There’s a lot to unpack after a calamitous LA Kings season that stoked a proud organization to recalibrate its competitive trajectory and again define angles of approach in rebuilding their culture and standards – and more importantly, to hopefully win more games in the future. This was, after all, an organization that earned its place in hockey history “because of attitude and character – not because they were the most skilled,” as new Head Coach Todd McLellan shared at his introduction.
McLellan is very familiar with such intangible forces, having served as a prime antagonist during regular season and playoff battles of the past decade while as San Jose’s coach. For so many high-profile moments that swung both ways – Joe Thornton sliding on his back at Staples Center; Ryane Clowe playing a live puck from the bench; Jonathan Quick stoning Joe Pavelski in 2013; the Kings rebounding from a 3-0 series deficit to win another Game 7 one year later – McLellan cited such familiarity within the fiery rivalry as a positive that would ease his transition. “In some strange way, I feel comfortable about being here because of that,” he said.
Such familiarity was also cited as a positive by Dustin Brown, whose energy and emotion in the rivalry could power a city the size of Ithaca, New York. “He probably has a better understanding of who we are as players individually, just from coaching against us not only in the regular season, but in big playoff games he has a pretty good understanding of what we are as a team and what we are as players and where we want to go – and need to go – as a group. So, I kind of look at it more as a positive than anything, just because he’s really well-read in terms of our team.”And so the broad body of work begins to refresh and rebuild what isn’t easily definable. Quite a few abstract terms have been used since the team chose to part ways with interim coach Willie Desjardins and conduct a new coaching search in which McLellan had been a prime candidate. There has been talk of “buy-in,” of “culture,” of “credibility” and “structure” and “accountability.”
More concretely, the team’s practice habits will have to improve after a malaise in preparation that began with a bland preseason and continued well past the team’s unofficial expiration date. Tyler Toffoli deemed such habits “pathetic” at a year-end media session, an encapsulation of the scale and scope of the issue that must be addressed – and incompatible with the team’s ethos during its most competitive heights.
He’ll rely on communication to build that base of understanding and accountability. Knowing Anze Kopitar would be leaving shortly for Europe to join the Slovenian national team, he found time prior to his introduction to have one-on-one time with his captain. He spoke with Dustin Brown on the phone and was intent on building a relationship with Ilya Kovalchuk before addressing the maintenance necessary after he and Desjardins did not see eye-to-eye. He was aware of the weight of Toffoli’s team practice assessment and other sentiments sharply presented by Drew Doughty and other players after the season ended. “A strong coach, a good organization listens to its players, and I’ve heard that,” he said while sharing a glimpse of a message he has shared internally.
“My job is to bring you guys together, to hold you accountable, but make sure we’re all going the right directions, and whatever decisions I make, whatever methods I use to hold you accountable, you need to know right now it’s because I care about the team, I care about you individually, and that’s why we’re doing it,” McLellan said.
Two coaches from the previous staff remain with the organization. Marco Sturm’s role is not defined as the team constructs coaching roles with the likelihood that it will look outside the organization to fill at least one more assistant position. McLellan will also be able to rely on Bill Ranford, who has drawn acclaim for his work with team goaltenders this decade under Marc Crawford, Terry Murray, Darryl Sutter, John Stevens and Desjardins before McLellan’s April hiring.
“We just went over some things that I thought are important moving forward,” Ranford said. “Talked about the three main goalies in our system and what I see with the group of them moving forward and just hearing some of his terminology. It was a lot like the same sort of terminology that John and Darryl used, so that was a good thing for me.”
“The thing that I was excited about is the concept that he believes that the goalies and the D work as one and we kind of got away from that, so I was excited to hear about that. That he really wants to focus and make sure that we’re always on the same page. Have it so your goalies have the least amount of options as possible so that they can simplify their game. So, those are some of the things he talked to me about, which from my standpoint that’s the way I think it should be done, so I was excited obviously to hear that.”
As he builds a relationship with McLellan and learns his tendencies and broaches broader structural conversations – the two played against each other in the WHL, but “the [more recent] interaction we’ve had is mainly at the Coaches Association,” Ranford noted – there won’t be as much acute tactical discussion, like “what he does in practice and that sort of thing, or trying to convince him of what I’d like to see happen and whether he’s interested in that happening,” as Ranford explained.
“Basically, what he talked about was what he thought my role would be early on, and he said he’d be leaning on me to get a little bit of an evaluation on the players – but also to the point where he didn’t want me influencing him too much. He wanted to be open-minded, which I thought was important. Probably the best way to put it is he really wants to know more of the positives than the negatives of our guys right now.”
The Kings will need to score more. It seems simple to say that they will look to “outscore” their opponents, but there have been and will continue to be adjustments in drafting and teaching that both pinpoint skill and tailor it for the rigors and competitive standards of the professional game. All players signed and drafted from this point forward need to grade at a certain skating threshold that will allow them to both skate and make decisions quickly. The vision of this team is one that incorporates a more attractive and attacking brand of hockey that corresponds with the raised tempo in the modern game – and an evolution from the more suffocating (and, earlier this decade, vastly successful) heavy, defensive-minded bent.
If there’s a template towards raised scoring, it can be found in the vast power play advances made over the past 15 years. 15 teams operated at better than 20% on the power play in 2018-19; that number had climbed to 18 the previous year. In the 12 prior seasons, there were a combined 76 teams whose power plays finished above 20%. But it’s too early to start getting into the X’s and O’s of Kings units that have surpassed 20% in only three of the last 16 seasons without the full staff and roles in place.
Rather, it’s about communicating the groundwork and base that will hopefully allow not just the power play but all endeavors across the board to flourish in due time. Right now, the prime focus isn’t necessarily on minor special teams schematics as it is about setting organizational structure, philosophies and responsibilities in place that the team hopes will ultimately sustain success. That’s something that’s going to take some time.
Brown admitted he had spoken with McLellan only once on the phone, “but everything I’ve heard and everything he seems to be about is, he seems to be a really good communicator when I did talk to him.”
“He’s just very open and very honest, and I think as players, that’s what we need and ultimately that’s what we want,” he continued. “The structure part of it, I think, will be really beneficial for us. I think that was lacking just in a lot of areas, both big and small, and having a guy that can guide a group of men throughout an 82-game season is clearly something that he’ll help a big deal with.”
–Lead photo via Adam Pantozzi/NHLI