NHL players covet ice time. Coyotes center Matthew Lombardi is no exception and is making the most of the increased ice time he has received since coming to Phoenix in a trade with the Calgary Flames on March 4.
Coyotes Head Coach Wayne Gretzky has played Lombardi nearly five more minutes per game than he was playing with Calgary this season.
“I think he loves it,” Gretzky said. “I am probably giving him more power-play time than he saw in Calgary, but he has earned that right. He has played hard and he doesn’t cheat the game. With a young team, you try to send the message that guys who play hard and compete every shift are going to get opportunities, and that’s what he does.”
Lombardi, 27, is quietly making a huge impact with the Coyotes in the locker room and on the stat sheet.
In his first 16 games with Phoenix, Lombardi has notched five goals and eight assists while playing mostly with wingers Scottie Upshall and Petr Prucha.
Beyond stats, Lombardi is helping to lead a young team by example.
“I am not a big vocal guy,” said Lombardi, who has 14 goals overall this season. “I definitely enjoy being with the guys and I think we have a real lively group here, which is fun. For me, it’s just going out there and doing my job, and that’s the way I can bring my leadership.”
Gretzky has noticed.
“Some guys are natural leaders and they lead by example, and he is a quiet guy," Gretzky said. "He doesn’t say a lot, but he has the respect of his teammates because of how hard he plays and how hard he works. He is a pleasure to have on our team. He is a pleasure to coach. I think he is a good, solid, young man and we are happy with him.”
A third-round draft pick (90th overall) in 2002, Lombardi played four-plus seasons in Calgary, a hockey hotbed where the players are adored by the community and become instant celebrities.
“Calgary is a great hockey town,” Lombardi said. “You'd get recognized because it’s not a very big city, but I am really enjoying everything there is about being in Phoenix and the quality of life and, more importantly, my family seems to love it right now.”
In addition to the passionate fans in Calgary, the media there aggresively covers the Flames, and every move by every player is analyzed and often scrutinized.
“It’s definitely nice not to be under the microscope as much,” Lombardi said. “I can’t really say which one is better because they are different. When you are playing in a market like that you deal with it. Guys that really like the attention would miss it, but I am not one of those guys.”
Besides being a goal scorer and crafty playmaker, Lombardi also has been a presence in the faceoff circle for Phoenix.
At the trade deadline, the Coyotes ranked last in the NHL in faceoff percentage. Since March 5, the Coyotes have won 48 percent of their faceoffs, up nearly four percent.
“I think the guys take pride in it, which is real good,” said Lombardi, who is winning just over 50 percent of his faceoffs this season. “Being a strong draw team is a real big advantage. I have tried to work on it throughout my whole career and try to get better at it. I still have a lot of work to do.”
Assistant Coach Doug Sulliman believes Lombardi’s presence is one of the reasons for more faceoff victories.
“We always say out of 10, our faceoff guys have been a four,” Sulliman said, “When Lombardi comes in, he is a seven or an eight. When you have two fours facing off against each other in practice, how much improvement are you going to see? When Lombardi comes in, you have fours going against an eight now in practice and they see the little tricks of the trade. There are things that he does that they are stealing and using in games. Their production has risen.”
Rookie center Kyle Turris has learned valuable faceoff tips from Lombardi.
“He is a great faceoff guy," Turris said. “It’s great for the team. We needed that. It’s fun to learn from him. I try to watch him and see what he does and try to pick up on that. He likes to get real low and use his hands in the defensive zone. That is stuff that I am going to try doing. It’s been working real well for him.”
Lombardi, who came to Phoenix with forward Brandon Prust and a draft pick in exchange for center Olli Jokinen and a draft pick, is under contract for 2009-2010.