years old a three-year contract when the over-35 clause in the CBA makes teams shy away from those really long-term deals for guys over 35? In this particular instance, you think he’s a perfect fit?
Lamoriello: In my opinion, this is an exception. That cannot and should not be a norm. You’re absolutely right. Most contracts today are for too much and too long. It is what it is. These are decisions you have to make. They’re made collectively. This is not something where you just throw a dot against the wall and hope it works. It’s done with a lot of thought. You have to keep so many different things in mind. I’m extremely delighted and excited to have Patrick Marleau here.
My first reaction was, “There goes James van Riemsdyk’s money,” because JVR obviously is in the final year of his contract. He is a UFA. He is going to be looking for a multi-year contract at numbers that are probably up around what Patty Marleau got. I started thinking, with guys coming out of entry-level, it’s going to be very difficult for the Maple Leafs. That’s going to lead to a lot of trade speculation that may or may not be true. Is there any way to shelter the team from that? I know you anticipate that JVR is going to be in your lineup to start the season and is a big part of that. Do you talk to a player or anything along those lines where you know there is probably going to be a lot of speculation with that?
Lamoriello: First of all, communication is the most important thing with your players and honesty is the most important thing likewise. I don’t worry about that. The media is going to make out anything and everything they feel, and they should. But the most important thing is the player knowing and the team knowing exactly what the thought process is. That’s all that is important.
Other than Marleau, I think the core of your lineup up front looks very much status quo to what we saw last year. Why break up a lineup that was really good? Knowing Mike Babcock as I do, I don’t think I’ll be surprised if I see Hyman back on a line with Matthews and Nylander and that we could see JVR back with Bozak and Mitch Marner, and potentially Patrick Marleau playing with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov or Connor Brown. When I started looking at that, I realized that with your top-nine forwards, one of Connor Brown or Leo Komarov could fall out of that. It gives you some idea of the calibre of those players; potentially, on any given the game, maybe one has to drop down and be “fourth line guys.”
Lamoriello: It’s a great problem to have. I rather have that problem. We’ll put that in Mike’s hands and your coaches’ to make the decisions at the appropriate time. I don’t think anybody is worried about who is playing where and where they are going to play. The most important thing is going to be, “What’s the best team on the ice?”
There is going to be some incredible competition on the depth positions on the fourth line for the Toronto Maple Leafs. If you do the math, one of Komarov or Brown is dropping down and you’ve already got Matt Martin, who is a fixture on that line. You’ve got veteran centers Dominic Moore and Ben Smith. You’ve brought in a kid, a 23-year-old name Miro Aaltonen that maybe a lot of Leafs fans aren’t familiar with. Can you give us a scouting report on him and where he might fit in? Is he maybe NHL ready?
Lamoriello: Certainly he is a center-ice man. There is no question that last year we felt that was an area where we had to add some depth. He had an outstanding year in Europe. He is a very skillful individual who knows the game. We’ll have to see how quickly he adapts in training camp. He is someone who adds to the center-ice depth area that we felt we needed to do.
There had been talk that maybe Frederik Gauthier’s time would be now. Unfortunately, he suffered a leg injury in the spring that required surgery. Can you give me an update of where he’s at medically and when he might be healthy enough to come back and start playing with the Marlies again?
Lamoriello: He’s skating right now, which is the most important thing. It’s going to take him a while to get back. I wouldn’t want to put a date on it because we have not been given a date from our medical staff. When he is ready, he’ll be ready. But you’re absolutely right. He looked very close to being ready to play. He did a great job when he came up. It’s a great problem to have.
Again, this is a nice problem to have, but we’ve talked 12, 13 forwards deep up front, and we haven’t mentioned Josh Leivo, who to me has demonstrated that he is an NHL player. He requires waivers if he is going to be sent down. And then you’ve got Kasperi Kapanen, who looks like he’s NHL ready. You’ve got Nikita Soshnikov, who absent of injuries proved he was an NHL forward. The depth and level of competition are really incredible. In Kapanen and Soshnikov, you’ve got guys who don’t require waivers to go to the minors. Is this a situation where sometimes guys might be ready to play in the NHL but they’re just going to have to over-ripen? I know in New Jersey we used to call it Lou U in Albany. Mike Babcock and Brendan Shanahan come from the Detroit model, where young players would spend a lot of time in Adirondack and now Grand Rapids. Is over-ripening ahead for some of these kids?
Lamoriello: Well, first of all, the players are going to determine who plays. The coaches will make decisions where they play. We are going to, without question, put the best possible team we can on the ice. I’ve always believed, and we’ve had many conversations over the years, that it’s better to bring a player up too late than too soon. Sometimes there are unique situations. Right now, the competition will decide who plays.
A lot of Leafs fans, at the end of last season, thought the most glaring need — if you’re going to add something in a vacuum — is a stud defenceman… a top-pairing guy, a Drew Doughty or an Erik Karlsson, which is easier said than done. They don’t grow on trees. You guys went out in free agency and signed another veteran guy in 36-year-old Ron Hainsey to a two-year contract. What was the rationale for deciding Hainsey was the right guy to come in and potentially play on a top pair with Morgan Rielly?
Lamoriello: First of all, his signing is very similar — just in a different position area — to the Patrick Marleau signing, where he brings tremendous experience coming off of a Stanley Cup. He knows how to play the game. The system that he really played for a couple of years in Carolina was Mike’s system. The adjustment process for him is going to be very short-term. What he can bring, with the way he plays, with the type of defencemen we have here, he is certainly going to be a support mechanism to him. We have some outstanding skaters back there. He can kill penalties. He’s a stay-at-home defenceman who has a great stick. There is no question he is an asset. He is going to be just great for our defence.
It seems like Mike also wants to let Morgan Rielly try to flourish on his correct side. Mike is a big “left-right” guy and Morgan, a lot of the time, has had to play on the right side. Probably another added benefit that Hainsey can play on the right.
Lamoriello: Ron can play on either side. Once again, those are decisions that Michael and his staff will make in training camp.
That would leave Gardiner and Zaitsev to potentially come back as a second pair. I think a lot of people think Connor Carrick is a potential fixture in the top six. You went out in the spring and you got two Swedish players in their 20s in Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman. Can you give Leafs fans a scouting report on each guy and handicap their chances of being on this team?
Lamoriello: They have as good of a chance as anyone. We have two young defencemen coming out of the Marlies, too, who will be challenging. I look at all of them similarly because of the age factor. Rosen is certainly an exceptional skater who had playoff experience last year, played in the elite league. Borgman was rookie of the year. He brings a little bit of a different dimension with size and strength. We’ll just have to wait and see how they all adjust, but we’re pretty confident that we’ll come out with the best six.
Those defencemen that you talked about on the Marlies — I assume one of them is Travis Dermott, who had a real good year. There are a lot of people who believe he could very well be NHL ready. Again, he is in that situation where if it’s a close call, he could be sent to the minors and the other guys can’t.
Lamoriello: All of the players that we signed from Europe are on their entry-level contract. Once again, training camp will determine it. I’ll leave it up to the Bob McKenzies of the world to decide what our lineup is right now and the coaches to decide once training comes.
Who was the second one you’re talking about? Andrew Nielsen? Give us an update on him. He is a big guy who probably has a bit more of an offensive element to his game, doesn’t he?
Lamoriello: That’s right. Tremendous improvement in seeing him in the brief stint here with the rookies. He’s grown. He’s matured. Really, for a young player, he had an outstanding year last year with the Marlies coming right out of junior.
It’s a salary cap world. We know that. You can’t get away from it. Contracts come and they go. William Nylander is in the last year of his entry-level deal. He is therefore eligible right now for an extension. Do you want to break some news now and tell us that you’ve done the extension and give us the AAV and everything?
Lamoriello: Do you want to answer that question for me? For years, you have.
I’m trying to break some news here. Is that something that could happen in-season, or is that something that is best left to when the season is over?
Lamoriello: I don’t even think that’s a discussion with you.
I had to try. We talk about windows opening and closing and the reality of the salary cap. Nylander is going to want to get paid. He’s a good player and he’s going to get paid. Next summer, the conversation is going to switch to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. I’m not saying that they’re comparable, but we kind of saw the salary structure for elite players in the NHL maybe get a little redefined over this summer when McDavid got $12.5 million and Leon Draisaitl got an $8.5 million AAV. There is a theory out there that, while the Leafs are probably on paper going to reach their zenith in 3-4-5 years when these guys fully mature, salary cap wise, maybe the next year or two or three — before the big deals kick in — gives the team the best chance to surround them with the best talent to contend and win a Cup. What would you say to that?
Lamoriello: I’d say it’s rhetoric. I think that’s just people looking into different things and trying to come out with whatever conclusion they can come out with. All we’re focused on is the players we have at hand right now and making this be the best possible team we can and doing all of the necessary things to allow the end result to take care of itself. As far as all of that tomorrow — that’s all part of what our responsibilities are.
Goaltending is status quo, but there are some who think it will be even better this year because Frederik Andersen won’t have as much of an adjustment period as he did at the beginning of last year when he was a little up and down and he leveled his play out.
Lamoriello: It was tough for Freddie at the beginning last year because he got injured during the World Cup exhibition games and then he came in and we maybe put him in a little too soon because training camp was so short for him. We are very comfortable, certainly, with Freddie. In my opinion, he’s certainly one of the better goaltenders in the NHL.
And you’ve got McElhinney coming back and backing him up. You’re obviously satisfied with what you saw down the stretch from him?
Lamoriello: Yes, he did an outstanding job for us.
For the longest time, you were almost the face and identity of the New Jersey Devils franchise. You’ve moved north and you spend all of your time in Toronto. It strikes me that you look like you’re having a lot of fun, too.
Lamoriello: When you work with the type of people that I’ve had the good fortune to work with — Brendan, Mike, Steve and his group, the office staff, the Pridhams, the Dubas’, the Mark Hunters — who all have a common goal and it’s winning, and they are willing to give up whatever their own successes have been individually… knowing this is Toronto, and wanting to have success, and all working together, and not worrying about who gets what or who doesn’t — that’s fun. It’s fun when you’re working with people like that. But the real fun comes with success. That’s why I prefaced it earlier that I really appreciate the excitement. I think it’s great. I think it’s great for the fans. We have to get something done. We are focused in on that. We can’t allow anything to distract us along the way. This market is just outstanding and the fans deserve it. The passion that they have — it’s remarkable.
You must get recognized everywhere you go. What’s a sample of that interaction you have with the fans?
Lamoriello: I think they’re respectful and polite and really appreciate where the team is at. I think the way the players have acted and handled themselves, both on and off the ice, that’s what you want. You want a team that — if I’m a fan — you can be proud of whenever you see them on TV or whenever you see them at a function and how they handle themselves, win or lose, on the ice; the respect they have for each other, and the humbleness that has been created among each and every one of them. That’s what teams are all about.
Final question: You can address this directly to the Toronto Maple Leafs fans. What should the expectations for the Toronto Maple Leafs be for performance this season?
Lamoriello: The expectation should be exactly what they saw last year. A team, coached by Mike Babcock and his staff, that will come prepared each and every night to compete and to give the type of performance they’re proud of.