Matthew Lombardi and his family had such a great experience last season when he played in Switzerland that Lombardi, his wife, and two children all expected to return to Geneva again this fall, especially after he signed a multi-year contract extension. However the Lombardis had their life turned a bit upside down in the past day or so when the Rangers approached Matthew's agent with a contract proposal of their own aimed at bringing the 32 year-old forward back to the National Hockey League.
After "a crazy 24 hours", Lombardi could not resist what he called "an amazing opportunity" and chose to opt out of his Swiss League contract while agreeing to terms with the Rangers on Tuesday morning.
"The plan was to go back--I had signed an extension there, and my family was really happy there--and even though I had the out in my contract I didn't think anything was going to happen (in the NHL) so I wasn't thinking about that too much," explained Lombardi in an exclusive conversation with BlueshirtsUnited.com Tuesday afternoon.
"With New York, it just kind of fell into my lap and I just felt like it was an opportunity I couldn't let go...I felt like it was a once in a lifetime chance, especially at my age, and it was a pretty cool opportunity to play for this team with all of the success they have had. I just thought it was good for me."
After playing nine years in the NHL--the last three where he was slowed by injuries--Lombardi played in Switzerland a year ago and led the Swiss League in scoring with 50 points in 46 games. His 30 assists also led the league; and perhaps just as importantly he remained healthy and his confidence returned to form.
"I had a lot of fun, got some confidence, and had a great experience," Lombardi said of his Swiss adventure, which included leading his team to a Spengler Cup with eight points in three games. "I found my game a bit again, and it was nice in terms of being able to play the full season and not having any major problems physically."
With the Rangers seeking depth at the forward position, the versatile Lombardi seems to be a good fit. He can play center or on the wing, is responsible defensively and is a good penalty killer. Lombardi has played in Top Six roles as well as in checking roles and on the fourth line during his nine-year National Hockey League career.
As last year showed, he has offensive skill, as well. In the NHL he recorded 53 points with the Coyotes in 2009-10 and reached 20 goals with the Flames in 2006-07.
"Matthew is a guy we've always kept our eyes on because he plays the way we like--he's quick, he's versatile, he can play center or he can play wing, he can play up and down your lineup, he kills penalties--there's a lot of things he can do for a hockey team," offered Jeff Gorton, the Rangers assistant general manager. "We're excited at the opportunity to get somebody that fits right in with the way we play."
When asked to assess his own style of play, Lombardi emphasized his willingness to try and fill any role the team may need.
"My speed is obviously my strength, and I want to come in and chip in in all areas of the game," stated Lombardi, who has 101 goals and 262 points in 536 career NHL games. "I want to be a good two-way guy; and I realize I'm coming in to a team that has had a lot of success and has several amazing players already, so I want to come in and help out any way I can. Whatever it is the coaching staff asks of me, I want to help that way."
The Rangers most definitely were intrigued by Lombardi's speed. Adding him to a lineup that already includes elite skaters like Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh, and John Moore really helps mold the type of team into what head coach Alain Vigneault prefers.
"We have a coach that likes the fact that we are fast with the puck and fast without it, and when you look at Matthew's game that's what he is--an elite skater," said Gorton.
Vigneault, of course, knows Lombardi's game pretty well having coached against him for many years in the Western Conference; but it was another Rangers coach whom Gorton and the front office relied on even more when considering whether or not to sign the veteran free agent.
Current Blueshirts assistant Ulf Samuelsson was a Coyotes assistant coach when Lombardi played in Phoenix for one full season and part of another.
"Ulf's first reaction was 'Great skater, great guy'," shared Gorton. "He also said (Lombardi's) a guy who can play all over your lineup, and that he's just a good guy to have in your organization because of his character and his skating ability. From the first time we talked with Ulfie (about Lombardi) it was all positive."
That was music to Lombardi's ears.
"That means a lot to me, that he said those things, because I really hold Ulf in high regard," offered Lombardi, who has played for five different NHL teams. "When I left Phoenix he reached out to me immediately--just always was a great guy, and a great coach."
Now Lombardi will be reunited with Samuelsson in New York, and the Montreal native is letting it sink in now that he is indeed back in the NHL and that he is a New York Ranger--and that his Swiss adventure has come to an end.
"When this opportunity arrived, it was like Oh, wow, this is pretty awesome!," exclaimed Lombardi. "To come to New York--I mean what an amazing opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden as your home rink. It's pretty cool to be honest with you."