For a man who has been coaching at the professional level since 2000, it takes a lot for something to be different for Todd McLellan.
And yet, these past nine months have been unlike anything the LA Kings bench boss has ever experienced in his hockey career.
Dating back to when the Kings last took the ice as a team – March 11 against Ottawa at STAPLES Center – there has been much to wonder about, but little certainty.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” McLellan said on a call last week. “From the time we played our last game against Ottawa until now, there’s been ups and downs, we’re in a bubble, we’re not in the bubble, we’re going to finish the year, we’re not going to finish the year, we’re not part of the playoffs, to a potential summer development camp, that went away, to different start dates and training camp dates, that keeps getting pushed back.”
The most certain piece of news that the Kings received was that their 2019-20 season would end on an uncertain note. Without any games since March, preparation during a pandemic has proven to be a day-by-day situation for McLellan and his staff.
Immediately after the end of the season, he and his fellow coaches began first with individual evaluations, speaking with each player about their own game and areas they felt needed work over the summer.
Then came the team as a whole, looking at how the coaching staff evaluated the entire group, rather than the individual pieces. Following a break in the summer, McLellan and much of the coaching staff has been back in Los Angeles since late-August, working together – socially distanced – on a regular basis and getting back into the state of mind necessary for the start of the upcoming season.
“[We] have been meeting on almost a daily basis, discussing different parts of the game, our lineup, what other teams are doing and trying to stay ‘hockey fit,’” McLellan said. “We’re just reacting to different hockey models now, as they come up with new plans, and until they get going that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
When the Kings do eventually re-convene for training camp, it will likely have been at least four months longer than a usual summer layoff for a team that missed out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While the situation has not been ideal in many ways, McLellan has found the positives. The extended hiatus has allowed for the hockey operations team to dive deeper into certain areas of preseason preparation than they ever had in the past.
Much of that preparation has been a collaboration between the NHL coaching staff, that of the Ontario Reign, led by new Head Coach John Wroblewski, and the development team, which brings its own unique angle to the conversation.
McLellan said that the group could spend three days on a specific element of the game – say the forecheck for example – incorporating many different hockey minds into the equation, as a result of the extra time.
“We’ve picked parts of our game on a daily basis and have talked about them,” McLellan said. “This is how we’d like to do it, this is how we teach it, this is what we think the strengths and weaknesses are in these particular systems, what are some of the skillsets that are involved in it. That’s where the development team comes in – and we’ve never been able to do that with them – is we say what is required of this type of player.”
Not only has the group been able to analyze the systems themselves, but with the development team incorporated, they’ve been able to focus more on how certain skillsets of players fit into those specific systems.
How will a smaller, faster player perform versus a bigger, heavier player in this system, and more importantly, can both types co-exist and succeed in a similar system?
McLellan admitted that he and his staff have perhaps even “overcooked” these smaller situations, but with nothing but time on their hands over the last three months, why not right?
When the team eventually makes its return to official skates with an NHL training camp, it will do so – technically – on a seven-game winning streak, which is where the Kings left things back in March.
In many ways, the stoppage in play couldn’t have come at a worse time for LA, as it was playing its most successful hockey of the season. With such strong results, one would have hoped to see that momentum continue throughout the final stretch of games and into the offseason.
Now, however, some nine months later, while the momentum element is just about evaporated, positive memories remain that McLellan feels the group can look back on.
“I think we’re closer to fresh start than we are from carrying over momentum from ten months ago, it’s just so far in the past,” he noted. “We also have strong memories. We can refer back to it. At that point in the season, we were doing a lot of things right structurally and team-wise, and we were getting rewarded for it, so we know it’s somewhere in the bank and we can draw on it again.”
What the Kings will have, unlike training camp one season prior, is a foundation together.
The Kings added just four veteran players in the offseason, meaning that the majority of players currently in contention for a roster spot, minus the first-year pros, have spent at least a season learning McLellan’s philosophies and systems in either the NHL or AHL.
“You’re going to hear me use the word ‘re-establish’ a lot,” he said. “We need to re-establish so many things when we get back as a group, from what is acceptable and unacceptable, to our structure and how we want to play. The words the players need to hear again, reminders of how we need to do things, because we haven’t done anything in ten months. That re-establish word is going to be used a lot.”
Last season, was McLellan’s first as the Head Coach of the Kings, with lots of players adjusting into a new style of hockey, deviating from the grind-it-out ways of years past. While there are no allusions that everyone will return to action without rust, the belief will be that things will come back to them more quickly than it was to learn in Year 1.
“I’m expecting them to be rusty, to forgotten certain keys or reads in certain areas, but I’m hoping that comes back fairly quick,” McLellan said.
As he puts it, re-establishing what was learned and achieved last season will be important at the start and the expectation is that the players will pick back up many of those things quickly.
Re-establish, however, doesn’t carry stagnant connotations.
Once the basics come back – and they will have to come back quickly, considering what is expected to be an abbreviated training camp with little or no exhibition games – the team can continue its growth.
“That re-establish word is going to be used a lot, but we also have to advance things,” McLellan said. “There are areas of our game and the parts that we maybe didn’t even get to last year that we need to tap into this year. We feel like we’re prepared.”
When, exactly the Kings will have the opportunity to get back on the ice and get started on these strategies still remains unknown. The NHL and NHLPA continue to converse about a potential return to play, though an official announcement awaits.
Until then, McLellan will avoid writing anything in permanent marker.
“I have one big calendar up on the wall and every day we write something new on it or move it a day forward or a day back, so we’re trying to plan on the fly to be completely ready and give our players everything they need to have success,” he said. “By doing that, it changes on us quite often, which we expect to happen. As we get into the season, I think there are going to be things we’re going to have to react to that aren’t quite normal, and we should be prepared for that and we should understand that. We have to think about health and safety first, and as we’re doing that, we have to come up with a really good hockey program. We’re doing it as good as we can.”