Exit Interviews – Head Coach Todd McLellan

Yesterday morning, Head Coach Todd McLellan spoke with the media for the final time this season. McLellan confirmed in his interview that he and his coaching staff will be back in full next season, which would be Year 3 for McLellan with the organization. His returning was never in doubt, and it is good to get early confirmation regarding the staff.

McLellan had a lot to say throughout his 30-minute availability, found below –

Positives

Penalty Kill
Special teams, overall, were a net gain for the Kings. In the positives only column, however, we will focus on the penalty kill.

The penalty kill saw a vast improvement, rising by more than six percentage points.

The Kings ranked seventh in the NHL this season on the PK, at 83.6%, and ranked even higher until a leaky end to the season. The 26 power-play goals allowed by the Kings were tied for the fourth fewest across the league.

Overall, a very strong season down a man.

“I think the penalty kill was a significant improvement from last year. We were more defined in what our roles were, we understood personnel and how we wanted to use them. Mikey Anderson, Toby Bjornfot took on huge roles in that situation, Olli Maatta came in and helped there, so the penalty kill was a significant improvement from last year.”

Integrating Younger Players
The integration of younger players into the lineup, and in prominent roles, is much more positive than negative. The Kings saw four rookies carve out regular roles in the lineup for themselves, while other younger players, though not technically rookies, played significant games as well.

On the backend, McLellan singled out Mikey Anderson and Tobias Bjornfot several times throughout his availability as positives from the season. Anderson stepped onto the team’s first pairing and didn’t look out of place, while Bjornfot was successful on the second pairing, alongside Matt Roy.

“I think the introduction of younger players into prominent roles, it wasn’t forced on them, they were somewhat ready for most of it, especially on the blueline. Both Toby and Mikey Anderson took on significant minutes and we’re happy with that.”

Up front, the Kings iced a very young group of centers behind Anze Kopitar.

With a combination of Gabriel Vilardi, Blake Lizotte, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Quinton Byfield and Rasmus Kupari making up the numbers 2, 3 and 4 center positions on most nights, there was a lot of youth down the middle once you worked past #11 on the depth chart. A good experience as those players cut their teeth in new roles.

“On a regular basis, we had a very young center-ice core and they got to experience a lot of really good things throughout the year, and also some down times. At least they gained that experience. We have a lot of prospects now that have a year under their belt, whether it’s in the American League or the National Hockey League.”

Ups & Downs

Power Play
The power play was a tale of two seasons.

Over the first half of the season, the Kings scored 26 power-play goals from 28 games played. That pace, over the course of the full season, would have ranked tied for fourth in the NHL, despite the Kings ranking seventh to last in power-play opportunities.

It didn’t necessarily matter though, as the Kings regressed to just six total power-play goals in the second half of the season. That, obviously, would have ranked last over the course of a full 56-game schedule.

Regardless, though, the PP was a step forward – Off the heels of that early dominance, the Kings rose nearly two percentage points in total, moving from 17.1% in 2019-20 to 18.9% this past season.

“Power play was, in my opinion, the tale of two seasons. Were we a top 4-5 power play, could we consistently stay there, realistically probably not, but I do believe we were a top-10 power play. The fact that we gave a lot of it back in the last third of the season was really disappointing.”

Negatives

Final Third
“The disappointing part was the final third of the season, I thought we began to give things back there.”

The Kings were obviously not the same team in the second half of the season in many ways, specifically in the final third……56 games doesn’t breakdown equally into thirds, but the team went 6-11-1 in their final 18 games, five games below .500, which is in stark contrast to the opening third, played two games above .500.

5-on-5 Scoring
The Kings scored just 95 5-on-5 goals this season, the third-fewest in the NHL. They were one of just four teams not to reach triple digits. In the first half of the season, when the power play was firing on all cylinders, the lack of even-strength goals flew under the radar, masked by the successful man advantage. Had that continued, we might be writing a different article today. But when the power play dried up a brighter spotlight was shined on the team’s 5-on-5 offense, which was something McLellan touched on after the season.

“I think some of the youthful players coming in have to accept responsibility coming in with how to check, understand the importance of that. Overall, as a team, we’re going to have to find a way to generate more offense, 5-on-5, than we’re getting.”

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 3: Todd McLellan head coach of the Los Angeles Kings looks on during the first period against the San Jose Sharks at STAPLES Center on April 3, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)

So What Changed?

– At the one-third mark, the Kings sat two games above .500. At the halfway point, the Kings sat two games above .500.

For one thing, the schedule. The Kings had more than one day in between games four times during the months of March, April and May, and two of those breaks came because of COVID-related or travel-related issues, meaning that practice time was impacted. Regular team practices were much more normal in the first half of the season, giving a young team, with players that need to work through mistakes, more time to work on it in a practice setting.

McLellan clarified that this was obviously not unique to the Kings, but it was something that came into play down the stretch.

“In talking to coaches around the league, that’s the first thing that often came out of their mouths, is that we just don’t get any time to practice. Certainly, in the second half of the season, as we were affected by not necessarily our COVID issues but other teams, and had reschedulings, the games just kept coming and kept coming. We had players that had a few more miles on them that we had to be concerned about, but we also had a large group that needed some practice time. A lot of time, our team was divided down the stretch. We tried to get in as much as we could while conserving energy, but I think our group improved via practice more than video, more than verbal instruction. Once they got to take reps, feel it and go through it, I think they understood it better. Is that the way young players are learning? I don’t know, but I certainly thought we could clean things up quicker at the beginning of the year than the end of the year when practice time was significantly different.”

– After Game 56, McLellan talked about a belief system eroding at times down the stretch. He clarified what he meant there in yesterday’s exit interview.

“I think we can get that back rather quickly. We didn’t stay with it long enough. Earlier in the year, we’d get down one or two goals and we’d stay in it. I think [in the final third of the season] when we got down one or two goals, we didn’t believe enough that we could push and stand and create problems for other teams.”

Kings games in the first half of the season always felt like they had comeback potential, regardless of which team was ahead. Multiple leads were overturned, both by and against the Kings.

In the second half, that was less so. McLellan pointed to the quality of opponent, in playing a lot of games against Colorado and Vegas, as well as the confidence in the power play eroding over time, as possible reasons for that. Something that he says he and the staff are looking into, and believe that it should return next season.

– One theory proposed by defenseman Drew Doughty last week was that things changed for the Kings when Jeff Carter was traded to Pittsburgh.

Rob Blake refuted that notion, to an extent, pointing out that the team’s record on either side of the Carter deal was nearly identical, with McLellan expressing similar notions.

“Our win-loss record prior to Carts going was not significantly different than our win-loss record after Carts went. That’s a simple statistic that you can just layout there. Carts was an important guy in the locker room, a lot of guys looked up to him, but it doesn’t excuse the approach that our group took down the last third. I think that we could have overcome that better than we did and we didn’t do a good enough job.”

That’s not to say that the trade didn’t impact the team’s mentality in some ways, it’s not to say that it didn’t play a role. Doughty is a straight shooter, and his words carry weight. Perhaps the impact was more in terms of mentality and approach, something that, as he said, McLellan believes the team could have done more with.

Odds & Ends

– McLellan said that while he was unsure if the group, as assembled, could have ultimately gotten that fourth playoff spot, he felt that they should have stayed in the fight a bit longer than they did. For all intents and purposes, the Kings were eliminated before the calendar flipped into May.

“That will certainly be one of our goals, is to push as deep as we possibly can next year, to challenge. We were there for a while and then we fell out. That’s not acceptable. I think we had a team that could have stayed in the fight a little bit longer, I’m not sure that we would have gotten it eventually, but next year we’ll have to push further.”

– When asked about the comments of Kopitar and Doughty, regarding the summer ahead, McLellan took a different approach.

He believes that while there has been a lot of NHL players who have left the organization, he actually believes that the talent coming in has been greater than what left, it just hasn’t come into fruition yet at the NHL level.

“I’ve seen a lot of talent come in the door here, we just haven’t seen the fruits of the labor yet. The easy part is the talent going out the door, but the organization dictates the pace of that when they want to do it, and the decision made to do it was a part of a plan and it was the right thing to do. Timelines, timeframes in deals, deadlines, that’s the easy part. Yes, very good players left, championship players left. The players that were acquired, the picks, the talent that was acquired should inevitably be greater than the pieces that went out. It’s the in-between time, the waiting and where we’re at right now is we’re waiting for players to evolve and develop and we can’t rush that. As much as we would like to wave a magic wand and make a Gabe, JAD, Byfield into a Nathan MacKinnon or an Anze Kopitar, it doesn’t happen that way. It takes time. Their evolution into becoming dominant players will be dictated by how much we can help them and their growth as an individual…I think that the talent that has come into the organization is greater than the talent that has gone, we just don’t know that yet, but that is my belief.”

– McLellan was also asked about the team’s identity. The answer was, to summarize, a work in progress.

“I think we’re still evolving there. We’re trying to take young prospects and hone their game for an NHL game. There’s a young group that’s coming in, based off of their offensive talents, which is great because we need it. We should evolve into a better offensive team over time, but we can’t give up the defensive side. I think, especially early in the year, I talked to coaches around the league, we were a frustrating team to play against because we checked well, we didn’t give up much through the neutral zone and offensively, we were challenged to press, our power play was very dangerous, our penalty kill was good, so they wanted to win the special teams area of the game, I know that for sure. We were getting some really good goaltending early and they felt our goalies could steal us games. A lot of those comments give us a good sense of reassurance that we’re doing the right things and I think that teams, especially in the first half, two thirds, they had to bring their “A-Game” to beat us. We’re a difficult team to play against when we’re playing well, we can check our way to wins, we get good goaltending and our special teams should be good. Is our identity as clear as what Colorado’s would be, as far as speed and attack? We’re not there yet, we’re still evolving, but we’re working towards all of that.

That concludes Exit Interviews for 2021.

In the comings days and weeks, we’ll have plenty more to come on LAKI, including player seasons in review, coverage of the World Championships, Ontario Reign, a look ahead at the NHL draft and more. As always, Insiders, thank you for reading and commenting.

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