Lineups; Kovalchuk; coach relationships (and even the Trash Can Incident)

INSIDERS. A good afternoon to you all. [extremely Dave Joseph voice] THE ANAHEIM DUCKS ARE IN TOWN. They’ll make the second of their two Staples Center visits this season (7:30 p.m. / FOX Sports West / FOX Sports app / LA Kings Audio Network) as the LA Kings will look to claim their first season series from their Freeway Faceoff rivals since going 2-1-1 in 2012-13, earning both wins in regulation. It’s also a Hockey Night in Los Angeles broadcast with the wonderfully friendly and talented Colin Hanks joining the FOX Sports West crew during the LA Kings Live pre-game show and Alex and Jim during the second period. As for the hockey, Los Angeles aligned thusly at Toyota Sports Center this morning:




–The vitals: Jonathan Quick left the ice first at the morning skate and is tonight’s projected starter. He’s 20-12-8 with a 2.48 goals-against average, a .907 save percentage and one shutout in 42 career appearances against the Ducks. Willie Desjardins said he’ll “probably” go with the 11-forward, seven-defenseman alignment again, which as shared yesterday would mean that Ilya Kovalchuk and Dion Phaneuf are tonight’s likely scratches. More on that in a moment. Phaneuf stayed out for extra work with Jack Campbell, though Kovalchuk left the ice relatively quickly. Brendan Leipsic (lower-body) didn’t skate this morning but did pass through the team’s dressing room after the skate.

–Their vitals: Anaheim never trailed on Friday in their 4-3 overtime home win over San Jose, which has now lost five straight after a four-game losing streak. John Gibson started last night, which suggests Ryan Miller could get the nod tonight in the second game of the back-to-back. No reports have shared the Ducks’ starting goalie, and unless that happens, you should Wait For The Song. Via Eric Stephens, Anaheim lined up last night with Rakell-Getzlaf-Silverberg, Ritchie-Henrique-Sprong, Perry-Shore-Rowney and Jones-Grant-Terry up front with defensive pairings of Lindholm-Manson, Welinski-Fowler and Megna-Holzer. They haven’t necessarily gotten the Lose for Hughes memo and have won seven of their last 11, though this will pit two of the three teams with the worst goal differential in the league against each other. At -56, Anaheim is just behind Ottawa (-57) and Los Angeles (-58) in the race for the green jacket. “They went through a stretch and they’ve been playing better lately,” Willie Desjardins said. “I think if you look back at the start of the year, they were a team that everybody thought they’d be do pretty well. They’ve got a good group and they are a heavy team. They’ll play hard tonight.”

–Jeff Carter scored an empty-net goal in Thursday’s win, ending a personal 20-game goal drought. It has been a nightmare season for Carter, as it has been for many across the organization, but particularly so for the player whose Achilles was lacerated in a skate cut last season, forcing him to miss 55 games. Though he was a productive skater when he returned, he scored disproportionately on deflections, rebounds and close-range second opportunities, and didn’t show his trademark speed and ability to shoot off the rush. But Carter has always been a highly intelligent player with a wide wingspan, and the added regular season production appeared to be a reflection of his ability to get to certain spots and evolve his game to the benefit of the team.

There’s no such forgiving backboard this season. Carter’s goal, assist, point, shot and scoring chance rates have fallen significantly, as has his shooting percentage and the regularity with which he’s drawn penalties. On-ice metrics don’t necessarily tell a player’s individual story, but his goals-against rate on the penalty kill is the fourth worst across the league among the 266 players who’ve logged at least 80 shorthanded minutes, while his power play rates place him in the middle of the pack.

It doesn’t take analytics to understand that Carter, who has 11 goals and 29 points in 67 games, has struggled. More important question include, “to what degree has he been affected by his injury?” and “is he struggling with motivation?” Desjardins’ counterpoint runs contrary to conventional thinking espoused both inside and outside the organization.

“I don’t know if he’s been slowed. I think he’s been playing well of late,” Desjardins said. “I don’t mind his game. I think for a guy that’s been around for a while, I think this is a tough situation. It’s easier to play passionate when you’re playing for something, but at the same time, we need him. We need him to be good. If he’s not playing well, he’s not out there with two minutes left in the game shorthanded, so obviously he’s doing some good things, because that’s where he is, and he came through for us.”

— Premier free agent signee Ilya Kovalchuk, who is expected to sit out due to a coach’s decision for the third time in four games, spoke Friday with The Athletic and the LA Times and shared some of the dressing room’s most pointed public comments of a dismal season. “It’s horrible,” he said of Desjardins’ decision to sit him.

“After Willie came here, I don’t have a chance,” Kovalchuk said, as captured by Curtis Zupke. (Lisa Dillman also shares the story and analysis here; both stories are recommended.) “I play five, six minutes a game. A few games I play with Kopi. We did well. We score all five games, but then he decided to change and I never play again much. That’s the way he sees the situation. He’s the head coach and he’s responsible for results.”

He’s not the only player to question Desjardins’ deployment strategy, though he is the only one to do so publicly and with such clear aversion. Other players have privately spoken with reporters, including LA Kings Insider, about particular decisions and usage, while Jonathan Quick, frustrated over a goal in Carolina that involved [perhaps team-initiated] contact and went unchallenged, vented his frustrations in a visibly angry exchange with Desjardins at the Kings bench during a break in action on February 26.

Players will spar with coaches each season, but usually such quarrels are spared the amplification of a television camera or a tape recorder. Clearly this is a frustrated group.

This obviously isn’t a high-water mark of organizational relationships. And it should also be noted that many players who remain in Los Angeles also fell out with Darryl Sutter – who for several seasons successfully motivated players through a piercing and demanding managerial style – and lacked buy-in this season under John Stevens, who was dismissed along with assistant coach Don Nachbaur after only 13 games.

But while dissent towards Desjardins’ standards and practices are valid, he shouldn’t receive undue blame for shortcomings that run far deeper than coaching. Drew Doughty, who said he hadn’t heard or read Kovalchuk’s comments, spoke diplomatically when asked whether there’s a rift with Desjardins, answering, “no, it’s just been a frustrating season for everyone.”

“The players haven’t played well enough for Willie, so Willie’s having to move things around, trying different things. Obviously not everyone on the team’s going to agree with it because everyone wants to play and no one wants to sit out, so sometimes conversations will happen between the coach and the players and it usually stays pretty private, but this one spread to the media because of his frustration, and sometimes players are going to do that. But there’s no separation in this room.”

At the time of Desjardins’ hiring, Los Angeles made the decision to go with an interim coach rather than ultimately sign a head coach to a multi-year contract. There are a lot of factors involved in such a decision, one of which was the ability of the team to immediately be able to contend in a league that has progressively gotten younger and faster. But coaches want job security, and an interim label potentially reduced their leverage and the pool of viable mid-season applicants.

That’s not a knock on Desjardins as much as it illuminates how only 13 games were needed to decide that they were no longer in a position to compete after it had been communicated at the State of the Franchise last August that management viewed the 2018-19 LA Kings as contenders.

Even if there is a disconnect between a number of players and Desjardins (there is), that’s only part of the multi-dimensional challenges facing an organization that tonight is likely to keep $11.5-million of cap space out of the lineup. Desjardins is just the guy making difficult and polarizing decisions who has to stand in front of reporters twice a day. And more than his handling of Kovalchuk, there are also questions over the pursuit of Kovalchuk in the first place. Whose decision was it to add the third year to his contract, which provided strong influence – along with the player’s view that the Kings were contenders – to sign with the club in the first place? Why did the team feel the need to improve a slot in the lineup that Alex Iafallo capably occupied the year before? How much is Desjardins and the front office in lockstep about how Kovalchuk and other intermittently used players should be handled? Bear in mind with some small sample sizes here (via Natural Stat Trick):

Kovalchuk, 13 games under John Stevens (1.01 PDO)
47.9 CF%, -3.5 CF%Rel, 46.5 SCF%, 2.6 on-ice GF/60, 3.2 on-ice GA/60, 1.92 Pts/60, .96 G/60

Kovalchuk, 47 games under Willie Desjardins (.968 PDO)
44.6 CF%, -4.1 CF%Rel, 43.1% SCF%, 1.5 on-ice GF/60, 3.0 on-ice GA/60, 1.32 Pts/60, .51 G/60

Though there’s now a (somewhat awkward) shift towards looking at younger players, there’s still a question over what the organization’s intent is towards Kovalchuk and how it has aligned (or not aligned) with how Desjardins has handled him.

While this episode is the latest low-point in relationships between coaches and players, let’s not kid ourselves that even in the best of times the two parties intermingle in perfect harmony.

“No matter what coach you have, you’re going to have issues with him at some point during the season,” Doughty said. “The coaches have got to keep you accountable. Some guys don’t like it, some guys need it. There’s never been a season where I didn’t hear guys bitching about the coach. That’s the way it’s always going to be, and not everything’s going to go smoothly. The coach has to get on guys in certain ways, so it’s just part of the business. We’re used to it.”

Even during the 2014 Stanley Cup run, I still received a note from a player who had objected to Sutter’s portrayal of him in the media. It wasn’t Doughty, though the Kings’ alternate captain did speak about the “many awkward times” during the prickly and direct coach’s esteemed tenure in Los Angeles when the February, 2015 Trash Can Incident was referenced.

“Darryl had this special power to make you feel a certain way,” Doughty said. “He might not have been taking about you. He could’ve been talking about someone else on the team, but he had this special power that made you think he was always talking about you, and it got to a boiling point where the team was really frustrated [that season]. We obviously weren’t winning at that time, too, so that was partly due to frustration. The whole garbage can thing wasn’t like we were standing up to him. It was more of a joke – not a joke, but … we weren’t trying to make a statement, per se. We were trying to let him know ‘settle down a little bit.’”

“We didn’t lock him out of the room – that got blown out of proportion, that whole story. I’m pretty sure he just moved the garbage can and came in the room, anyway. Like I said, things like that are going to happen with coaches. I’ve had my fair share of battles with coaches in the past. You’ve just got to come in the next day, apologize about it and move on.”

That incident – which immediately followed a win but came on the heels of a losing stretch in which the team’s difficulties were compounded by the constant presence of Epix video cameras in private areas – was again an example of frustration boiling over during a difficult season.

And since leverage was mentioned earlier, Desjardins doesn’t have much of it. It’s easier for those inside and outside the organization to dunk on him than it is on those who will figure into the team’s story in 2019-20. Such interactions take place within the perfect storm of a 30th place slog, and there is still probably another chapter or two of discontent to come.

— I was taught by my mother to avoid “condescending from no particular height,” so forgive me for some cross-division voyeurism. Los Angeles isn’t the only market in which controversy recently spilled into pixels and print: Edmonton Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson made highly critical remarks about Kings alum Tobias Rieder while speaking with season ticket holders earlier this week. Sportsnet, The Athletic and the Edmonton Sun all have worthwhile pieces if you’d like to be distracted by the 2018-19 Kings for 15 minutes.

— That’s it for now, Insiders. Tonight’s officials are referees Brad Meier and Graham Skilleter and linesmen Pierre Racicot and Bevan Mills. Jessica Meuse will sing the national anthem. Enjoy the Freeway Faceoff, Insiders. Let’s talk soon.

–Lead photo via Adam Pantozzi/NHLI

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