Shortly into the LA Kings’ 1:00 p.m. practice Thursday at Xcel Energy Center, a collection of reporters and members of the media spoke with Rob Blake about several topics related to the club’s 2-6-1 start. Thank you for reading this story; please click on links and support the exceptional work penned by Lisa Dillman of The Athletic and Curtis Zupke of the LA Times.
I have additional bullet points below the lead story, but first, here’s a look on what Blake is seeing, and where the Kings can go from here.
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Nine games in, it’s not particularly easy to get firm reads beyond the fact that the collective group and a heavy number of individual players obviously haven’t played well.
“I’m not sure you can pick a lot of guys that have played well,” Blake said. “Iafallo’s been a really good player for us. But, yeah, it’s hard to get a read when a lot of guys don’t play well.”
That’s clear! And there’s often a saying in hockey that you shouldn’t trust too much of what you see for the first two or three weeks of the season. But given the team’s tepid emotional resonance in the home losses to the Islanders and Sabres after a 1-3-0 road trip, and how it has bridged a five-game losing streak, is this enough of a sample size from which decisions and changes may be derived?
“I’ve got enough sample size to know that they’re not playing well,” Blake said. “What are we, nine games in? It’s pretty evident that they’re not playing well.”
Blake “thought things were better” in Los Angeles’ 4-2 loss at Dallas on Tuesday, as did the players and coaches, but there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done.
“I thought it was a step in the right direction, but obviously not good enough,” he said. “I saw some things we can draw from, but this league is based on results and wins and losses, and at the end of the day, we didn’t get a win. So, not good enough.”
So, where to go from here? Ride this out until Dustin Brown’s return? Shake up the locker room with a trade? Fire everyone, as seems to be a common thread in my mentions and emails? Los Angeles is struggling, but the sense is that management is going to afford the team the opportunity to turn this around, and when asked about John Stevens, Blake responded, “he’s a good coach. He’s a real good coach.”
Stevens and the Kings were a topic on TSN’s Insider Trading Tuesday night, with Darren Dreger sharing that any hypothetical dismissals of a coach wouldn’t be “the first move that general manager Rob Blake makes,” and that the Kings need their best players to be better. But Dreger also said that “there’s been speculation around Alec Martinez as a trade possibility,” which perked some ears and caught some eyes.
“I’m not going to go into specifics on any of the calls,” Blake said. “Listen, when you start a season like this, you’re going to have a lot of different rumors going around. That’s all I can say to that. I’m not going to comment on anything specific by any means.”
This isn’t something completely out of left field regarding Martinez. In the summer of 2017 and early in the 2017-18 season, the Kings internally debated the idea of whether to trade a defenseman for a forward to bring in some offense. Los Angeles’ 11-2-2 start that year essentially tabled that discussion, though it may not have been killed off entirely.
“A lot of us have been around long enough where you can’t as an athlete think about that stuff because it’ll only make matters worse,” said Martinez, who acknowledged that hypothetical player movement from the Kings’ room does hang in the back of his mind.
“I guess it’s no different than any other job,” Martinez continued. “If General Motors is losing money, they’re going to make changes up top, too. If they’re not performing, selling vehicles, they’re probably going to make changes. It’s no different for professional sports. If you’re not getting results, the possibility of changes are there.”
Martinez noted as much after the Buffalo game, telling Dillman that “the world we live in” makes players “replaceable,” regardless of how much they make, their position or their pedigree. But he doesn’t pay attention to when his name pops up in speculation because of the unnecessary stress it can generate.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not worth giving any thought, because it’s not going to make things any better,” he said. “I, like everyone else in this room, am focused on our game and focused on getting wins, and quite frankly, I don’t give a [—-] about the rest of it.”
The sense that I have – and I’m pretty sure this is shared by the other reporters who travel with the team and cover it intricately – is that right now it will be up to the players to regularly refill their emotional reservoir and venture forward to turn their season around.
“They’re good players,” Blake said. “They’re good players, and they’re not playing to the level of their expectations by any means, or mine. And they’ve been vocal about it, too. They’re not hiding anything. They’re good about that. They’re all professionals in that aspect. We understand the task.”
—As reported, expect Dustin Brown (broken finger) to return Sunday when the Kings face the New York Rangers at Staples Center.
“Brownie in all aspects should be back Sunday. He’s practicing pretty well full here,” Blake said. “We’re hopeful we get clearance. We’ll see on Friday or Saturday there. Yeah, that’s a big ingredient for the balance and the look of the team. It kind of puts guys in the right spots again. The special teams aspect of that, too – he does both power play and penalty kill.”
A lot can happen over four days, but with a 23-man roster, the Kings would need to make a corresponding roster move when Brown comes off LTIR.
—As reported, we’re approaching the next Gabe Vilardi evaluation. Barring any setbacks, there’s a chance that Vilardi (back) could take the ice with a larger group at some point in the near future.
“He’s obviously skating at home. We’ll re-evaluate him next week,” Blake said. “He’s very close to being integrated into a practice, possibly. That’s the next step, and it’s closer than it ever has been. … It’s hard, because it can change in a day. But as the way he’s tracking right now and what he’s been able to do on the ice on his own, the next step is to be integrated into practice.”
On other prospects who’ve caught his eye in Ontario, he referenced Sheldon Rempal and Sean Walker – both of whom are up in Los Angeles – before dropping another member of their undrafted free agent class. “[Matt] Luff’s a very good player down there, too. He had a little injury there that sidelined him for a game or two on that aspect.” Luff missed a game but has two goals and six points in the other six. The Reign are 1-3-3 in their first seven games and have yielded an AHL-high 36 goals against. Based on my correspondence, this is largely a byproduct of a younger, less veteran team, particularly defensively. I’ve also heard from several players and hockey operations figures that the loss of Zack Mitchell, who has been skating but remains out due to injury, has had an effect on the team. Mitchell hasn’t played since October 12, and as a player with 16 goals and 33 points in 42 games with AHL-Iowa last season (and three goals and five points in 23 games with Minnesota), is capable of catalyzing the locker room cohesion and has been cited as a strong leadership figure – in addition to being a proven AHL scorer – by several of his younger teammates.
–Blake said it was a “tough decision” to assign Jaret Anderson-Dolan back to WHL-Spokane, where he’ll serve as a co-captain, along with New Jersey first rounder Ty Smith. “He’s a good player. He’ll be a good player for the organization for a long time. … He’s very focused and determined well above his age. He’s going to be a good, good player.” Upon the conclusion of Anderson-Dolan’s season with the Chiefs, he’ll be eligible to either return to Los Angeles or be assigned to AHL-Ontario.
–Lead photo via Glenn James/NHLI