“We are win/loss. That’s exactly where our team is. Everything we dictate from this point and from this going forward is based off of wins and losses.”
Rob Blake has always carefully set expectations for his teams. Heading into this season, there he gave no mandate of a Stanley Cup for the season to be considered a success. No mandate of a number of playoff series victories. He simply stated that the Kings needed to improve upon the team they were last year, which improved upon the team they were before that.
While the ultimate goal may not have changed, the immediate goal has. The Kings are in a place where their final 34 games this season will be judged based off of wins and losses. Entering today, the Kings are a playoff team, bust because they are a playoff team doesn’t mean they’ve performed like a playoff team as of late. Far from it. The Kings lost 14 of 17 games heading into the break, a slide that led to Friday’s coaching change. If the Kings win enough of those 34 remaining games, they’ll qualify for the postseason. If they don’t, they wont. Pretty simple.
When you’ve got a cushion, as the Kings did at one point this season, you can look at areas of performance, you can point to certain positives in stretches of play, you can try and set yourself up for a postseason run. As of this article, the Kings’ cushion is now just two points, with a couple games in hand, on a wild-card position. The Athletic’s model has the Kings still close to a 90-percent playoff lock, considering underlying metrics and projected results to close out the season. Projected is projected though. It’s like games in hand.
It’s hard to see any way this season is that of an improvement without first qualifying for the playoffs. That’s job one.
“We have 34 games left and our job is to get into the playoffs, the team was built and assembled to get in the playoffs,” Blake said. “That’s what we need to do. That will be judged on wins and losses.”
Simply making the playoffs isn’t enough to satisfy any sort of goals. You can’t win a playoff game without first qualifying. Back in December, yeah, eyes were already set beyond just qualifying. Now, qualification is the name of the game. It’s not the ultimate thing this team will be judged on, but without it, the judgement will already be complete. Without it, the season will have already fallen short of expectations.
The fact that the Kings are in that position is nearly unimaginable when you think about how they started this season.
24 games into the season, the Kings were 16-4-4, with their .750 winning percentage the top mark in the NHL. In the 24 games since, the Kings are 7-11-6, a winning percentage of .417, the fifth-lowest across the league.
At 3.79 goals-per-game, the Kings ranked a narrow second in the NHL through 24 games, behind just the Vancouver Canucks. Looking specifically at 5-on-5 play, the Kings led the way in 5-on-5 goals per/60 in those first 24 games. Since that game, the Kings are averaging a total of 2.50 goals-per-game, the fourth-lowest total in the NHL.
In the same stretches, no team in the NHL allowed fewer goals at 2.25 goals-against-per-game in those first 24 games. Since then, in the 24 that followed, nearly a full goal higher per game at 3.04. Though the latter ranks more in the middle of the pack than the bottom, to go from a per-game differential of +1.50 to -0.54 is a change of more than two goals a night. That’s massive.
“Offensively, we have to be better, defensively, we have to be better,” Blake said. “24 games, we scored the most goals in the league, the next 24 we were [close to] 32nd. That’s a huge drop. There’s a conversion issue that factors in there. I forget the amount of goals on the expected chart, but over a 24-game period, it was way up. Then, our defensive game started to slide too. We need improvements in all of those areas.”
To find those improvements, Blake turns to Jim Hiller to lead the team through the end of the season, with D.J. Smith also joining the staff as an assistant, as of this afternoon, providing a “different perspective” to the group.
Hiller’s area of focus for the Kings been offensive throughout his time here.
He has been responsible for leading the charge in turning around the power play from the 2021-22 campaign to the Top-5 unit we saw last season. Overall, the Kings have scored more goals with Hiller on staff.
“I’ve seen firsthand with Jim, in his role the last year and a half year, for the majority on the power play and different things, we’ve seen him be able to operate and we’re comfortable in the belief going forward with him.”
On one hand, Hiller is a different person in charge than Todd McLellan. He’s also going to be a different leader as the team’s head coach than he was as an assistant.
On the other hand, though, there’s no telling that a different person in change will make the difference, but when you’ve lost 14 of 17, having someone who will operate differently in pretty much every way is something that could help. McLellan did a lot of great things here and there’s a lot you ultimately wouldn’t want to change. Hiller brings a lot of experience from a variety of different staffs, though. He’s worked with Stanley Cup champion coaches and Jack Adams winners. He’s picked up some things along the way and he’ll bring his own unique flair as well.
“Everything is different,” Blake said. “His 1-on-1 meetings will be different than Todd’s, which were different than any other coach. When I say a different voice, everything about the person is different. Assistant coaches are really good at staying exactly in their lane, going forward, but when they take a head job, those things that come out more.”
What we don’t know yet is exactly what type of leader Hiller will be. We don’t know exactly what he’ll do differently. That comes on Thursday and beyond. Don’t expect to see every aspect of what the Kings do change in practice number one. Give the man some time.
Blake said that he leaves the final lineup card to the head coach and that will ultimately be Hiller’s decision going forward. He and the management team make suggestions, but ultimately it will be Hiller who is making those calls for the remainder of the season. Blake seemed to like the mix that Hiller brings between someone who is not a complete stranger to the Kings, he does know the team and the players, but he’s also not someone who came to the organization with McLellan, he was a separate hire, a different background.
At the end of the day, though, the Kings won’t be judged based off of doing things differently. They’ll be judged off of wins and losses. The organization is hopeful that doing certain things differently, whether it be systems, line combinations, style of play, mentality or whatever your heart desires you will bring them to the place they need to be. Ultimately, though, it’s the wins and losses that will be important.
Should the wins and losses merit inclusion in the postseason, it brings us to the ultimate stage when a true evaluation can be conducted. Simply qualifying for the playoffs doesn’t make the season a success but you can’t get to where you want to if you don’t first get in. If not, then Blake understands that this season will not have lived up to the standards set for this team.
“I fully understand the repercussions if this team does not win or have success.”
First crack at getting things right comes on Saturday against the scorching hot Edmonton Oilers.
A loss on Saturday doesn’t mean the change was a bad move. A win doesn’t mean it’s a success. 34 games remaining, to find the combination of wins and losses that gets this team into the postseason with a chance at doing what it was ultimately built to do. Wins and losses from here on out. Time to go.