Part 1 of many, Insiders.
Sharing exit interviews with General Manager Rob Blake and Head Coach Todd McLellan. First things first, Blake indicated that McLellan will be the team’s Head Coach next season for the fifth year of his contract. McLellan signed a five-year contract with the organization back in 2019, with comments from both parties in yesterday’s story, available HERE.
For now, we’ve got the full interviews with both Blake and McLellan embedded below for your viewing pleasure and a few of the takeaways I found to be the overarching themes pulled out with relevant quotes and comments.
The Difference & The Window
The players made their voices clear yesterday that they believe the Kings are entering a window in which they believe they can compete for a championship. There’s never a feeling of being content that comes with an exit in Round 1, but last year for example, there was still some of a “happy to get in” mindset. That firmly changed this year and a first-round exit now, or at any point moving forward, is not an acceptable outcome in the eyes of this group.
Speaking with Blake, he agreed and while getting back to the playoffs was good and closing the gap in the series was good, the Kings now need to find a way to win the series, not just compete in it.
“The feeling amongst the players last night – I wasn’t around as much this morning – it’s different than last year, in the fact that yeah they’re in the playoffs and they got back to it, but the disappointment is now you’ve got to find ways to win that series,” Blake said yesterday. “You’ve got to keep pushing forward, but that’s the feeling I got from the players and coaching staff last night and this morning.”
There are certainly areas of the game in which the Kings closed the gap versus the Oilers. There are other areas in which the gap remained noticeable.
Blake pointed to both sides of the special teams coin – a positive and a negative – as well as the outcome of Game 4 as areas in which the Kings either grew or fell short. As many have felt and expressed, Game 4 was a missed opportunity and the performance on both sides of special teams was a storyline, both ways.
“Special teams, obviously the penalty kill wasn’t at the level it needed to be against them,” Blake said. “They had an elite power play throughout the season and I thought our power play was good, really effective there, so I thought that swayed it. Then there’s Game 4, 3-0 after a period, you’ve got to find a way to close that out. That’s the stage this team is at, is finding ways to get through that and help lead you through it.”
Either way, one thing is clear – the Oilers aren’t going anywhere.
However, it’s not a narrow focus for Blake or the Kings. It’s not simply about making moves just to find a way past the Oilers. He’ll have his sights set wider, with the hopes that those overall improvements would help get the job done.
“They’re probably not going anywhere. with some of those players they have right now, but I don’t think you make moves to beat just them. You make moves to get better. “
Offensive Growth & Power-Play Progress
Blake’s primary move last offseason was centered around forward Kevin Fiala.
The Kings traded a first-round draft pick for the first time in years to improve the roster right now with a high-level, gamebreaking offensive talent. Fiala came as advertised in season one. The Kings also went out and re-signed forward Adrian Kempe off a breakout 2021-22 campaign, which saw him net 35 goals. How’d he follow that up? The first 40-goal season by a Kings player in nearly 30 years. It was a lot of money spent – more than $13 million combined, per season, between the two players, but it was money very-well spent.
“I think it was what we expected,” Blake said. “Kevin has a gamebreaking ability in his game, I thought the power play too, wherever he got used in the lineup can give you matchup options there. I thought Kempe built off of last year and commanded a presence on the ice that continued throughout the playoffs, both physically and in wanting to be a guy who scores. He’s a major part of that leadership group now.”
Part of what both of those players did offensively was a part of a resurgent power-play effort. The Kings were one of the worst power plays in the NHL in the 2021-22 season, finishing 27th at 16.1 percent. The improvement was almost a reversal of the standings, as the Kings picked up more than nine percentage points, rising 23 spots, as they posted the fourth-best power-play percentage in the NHL this season.
Credit deserves to go in a lot of directions there – Blake singled out Kevin Fiala, Gabe Vilardi and Viktor Arvidsson as three key members – but there’s also the addition of Jim Hiller and what he’s brought to that unit, coming in as an assistant coach.
“Jimmy does a lot of behind the scenes with that power play,” Blake said. “A different look from an outside organization but he was able to put some of these players in positions just to change the looks. Power plays have changed a lot over the years, you see a lot of stuff through the box now and through the crease. I thought it was effective and there’s a combination of those factors as to why.”
Naturally, with a first-round elimination, there are improvements to be made. There also were improvements from a season ago and Blake acknowledged them as such.
Decisions To Be Made
As far as improvements to be made, and what’s to come, that’s the harder question to answer.
The Kings came up short against Edmonton for the second straight season and despite closing the gap, there is still a gap that exists and needs more closing.
The Kings have, by my calculation, just over $7.5 million in cap space for the 2023-24 season, accounting for 11 forwards, five defensemen and two goaltenders, based on a salary cap ceiling of $83.5 million. That’s far from a full roster and there are key players to be signed. Blake acknowledged the reality of the situation, which is that the cap will likely prevent the Kings from keeping everyone they’d like to keep and doing everything they’d like to do.
“I’d love to be able to bring that exact team that we had yesterday, full health, and run right through a whole season, but I know it’s not possible because of the cap situation and ultimately the amount of UFA’s and signings,” he admitted.
Still unsigned are defensemen Vladislav Gavrikov and Alex Edler, as well as goaltender Joonas Korpisalo and forward Gabe Vilardi. The former three are unrestricted free agents, while the Kings hold Vilardi’s rights. The salaries those players will figure to command will likely exceed the space the Kings have available, so something’s got to give and Blake knows that.
“We got to look at all these different options,” he said. “We have three UFA’s today, I can’t answer that right now. The salary cap will play a big part in what we do there.”
Blake knows he has his work cut out for him and he’s got his work ahead of him. That process started yesterday and will continue until the Kings hit the ice for Opening Night in October.
Narrowing The Gap
McLellan said shortly after Game 6 that despite the series going one game fewer than last season, he felt the series was closer.
And the series obviously was closer. Much more competitive, much tighter from game-to-game and a much stronger showing by the Kings, even if they won one fewer game. The Kings and Oilers, while seemingly on a yearly collision course at this stage, are still at different points in the process. The rebuild is over for the Kings, yes, but this was just their second trip to the playoffs as a group. For Edmonton, it’s their fourth-consecutive season reaching the playoffs and their fifth time with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. In 2020 and 2021, they lost in round one. That’s what the Kings have now done in consecutive seasons. McLellan detailed the differences in the process.
“I think that the interesting part is the timeline question, because we’ve gone through four years now, we started out by tearing down, we went through a painful season. We began to build it back up, we’re pushing now, are we ready to win? Obviously we’re not yet, but we’re pushing to that next phase and the hardest thing in my mind is closing out that last gap of five to ten percent. Because as we’re doing everything we can to improve, the Edmonton Oilers are also doing the same thing and they’re already there. So, we’re playing catchup still, but we have good pieces, good people, with good staff throughout the organization. There’s a lot of stability, which is necessary. We’ve just got to tinker around different areas to make sure it gets better.”
The Kings are at a different stage in the process because they’re just entering that window of disappointment with a loss really for the first time, rather than having multiple experiences of it.
That doesn’t absolve the team of this series loss. With Anze Kopitar still at a high level and a couple of key free agents, this was an opportunity for the Kings to not only win a series during a prime Kopitar season and also to make some noise in the Western Conference and they failed to do that. It’s a part of the process, though, and McLellan detailed that below.
“We have a big step to take next year, the organization has more steps to take as it goes on,” McLellan said. “I used the word last night, a youthful playoff team. I don’t mean that by age, I just mean that evolution in if we’re talking about that line. We’ve been in the playoffs now back-to-back. The Seattle Kraken haven’t obviously, because they didn’t exist, but all the other teams have had good six, seven year runs, five-year runs at least, maybe with the odd miss if something doesn’t go your way. They’ve been able to re-tool their teams. We’re at the entry level of that, so we have some runway ahead of us. That doesn’t mean we get free passes to not win but we have some more runway ahead of us to continue to build the team and adjust and change some ingredients. So, I’m looking forward to that part.”
It’s another experience towards the ultimate goal. Does that result in reaching it? To be determined.
What’s To Come
For McLellan, there are a couple of projects at hand.
While Blake’s job is to tool and re-tool the roster, trying to give McLellan and his staff the best combination of players to reach the ultimate goal, it’s McLellan’s job to work with the group he’s given and help mold it into a championship team. Does McLellan have wants he might convey to Blake? Certainly. But he understands the division of power and believes in the shared vision for the plan moving forward.
“It’s not as easy as just saying yeah, ‘we’d like to have that’,” he said. “I think I talked about the business part of it, there’s decisions that the organization has to make in regards to certain individuals and you’re always going to have 23 players, but you don’t know what the pool of available players looks like. So, it’s easy to say we could use a couple six-foot eight defensemen, but teams aren’t giving those guys away and there’s very few of them. So, our job is to try and share our thoughts with management but to make what we have better. So, if the exact same team shows up next year, we have to make them better and in that area.”
With regards to systems and structures, McLellan highlighted the obvious – the penalty kill.
He said that he believes the solutions are within the walls in the locker room, that external assistance in that area is not needed. That goes for both coaches and players who are involved, with several players weighing in on the concept of the penalty kill throughout the day.
McLellan brought the topic up on his own, when asked about areas of improvement that were needed, both throughout the season and throughout the series against Edmonton.
“Somebody has to ask me about our penalty kill and it has to get better,” he said. “Forget about this series, just the year as a whole. We went up and down and went on a good push but we have to improve penalty-kill wise, we have to look at the whole package there, who we use, how we do it, how it impacts the goaltenders, where the dangerous shots are coming from, how much is going through the scene. We have a summer project there, so that for me is the biggest concern.
Lastly, an extended quote from McLellan on the concept of reflection back on the season and what was –
“That happens every year, I believe, for every coach. If you’re not doing that, I don’t think you’re doing your job. The buck stops here and it gets divided out after that throughout our coaching staff and our auxiliary staff, which is growing, our development team and then on up from there. It’s a must, it has to happen and it has to start here. The timing and the spot on the line of evolution with an organization, we have to look at and you have to consider where we are, where we want to go and where we’ve come from. We look at how we play, the types of systems or structure that we use, in all areas, whether it’s special teams or 5-on-5. We’ll look at how we use players and combinations of players, how we distributed ice time and it won’t just be in the Game 6 or 1-6, it will be all 88 games that we played, the body of work. We’ll look at the players and which players improved from year to year. Did any of them fall off and if they did why, what impact did we have on that? So, I think there always has to be a period of reflection and self-evaluation. We’ll also get evaluation from our management group. We communicate all the time, but they’ll tell us what they saw and what they’d like to see improved or changed if there’s anything there.
Lot of text there, hopefully some takeaways from the end-of-season remarks from leadership. Obviously not everything was translated into text, but the videos are embedded in full so that nothing goes missed, should you wish to listen to the entire interviews! Several notes regarding individual players within both Blake and McLellan’s remarks, so I’d for sure encourage a watch of each video all the way through!
Following up tomorrow with the captains – Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Phillip Danault – before we move through the lineup throughout the week. Thanks as always for following along, Insiders!