In late July, Lou Lamoriello will celebrate his first full calendar year as Maple Leafs GM, and the hockey icon’s impact on the franchise has been clear and welcomed since he was hired by team president Brendan Shanahan. The 73-year-old Lamoriello – who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009 and won three Stanley Cup championships in 28 years with the New Jersey Devils – took time in mid-April to speak with MapleLeafs.com on his initial season in Toronto, evolutions within the game, and more.
Here is an edited version of that conversation:
MapleLeafs.com: You’ve been in Toronto for almost a year now. What have you learned about the market that you may not have known before?
Lou Lamoriello: Well, I don't know if it's what I didn't know about it, it was more reaffirming what I thought it was all about: the passion of the fans for the Maple Leafs, and the amount of people who are aware of the sport. I always thought there was a lot, but it's like everywhere, and anyone. And also, the coverage is what I expected, which is similar to Stanley Cup coverage.
MapleLeafs.com: When you look back at the 2015-16 season, the general consensus in the press box was that, whether it was affected by injuries, trades or other roster movements, you really didn't see any change in effort from the team from game-to-game. Is that a credit to the work we saw from Leafs head coach Mike Babcock and Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe?
Lou Lamoriello: Without question. Right from the first day of training camp, Mike established what would be happening, Sheldon spent plenty of time with Mike at that time, he was very open with all coaches (in the organization). And the culture was set with what was going to happen on that ice. The players followed, bought into it, and consistently did that throughout the year.
There was never a question for me that that would happen. And what it allowed us to do certainly was to see how many embraced it, and how many improved on it, because the word is accountability: their accountability to what's asked, their accountability to themselves, and certainly, to the organization.
MapleLeafs.com: There’s a focus on the Marlies now, and you spoke after the Leafs’ season ended about the importance of the playoffs for the AHL team. And the Marlies have an incredibly deep pool of players from which to choose a post-season roster – is that also a credit to director of player personnel Mark Hunter and the organization’s drafting and development team?
Lou Lamoriello: Well, there's no question. The job that they've done, with reference to the prospects – whether they be drafted or whether (they were identified) through more independent people as it was with (the acquisitions of Marlies and Leafs forwards Zach) Hyman and (Nikita) Soshnikov, you need this type of evaluation and signings to have success, especially with the draft limited to seven rounds. And these playoffs are so important for those young players there, to go through the next step, and to gain the experience that comes with playoff hockey, no matter what level it's at – and also, should adversity strike, how you overcome it.
MapleLeafs.com: In terms of specialization of coaching and management at the NHL level, as one of the more experienced GM's in the history of the league, do you see that trend continuing?
Lou Lamoriello: Well, first of all, all of this came with technology. Once technology became as sophisticated as it is, became as concise as it is, it just extended to all sports. No matter what sport it is today, you can do things you need a tremendous amount of people to do, to have success with it and interpret in the right way so that it can be presented.
That's what's transpired, and now we've not only increased that type of knowledge called analytics, we've increased the number of people on the staff and become more specific in roles, in all organizations - whether it be a development coach going out with the prospects, which you never had, or special skating coaches, special skill coaches. You see players hiring people outside the organization to work with them, not only outside the season but within. And you see (coaching) staffs now that have additions to it, whether they be on the bench or elsewhere. Once this year, I thought I saw four, maybe five (coaches) behind the bench.
What I'm saying is, we keep looking for more and more ways to sort of extract information and disseminate it to the player, as far as helping the coaching end of it. So we do everything and anything we can, and that's the result of it right now.
MapleLeafs.com: When it comes to technology, we’ve seen some people grumble, for instance, about the coach’s challenge slowing the pace of the game. Where do you think the game is headed with technology? Are you optimistic?
Lou Lamoriello: I am optimistic about where it's headed. Like everything else, you have to be very careful and you have to make sure that with what you're doing, you get as close to 100% (accuracy) as you can, although that’s not what you’re always going to get. I saw a playoff game recently where the technology called a play on offence right, on a play that was extremely close. I saw it being played over and over again, and you could never ask the normal eye to make that decision. And in my opinion, it changed the game. The outcome, I think – and I don't know this for sure – was a game-changer, just like an exceptional save sometimes is a game-changer. That was like scoring a goal, rather than taking one away.
So the technology will hopefully go just so far. If we use as an example another sport such as baseball, I think we have to be very careful if we ever had calling balls and strikes changed and placed out of the judgement of an umpire. We’re trying everything here we can to get (calls) right, but there are certain things we will never get perfect, and hopefully the technology doesn't get in the way of upstaging the game itself because a judgment might be wrong. That is our game.
MapleLeafs.com: After some of the moves the Leafs have made during the season, can you describe why and how salary cap flexibility is considered a major asset for the organization as it moves ahead?
Lou Lamoriello: You have to manage that asset (by) not using money just because you have it with the hope that you get better. You have to establish the direction you're going, and you stick with it. Whatever decision that you make today, you have to have tomorrow in sight, and years after that in sight, because it comes up quickly.
MapleLeafs.com: With the draft and potential changes to the roster ahead, what’s the message you're driving home within the organization during this off-season?
Lou Lamoriello: I think the message that we have today is no different than the message that Brendan templated, in my opinion, when he came in. And that was this was going to be a building process to sustain success for a period of time, not something that you're capable of doing on a short-term.
I have been through that, I know exactly what that means. Mike has been through it because he experienced that in Detroit. I had the good fortune to see that when you work within the framework of your drafts, you work within the development process that you have, and that you know, should there be a free agent who can fit into that process and not (as a) short-term situation, that you do it.
So I think the message is that we are going to stay the course. The ‘pain’, as the word that has been out there, could be a little longer to some degree. No timeframe, but we're going to do whatever is necessary to get that opportunity to sustain success. If it takes a little less time, it'll happen; if it takes a little longer, it'll happen. But it's not something that we're going to allow, say, the pressure outside (the organization) to get in the way.