This morning, Head Coach Todd McLellan and General Manager Rob Blake gave their season-ending interviews. We’ll start with Blake’s interview here, with a lot to unpack from both, and follow up with McLellan’s thoughts and remarks.
First, the cold hard facts.
In terms of injury updates, Blake shared information on four players, who either had or ended the season with various ailments.
– Blake Lizotte suffered an AC Sprain, that cost him both the end of the season and an opportunity to play at the World Championships in Latvia.
– Dustin Brown had been fighting an upper-body injury throughout the season, playing through it, until he was advised by doctors to shut it down. Brown’s recovery will be “non-surgical” per Blake, but will require time to rehab and heal.
– Jonathan Quick suffered a rib injury in his final game of the season in Arizona, which kept him out for the remainder of the season. Quick is also expected to undergo an unrelated shoulder surgery tomorrow, something due to wear and tear over time, which will be repaired and he is fully expected to be back.
– Tyler Madden, who returned to the Ontario Reign’s lineup this past Friday in Tucson, suffered a broken collarbone in early-March in Bakersfield, an injury that required surgery and cost him more than two months of his first professional season.
The Kings currently have a small collection of restricted free agents this offseason, with the largest names being Andreas Athanasiou and Trevor Moore. Blake did not go into the status of each player specifically, but did confirm what both players said earlier this month, that conversations have started.
“It’ll take place further down the road, but we have been in contact with them, prior to the deadline, after the deadline. They’re a little bit of a different situation than UFA’s, such as Iafallo at the deadline, priority wise with signing at that time, not priority in we want them on our team. Definitely conversations, and we’ll be continuing those.”
– One note from McLellan’s interview is that indicated that the coaching staff will return, in its entirety. That consists of McLellan himself, assistants Trent Yawney and Marco Sturm, goaltending coach Bill Ranford and video coaches Samson Lee and Derik Johnson.
“We’ve clarified that our staff is going to be back together and we’re looking forward to moving the team in an upward direction. Obviously we have a lot of work to do, but our group will be back together.”
I’m not sure how many ways someone can say that the team needs to get better, but Rob Blake may have covered them all throughout the course of his availability this morning.
It was the primary topic of discussion and the secondary topic of discussion and rightfully so.
“This summer is very important, as it always is. I think it’s a step further in the direction that we want to get to, where we want to progress and get better……We’re going to take the necessary steps this summer, we’ve taken the necessary steps to do that. Regarding age groups and players, a lot of that will be where it fits in our lineup. We’re further ahead this year in understanding where certain holes may be, and we’re a year further in the progression of some of our players, so we understand that better.”
Blake’s comments are longer, and perhaps less pointed, than what Drew Doughty said after his own exit interview the other day. They were not in disagreement though on the desire to improve.
“Drew’s comments are 100 percent, it’s the same feeling up here,” Blake said. “It’s not like we don’t want to get any better, we’re all on the same page. Now, we can take the necessary steps, we can filter in young players and we can bring them in when they’re ready and surplus them with quality NHL players to take a step forward.”
We’ll break that improvement down into two buckets, internal and external.
Internal improvement is easy to identify, because you know which players it focuses on – the ones under contract with the Kings. The hard part is recognizing who, when and by how much.
The Kings have several holes to fill in the lineup this offseason, and it’s not reasonable to expect that all of those improvements will come from outside of the organization. Internal improvement comes from two different groups in the development process, the middle group, consisting of guys with a few years of NHL experience, and the younger group, with guys either completing or entering their first full NHL seasons.
That first group is perhaps more key in terms of seeing immediate improvements –
“The next leadership, the second level, to be able to push to another level. I mentioned, the Iafallos, the Kempes, Trevor Moore, Matt Roy, Sean Walker, Cal Petersen, they’re in that position. It’s not just the youth and the young guys coming in, they need to take that next step. That’s where we’re at to be able to progress and where we say the progression is coming. The young kids will filter into this lineup, but we can also surplus that lineup ourselves.”
The second group is the younger players and integrating them into the lineup. This season, it was players like Mikey Anderson, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Tobias Bjornfot and Gabriel Vilardi who were inserted as true rookies, and they experienced the ups and downs that true rookies do.
“We also got to see some young players participate in the NHL for a full season. Todd mentioned a couple of young D, for example, in Mikey and Toby, so we’re better off in that position.”
The other side of the coin is external improvements, and it’s something that was touched on in many ways, but also the hardest question to answer. Without a clear sense of the free agent class, or the trade market, at this time, exactly who will be available to the Kings at this time via both avenues will shape itself over the coming months.
Blake said that the team will explore possibilities around the Seattle expansion draft as one area to potentially acquire proven talent, and feels that the team is further along in terms of acquiring assets, that can potentially be used to acquire proven NHL talent this offseason. He referenced the Jeff Carter trade in 2012 as an example of that process in the organization’s build up to the two championships.
“That’s exactly what happened the last time around. They were able to use assets to acquire a Jeff Carter, that came in and established two Stanley Cups with the organization. The ability to have that in place, we’re further along in our situation of understanding where these players will play on the roster, understanding hole and needs that we need to fill. You have to have the assets to be able to move around there.”
Blake felt the organization took a step forward with working on the salary cap, which has set the Kings up to be able to add essentially whatever they want to or need to this offseason. The Kings finished with the league’s second most available cap space, and has more than $20 million available to use this offseason, a total that balloons to more than $40 million in the summer of 2022. The Kings have 18 players already under contract for next season, and several others on entry-level deals that will take up minimal cap space when they break into the NHL.
– Looking at the kids, Blake said that one priority this season was to introduce several prospects into the professional ranks at the AHL level, and that was one step the organization took.
“As far as expectations, we expected, first of all, for some players to play their first years pro in the American League, so the organization took some steps in that direction.”
The Reign were a tale of two seasons. They started out with one victory from their first 13 games played, but ended the season just two games under the .500 mark. That development was something that came down to adding a couple more veterans at the AHL level throughout the season, as well as the continued growth and development of younger players.
“That team took kind of a pattern that we thought would be in place there. Very young team, led by a lot of the younger players, minutes wise and special teams wise. Struggled early, seemed to get things figured out, close to .500. With a different style, different playoff format, they’ll be playing a single elimination game here tonight.”
Blake was asked specifically about three members of the Reign – Arthur Kaliyev, Akil Thomas and Alex Turcotte – and how he felt they fared during their first professional seasons in the AHL. Blake seemed to be pleased with all three, who made up a young group with Ontario this season.
“Arthur Kaliyev, led [the Reign] in goals and points, up [among the league leaders] in rookie scoring, you could see as a 19-year-old, it took games to figure out the league a little bit, to find his position, but he was probably penciled in to be in juniors this year. With everything that happened with COVID and the pandemic, we were at an advantage to be able to play him, and Byfield, in the American League and gain that valuable experience. Akil Thomas was a very valuable player throughout the whole season and at different positions. Whether it was wing, center, power play, penalty kill, throughout the lineup. Turcotte, he had a few different injuries throughout the year that may have slowed out the number of games we expected out of him, but he was able to produce when he was in there.”
Blake also discussed the progress of Quinton Byfield, who got his NHL debut and got a taste of professional hockey throughout the season. Blake felt it was important for Byfield to play with Anze Kopitar and learn from him, taking that experience into an offseason that is hopeful to set him up for a permanent role in the NHL in the fall.
“I think the ability to have him around a player of Kopitar’s stature, albeit for a few weeks, is so important. To see the difference from not only junior to the American League but to the NHL will help him. He’s obviously in a unique situation next year, being the age he is, there’s not the American League option that we had this year with him. We really wanted him to experience the NHL and be around these pros that have established themselves and been able to win in the league.”
– Looking at the team’s season this year, not necessarily looking ahead to the future, and Blake said that regardless of the team’s good start, the team being in the hunt during the middle, and the team fading from contention down the stretch, he did not change his expectations at any point throughout the season.
“No, not at all. I think we put ourselves in a pretty good position early. You look at the trade deadline and Todd referenced the records, I think we were 5-11 after and in the 16 previous we were 6-10, so not a lot of difference, but enough to establish that it was going to be a difficult chore to get into the playoffs. They played well enough and hard enough to stay in the mix for awhile there, but the difference here being the last 4-5 games when you’re officially out, I’m not sure that’s a good sense of the compete level we needed from our players.”
Blake said that this season’s roster was not good enough to qualify for the postseason, which naturally leads to the need to improve the roster moving forward.
Naturally, not a ton of answered questions regarding direction, but today’s interviews made clear the need, and desire, to improve.
Coming up, we’ll take a look at Todd McLellan’s exit interview, as well as a game thread tonight for the Ontario Reign’s playoff game in Irvine.