From Official Toronto Maple Leafs
Even after such a long tenure in New Jersey and all he experienced there, including Stanley Cup championships in 1995, 2000 and 2003, Lamoriello says it didn’t take long to change his true colors from the red and black of the Devils to Maple Leafs blue.
“Once you make that decision, you go forward and you’re fully invested. If you’re not, you shouldn’t be here,” Lamoriello said. “That’s not saying I don’t have a tremendous fondness for the years that I was in New Jersey and the respect that I have for the players and the people that I was associated with and the fans. You’ll never lose that. That’s totally special. That never goes away.
“But I am fully invested, fully committed and I wear blue.”
Lamoriello is also far more familiar with everyone within the organization. He had to do a lot of learning on the fly at the start of last season, but now has a good grasp of what the Maple Leafs have and what they need and is comfortable with those he is working with.
“I know the players now,” Lamoriello said. “I didn’t know the prospects. You know them from seeing them two or three, four times, but when you see them every day and certainly interact with the people you haven’t worked with, the coaching staff, office staff. All of that is behind.”
Lamoriello credits Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan with putting together a strong management team and coaching staff, headed by Mike Babcock, before he arrived from New Jersey on July 23, 2015. That allowed him to get up to speed quickly.
“The job Brendan did with the people he brought in was just outstanding and they’ve been that way consistently,” Lamoriello said. “It’s not an overnight situation with building a foundation and having the young players and I think everybody has stayed on board. I can’t say enough about Mike Babcock. He is the best coach in the game. From first-hand seeing him coaching each and every day, he’s just tremendous and his staff [is also] with the way they support each other.”
The Maple Leafs finished in last place in the League last season with 69 points (29-42-11), but Lamoriello believes they took some important and necessary steps to set up their foundation for the future. After trading away some veterans, Toronto was able to give younger players some NHL experience such as forwards William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Kasperi Kapanen and Frederik Gauthier, and defensemen Connor Carrick, Viktor Loov and Rinat Valiev.
“We did what we had to do last year,” Lamoriello said. “We did end up 30th, by the way, just to remind you of that, so I don’t want to get off track from that. But what we were able to do after the season, whether it be the [2016 NHL Draft] or the people that we acquired or the growth of the people that were there and the young people and the core that will still be there, it was a stepping stone.”
It was a busy offseason for Lamoriello and the Maple Leafs. They weren’t able to convince Steven Stamkos to leave the Tampa Bay Lightning to play at home in Toronto and lost out on the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes to the New York Rangers, but they were the big winners in the NHL Draft Lottery and selected center Auston Matthews with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft.
Lamoriello said Matthews, 18, has been “extremely impressive” in his interactions with him before and following the draft.
“I had the opportunity to spend some time with his family well before the draft and the opportunity to spend some time with him over in Russia [at the 2016 IIHF World Championship],” Lamoriello said. “I also had an opportunity to spend some time with him on a couple of other occasions and then even on his visit here with his family looking at the area. I think the foundation his family has given to him is going to be a tremendous benefit for the Maple Leafs.”
Lamoriello usually is cautious with his expectations for young players, but said, “I don’t think it’s unrealistic by any means,” to expect Matthews to be in the Maple Leafs lineup for their season opener at the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 12.
“But the process is the important thing,” Lamoriello said.
In addition to adding a potential franchise player in Matthews, the Maple Leafs acquired Frederik Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks to be their No. 1 goaltender, signed unrestricted free agent left wing Matt Martin from the New York Islanders and defenseman Nikita Zaitsev out of the Kontinental Hockey League. They also took care of their own by signing center Nazem Kadri and defenseman Morgan Rielly each to a six-year contract extension.
With a promising stable of prospects that will challenge for roster spots, including Matthews, 2015 first-round pick Mitchell Marner, Nylander and Soshnikov, Lamoriello believes the Maple Leafs are ready to take another step in the second year of his regime. He is not, however, ready to define what that step will be in terms of the Maple Leafs’ proximity to a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I couldn’t even answer that,” he said. “All we have to do is keep doing the things that we’re doing and not rushing things. Do them for the building of a foundation and then the end result will take care of itself whatever that might be.”