Before we get to the larger-scale stuff, some important bits on LA Kings Head Coach Todd McLellan, who was introduced Wednesday at Toyota Sports Center and shared some interesting ideas and approaches that should spur some good conversation here. There’s a ton to unpack, but let’s get to the the Kings and their plan moving forward as it relates primarily to coaching.
— Rob Blake previously shared qualifications he was looking for in a coach and continued to articulate them – structure, accountability and the coach’s presence were again among the abstracts – but until Wednesday, we hadn’t heard from McLellan himself. Why the Kings? Why lead a team in the aftermath of post-championship purgatory that will take significant time to reform and revive?
McLellan shared three reasons: the people, the plan, and the autonomy to execute that plan. He spoke of a timeline presented by the team and how the team foresaw its vision moving forward to be executed.
“Well, the clarity first of all, there is no wavering,” he said. “I’ve been very, very fortunate to be in a number of really good organizations, with great people, all the spots I’ve been to have that. [A meeting earlier this week] was the most extensive meeting that we went through. When Rob sat down, you could visually see it, there was a timeline put to it. In a cap world, there are dollars and cents that come into play, there’s also the entertainment value, we have to remember that as we transition the team, we have to be entertaining, we owe it to the fans. But the clarity of the plan was very good and obviously the plan is that we’ve got to become a younger team.”
That bit about entertainment value is one to remember. The executive branch of the organization envisions a Kings team that wins games by outscoring their opponents, a characteristic they believe to be in line with the rise in league-wide offense and changes to rules and equipment that are designed to spur offense.
“I think players want to play that way too, and that’s my experience playing in that (San Jose) system,” Blake said. “It was a way that if I wanted to do that and was able to play that way throughout my career, that’s it. It was a system that I liked to play in, it was enjoyable.”
And, as McLellan alluded to, the team is focusing on becoming younger, though that creates a delicate dynamic within a room in which there is both an aging core and a younger crop of players striving to develop their role and stick in the NHL.
“It doesn’t mean that the older players are insignificant, or being moved out or shipped out, but eventually, the youth has to grasp the steering wheel on this team,” McLellan continued. “I believe that the way the game is played now, with the speed and the skill and the pace of the game, we have to look at how we play and make adjustments that way. There’s that saying about teaching old dogs new tricks. I think old dogs have to learn new tricks as well. That’s going to be the key, combining the old with the new and I say old very respectfully, I don’t mean age wise, but experience wise.”
— Blake alluded to “structure” as a key influence in McLellan’s hiring, and just to be clear, that’s primarily organizational structure, but also very much on-ice structure and systems adherence. It’s the type of comprehensive, detail-oriented structure “on a day to day basis” across the organization that Blake experienced playing under McLellan and believes will be a good match for a Kings team separated by a range of experience.
“The focus, the presence, the credibility, there will be a lot of different words I’ll hear that all fall under what I would consider a structure category and for a coach. You’ve got your structure, your systems, your style and you’ve got your motivation techniques. I think those are important, but I think structure leads that way.”
McLellan noted that he had the benefit of watching all 31 teams on television last season and that he did watch the Kings while “flipping channels,” and also was able to see Jaret Anderson-Dolan play in Kelowna, where he lives during the off-season. But he also acknowledged the vast amount of work to be done “to analyze where the team is at and what I think truly needs to be addressed right off the bat.”
“I looked at the transition from one year to the other. This team was in the playoffs last year at this time. It didn’t go well, but it made it. The belief at that time was ‘maybe we can get back.’ It didn’t work that way, and that’s where the plan came into play. I look at the core of the team and the type of production that they had this year. There was a fall-off on a number of those players. Somewhere between a playoff team and a non-playoff team is reality, and that’s what we have to get back to and then we’ve got to push to make them better. Analytically there are some areas that the team has fallen off in. I get that, but I think it’s more maybe the team, the players giving themselves permission to have the off year where it didn’t go well early and they just said, ‘you know what, let’s get through it.’ That’s unacceptable, and we can’t have that anymore. We have to change – I keep using the word “standards.’ They have to get back to where they were. I think this team won Cups because of attitude and character – not because they were the most skilled – and it got them to the top of the mountain. Attitude and character can’t take them deep into the valley now, and everybody accepts responsibility for that – Rob, myself, Anze, all the way down…”
— In saying that, McLellan also noted that when the players “walk in the door that they’re going to have to adjust that a little bit, accept some responsibility for practice habits, for the standards they set for themselves individually and collectively,” and that he would push them to do so. As had been shared primarily during the Metropolitan trip but also for several pre-game skates and practices at and around the season’s midpoint, the team’s practice habits came into question, a regression that was amplified last week when Tyler Toffoli deemed the practices to be “kind of pathetic a lot of time.”
McLellan had heard what players like Toffoli and Drew Doughty and others had said in the aftermath of the season. “I followed the organization, I followed the comments, I did that for a number of different spots. Had a lot of time on my hands,” he said.
McLellan happened to bump into Toffoli and his wife in Manhattan Beach on Tuesday, reconnecting with a player with whom he won a gold medal at the 2015 World Championship.
‘I feel like I can use those comments,” he said. “Players shared things with us and with the fans because it’s on their minds, and they’re telling us, ‘let’s fix this.’ But they also have ownership in that. Tyler will understand that – that’s not a problem at all – and I’m excited about working with him again.”
Blake wasn’t bothered by Toffoli’s comments but also in regards to the practice habits acknowledged that “part of that accountability comes on the players, too. If you’re the hardest working guy every day in practice, maybe you have an opportunity to say that.”
— Dave Lowry will not return as an assistant coach, Blake confirmed. John Stevens, Don Nachbaur and Lowry filled out a tight-knit staff that despite Nachbaur and Lowry’s limited ties to the organization previously seemed to strike a good chord and synergy among the players during the 2017-18 season, when the club claimed the Jennings Trophy by allowing the fewest goals in the league. Lowry had a hand in the league’s top penalty kill that year, but roles were reshuffled under Willie Desjardins, leading Dustin Brown to articulate that the penalty kill that became “less aggressive” in finishing the year 29th in the league with an uncharacteristic 76.5% success rate.
Marco Sturm and Bill Ranford remain under contract, though beyond Ranford’s work with the goaltenders, it’s not clear what their exact roles on the new staff will be or how they might evolve. Though Pierre Turgeon logged scoring chances in 2017-18, that had primarily been a Ranford duty.
Blake left last night for the World U-18 Championship in Sweden and acknowledged that McLellan has “got to digest all of this and get situated,” but that the staff should be filled out relatively soon.
“I would say near the end of this month, hopefully, we can get some stuff in place there,” he said.
Before that come the logistics of moving a family – including two sons, both in college – to Southern California.
“We took time, Rob and I and getting to this point,” McLellan said. The next step for me is personally to get settles in the community, get my family here, and than after that we’ll begin to look at completing the staff, talking about what our needs are, and that goes right through the whol;e organization when it comes to coaches. But there are good people here now, and we just have to augment it for perhaps some others.”
McLellan has encountered Sturm many times through the familiar “hockey circles” and saw him in Germany when Edmonton played a preseason game in Cologne in October. His San Jose acquaintances spoke highly of Sturm, as one would expect. “There’s a relationship there,” he said, while acknowledging the likelihood of bringing in another coach from outside the organization to join the staff.
“We’ll definitely meet with what is here. The process will take a little bit of time. It’ll be ongoing. You always in the back of your mind thing about this type of opportunity and who you’d maybe like to have join you. I’d think we’ll probably add somebody from the exterior. I think that’s important. But it’s in the very infancy stage. It really hasn’t been overly discussed yet. We’re trying to get through these days, and for me, personally get established in the community first and get that out of the way and then really dig in.”
— Buffalo met with McLellan last weekend while he was in town for the Frozen Four, outreach that the coach spoke highly of. “It was a great experience, I can tell you that,” he said. “Whoever gets that job will have a great ownership group and management group to work with. They’ve got a tremendous pool of assets and it’ll be a really good job.”
Meanwhile, Blake acknowledged that he had spoken to other coaching candidates, though none to the same definition or focus as McLellan. “Yeah, but I knew who I wanted, [he was] the number one candidate near the end of the season, I knew who I was going to go after.”
He referenced the “why” – the communication and instruction – as a factor in pursuing McLellan.
“I played long enough and under enough coaches, but my two years in San Jose really accentuated that part. ‘Why’ are we doing certain things on the power play, ‘why’ are we doing things from the red line-in? And understanding, a lot of us just do those things, but there’s an understanding to why we are doing it and I think it’s a valuable lesson that he has an ability to do that.”
— Anze Kopitar will remain captain. There was no legitimate talk internally of shifting the captaincy again, but sometimes when teams underperform and changes are made, well, changes are made.
“Anze’s the captain, and that’s going to stay that way,” McLellan said. “There’s a leadership group there that I’ll have to work closely with and I’ll have to make sure they’re on board, they’re all-in. And if they’re all-in, everything else will fall into place, and I think we can get there.”
Rob Blake, on why Todd McLellan is the “right” coach when John Stevens and Willie Desjardins weren’t:
Well, personal experience, probably and that’s what I relied heavily on. Like I said, you can sit in an interview for a few hours and you can probably get the right answers to the questions you’re asking and different things, but I went through, what 160, 180 meetings possibly, four rounds of playoffs, different situations through teams, but I got to see how he reacted first and foremost. So, when I was looking at filling this position and understanding the task at hand, I wanted to make sure that there was somebody that I knew, pretty much every situation that was going to occur, I would understand how he would handle it.
Blake, on getting the right person for the job without missing out on someone he had targeted:
Not so much lose out, but it’s a day-to-day job, it’s players every he’s single day downstairs and it’s the coach’s job…The two of us will be on the same page, but he’s got to execute that through the players every day. Tough job, it’s very important. There aren’t a lot of top end ones like that that can be available at certain times, so that was important for us.
Blake, on McLellan meeting with several veteran players already:
Kopi was here, he’s leaving later [Wednesday], he’s going to play for Slovenia there, so he wanted to make sure he reached out and got ahold of him. There’s a couple of other guys that came in here today to start training he’s met with too. Similar to, I would imagine, a lot of coaches – it’s setting that foundation right away to get started.
Blake, on whether he’s met with Ilya Kovalchuk yet:
No, not yet. [Reporter: When do you anticipate doing that?]. I’m leaving, I’m going to Sweden here tonight, to the U-18’s, so I’ll be back here in a couple weeks.
Blake, on what he’ll hope to hear from Kovalchuk when they meet:
I just think these two [Kovalchuk and McLellan] need to get on the same page and understand what Todd expects and then go from there. I don’t think there’s anything I need to hear from him in that aspect, but a lot will rely on their relationship.
Blake, on any additional injury updates:
Nothing other than Grundstrom, Carl, and he was cleared to participate, he’s fine. Not participate in anything, other than he’d have been healthy if the season was still going on. But there were no other injuries after that or anything that came out of the medical.
Blake, on whether it’s possible the Kings could move up or down in the draft:
Is it possible, I mean yeah, but I wouldn’t say that is a high percentage chance by any means, and a lot will come through Mark Yannetti’s staff and their dictation of who they expect available, who’s going to be in this range. Once you identify that, is there a chance he’s available at a later pick? Possibly, but you know there’s a lot that will go into that for sure. [Reporter: Possible that you can grab an asset by moving down?] Unless the guy we want is there right away, and we’ve got to make sure we get him. That’s our pick.
Blake, on whether he feels “pressure from above” to get this coaching choice correct:
No, I feel pressure from myself to get this right, to be honest with you. I need to get it right, you’re right 100 percent.
–Lead photo via Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI