INSIDERS. A very happy Wednesday to you and yours. The LA Kings practiced at Toyota Sports Center at 11:00 a.m. and remained on the ice for the better part of an hour. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
–We’re still learning the rhythm and structure of Willie Desjardins’ practices. There were no real line rushes and no color-coding beyond the yellow and purple practice jerseys worn by the forwards and the black jerseys worn by the defense. He also noted yesterday that because he wants players to be rested for the game, he won’t always hold full-team morning skates the day after a regular practice. I don’t know how much stock to put into this, but Michael Amadio and Paul LaDue remained on the ice for some extra work with Peter Budaj and Gabe Vilardi today. Los Angeles faces Minnesota Thursday night at Staples Center (7:30 p.m. / FOX Sports West / FOX Sports app / LA Kings Audio Network).
–Vilardi has been participating in practice without a red, no-contact jersey, but that doesn’t mean he’s been cleared for full contact. “He’d be pretty well off-limits right now, still, but he’s getting a lot closer, though,” Desjardins said.
–A quick update on Thursday’s visitors: Eric Staal, who scored 42 goals last season, missed Tuesday’s 4-3 loss in San Jose due to illness – Bruce Boudreau told reporters today that it’s likely the center has a virus – and is “questionable” to play tomorrow at Staples Center.
Boudreau said Staal is still sick. They think it’s some sort of virus. Will fly commercially tonight to LA, probably. He’d have to make a bigtime bounceback to play tomorrow #mnwild
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) November 7, 2018
Thursday’s game is the first of a back-to-back set for the Wild, who play the Ducks at Honda Center on Friday.
–Ilya Kovalchuk: 830 NHL games, 830 career points. There are valid questions about the ceiling of this offense and where exactly Los Angeles is going this season and beyond, but their key free agent target has been a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem, totaling five goals and 14 points through the first 14 games after Tuesday’s one-goal, three-point, first star performance.
“I think I can be much better,” he said. “I think we can all be more consistent, but me, personally, I know I can be better. It’s still an adjustment process for me, but I feel much better. I think our power play started clicking a little bit because we started working. That’s very important, because in today’s game, the special teams make a huge difference, and if you win your battles, five-on-four and four-on-five on the PK, then you’ve got a good chance to win the game.”
He’s yet to consistently be set up on that one-timer, but with one goal and six points, his power play production reflects his underrated playmaking ability. That offensive awareness was on display Tuesday as he sensed some chaos in front of John Gibson and backhanded a rolling puck towards the goalmouth, where Dustin Brown chopped a one-hopper into the net to open the scoring.
He’s got points in four straight games, with his latest three coming against an Anaheim team whose personnel featured only three players – Ryan Getzlaf, Andrew Cogliano and Cam Fowler – from his last outing against the Ducks on February 17, 2012.
Many reporters were quick to question him about his speed and how it would align with a more up-tempo NHL during off-season and pre-season media availability. What about now? What types of trends does he see in a league he last played in five years ago?
“It’s tough to say,” he said. “The NHL always was very good. You have to be at your top level to compete with all those guys. Right now, kind of a generation changing, and all those younger guys like McDavid, MacKinnon, like Kucherov, all those guys, they come into the league, and it’s natural. When I was playing, Lemieux was in the last years of his career like Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, all those guys. Now it’s like Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, now it’s those guys. I didn’t know if it’s much, much faster, but probably it is, a little bit. But I didn’t feel that much different.”
Kovalchuk’s conditioning is a large reason he’s been able to hit his early marks. His training regimen had been advertised earlier in the summer, but on Wednesday, Desjardins admitted to capturing some covert video footage of his training while passing by a Russian team area at the 2017 Channel One Cup in the lead up to the PyeongChang Games.
“I had my camera out, and I was videoing it. I didn’t know if I was supposed to, so I had it kind of down low,” Desjardins said, smiling. “He works really hard in the gym. Like, he trains hard, so I was secretly taping him so I could bring it back and watch what he was doing, so it was good.”
That work and the pure, unadulterated skill that the organization so badly needs has been reflected in his team-best production and a raised scoring chance production rate.
“He makes some really high-end plays, and the key for me is just to get him to work hard,” Desjardins said. “Like, if I can get him to work hard, everything else will fall in place.”
–Especially early on Tuesday, the Kings played with a good pace that had been missing for much of the season. They turned pucks over quickly and sent play in the opposite direction and, in several instances, got defensemen into the rush. Was there any any significant shift in schematics in the team’s first game under Desjardins?
“I don’t think there’s such a big change,” said Adrian Kempe, though the young forward did note a shift in thinking.
“He wanted us to be more creative and have more fun out there with the puck, and I think that reflected pretty good in the game yesterday. I thought our offense was better, and I think we felt, everybody, that we can be more creative with the puck and stuff like that, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Obviously, that’s going to happen, but if you’re not afraid to make them, there’s going to be less mistakes as well, so I thought it was a good game yesterday from our team, and we need to build on that.”
Did the pace seemed to be raised at ice level, or are we searching for a narrative or something that might not be there?
“I think the first period, for sure, we wanted to come out and show our speed and play fast and physical right away, and that was a really good first period,” Kempe said. “We got a couple of goals and we kept building on that, and we just tried to play more creative with the puck and play as you should do in the D zone and try to get out of the zone as quickly as possible.”
Desjardins was happy with the team’s skating and overall play in the first period, and throughout the game was happy with their ability to defend well and work hard to get the puck back. He cited in-game adjustments that the players picked up on well, such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Tanner Pearson flip-flopping at times on the left side of the lineup. He was also happy with the performance of the fourth line, led by Nate Thompson’s two shots, three hits and plus-two rating in 15:13 of ice time.
“Yeah, we’ll count on that fourth line,” Desjardins said. “It’s hard to win with only three. You can’t win with two, for sure. We want to play four lines, and that’s the kind of outing we need from them.”
But as for the speed, all teams want to play with a crisp cadence and transition quickly and minimize the time spent in the defensive zone. That’s not unique to any team; it’s a reflection of the modern game. Where is the nuance? How do the 31 teams weaponize that speed and use it to their benefit?
“I do think it depends on the teams,” Desjardins said. “There are certain teams that are built a little bit different. I think we’re a team that’s built a little bit different. Like, we’re a heavier team. Maybe we’re not as quite as good at the transition team – and we’ll keep working at that – but we’re good in our own zone and the heavy game. A lot of times the heavy game is the one that works in the playoffs. The only problem is that you have to get to the playoffs, so that’s kind of the key. We’re maybe not as quite as quick in that transition. We’ll work at it, we’ll get better. But we also do other things better than other teams.”
On Tuesday, that transition was highly beneficial and allowed them to score the rush-type goals potted by Kyle Clifford and Kovalchuk. The Clifford goal started when Clifford pressured Sam Carrick into a turnover that Jake Muzzin flipped to Trevor Lewis, who fed an activating Alec Martinez, who met scant resistance through the neutral zone.
“There’s way more skating for guys in the game, and for us, it’s not just skating with the forwards, it’s the D, too,” Desjardins said. “We’ve got to get our D moving. I thought they were good last night. They joined, they created some stuff on the rush for us, and we’ve got to keep getting them involved.”
–Any German speakers? Marco Sturm held a press conference alongside German Ice Hockey Federation President Franz Reindl to talk about his decision to join the LA Kings upon the conclusion of the Deutschland Cup.