Introducing Jim Hiller. Sort of.
He’s not a new name or a new face, but today was Jim Hiller’s first practice in a new role with the LA Kings. It was his first practice in charge, serving as the team’s head coach, running today’s practice coming out of the All-Star break.
For Hiller, he’ll coach his first game as a head coach in the NHL on Saturday evening against Edmonton. Hiller has been an assistant for several years in the NHL, as well as a head coach at lower levels. He noted that his first game as a bench boss will come with the same franchise with which he made his NHL debut. To him, that was pretty special and in the bigger picture, it’s pretty unique.
Hiller called it a dream to be a head coach in the NHL and he’s certainly put in the work to get to this point. He also spoke about the outpouring support he’s received from around the hockey community, with so many reaching out upon his appointment late last week. The counterbalance of that was seeing a man he liked and respected, both as a person and as a professional, lose his job in the process. Todd McLellan is a friend and mentor and that complicated the feelings a bit.
Perhaps not exactly the way Hiller imagined getting into this role, but he called it a big opportunity for himself nonetheless, as he steps into this situation with the Kings. He’s got a job to do, as does the entire group – win some hockey games.
That began with today’s practice, which was a spirited one.
Drew Doughty said that he felt the Kings had “unbelievable energy” during practice today, talking about the excitement everyone had to get back at it after a long break. Anze Kopitar felt the group was “refreshed and ready to work” upon their return to Toyota Sports Performance Center, adding that he wants to see the group carry that energy into tomorrow and ultimately Saturday’s game versus Edmonton. Whether it was the first day off a break, the coaching change or just a team eager to right the ship, Hiller was a happy man following his first skate in charge of the group.
“That’s usually the case, that’s human nature, also they just came off a break so they had rest and relaxation,” Hiller said of an uptick in energy during today’s practice. “They saw they lost a strong member of the organization for many years, they saw that somebody isn’t here anymore, so I think they’re feeling some responsibility there. So, you would hope when you get back here, again for those reasons, you’re ready to go. I liked our effort, I can say that, but we’ve got to do it again and then we’ve got to do it Saturday, so, it’s a grind. We’re not going to get too far ahead of ourselves after one day, but I liked the way the guys worked and skated.”
Today marked Day 1 of “change” if you will for the Kings. But, it’s not exactly like you can just overhaul things overnight. The Kings looked relatively similar as it pertained to line combinations and it’s not the NHL video game where you can simply switch tactics and have every player fully understood and on-board. It doesn’t’ work that way. When you make larger changes, it takes time to implement through practices and meetings.
Fact of the matter is, the Kings haven’t had much practice time at all over the last six weeks or so and haven’t skated at all over the last seven days with the All-Star break. Getting back at it on Day 1, Hiller is certainly starting to tweak some things and make some adjustments here and there, but he’s also realistic.
“We don’t have a lot of time, we haven’t had a lot of time to practice over the last six weeks, today we got a good practice,” Hiller said. “The most important thing for me, I know people probably are saying what’re the tactics and things that are going to change, but the most important thing for me after being around the team, which played very well for the first 24 games of the season, is just getting our frame of mind back where it needs to be. So, that’s my priority, that’s 95-percent of my priority is just getting that back where it needs to be, because if we can help those guys get back there, we’ll have time to implement some other types of changes that eventually you guys will say maybe they’re doing something different, but the priority now is the mindset.”
The players understand that too.
“I’m sure they’ll change a few things, but you can’t just go in and change everything, because then we’ll probably drop a few games as we’re learning to do new things,” Doughty added. “So, I’m sure there won’t be any drastic changes, but some things we focused on today were already maybe things we didn’t focus on too much before. I think these things that we talked about today are going to help us be better.”
This is a team that went 16-4-4 in the first 24 games this season. Same personnel as the Kings have right now, same structure, systems and approach that the Kings took over the 24 games that followed, that saw them play below .500 hockey. From that standpoint, nothing has really changed. In close to an hour on the ice, the Kings haven’t overhauled things overnight. As Hiller noted above, he has plans to make changes, switch some things around in certain areas, whether that be systematically, personnel or the like. But it’s not a drastic overhaul in one day.
The Kings have some practice time coming up, they’ve got video meetings scheduled, they have time to start to build those things into what the team is doing. In Hiller’s mind, though, it starts with team mindset and team mentality. That’s goal number one. Hiller believes in the team in the room and while he has identified certain areas where he may make adjustments, it’s not going to be overreacting for the sake of doing so.
“We are a really good team,” he said. “We have struggled and we’re not going to hide from that, but I think it would be a mistake to overreact in some areas when I don’t think that’s necessary.”
As far as personnel goes, Hiller said that we could see a very similar alignment on Saturday against Edmonton as we saw towards the end of the roadtrip before the All-Star break. There’s only so many options right now. With Viktor Arvidsson now back with the full group, and Blake Lizotte’s return coming down the road, that will impact things. For at least today, though, the lineup was identical to what we saw in Nashville the last time we saw the Kings play in a game.
With that being said, Hiller remains in evaluation mode.
“I look at the moments that you create advantages for us or, at times, unfortunately create disadvantages for us. That’s how I evaluate the players.”
He spoke about evaluation with an analogy.
“When you go on the ice, you don’t have a lot of time and space to make good plays or bad plays, you’re just playing survive most often,” he said. “So, when you go on the ice, make good plays and create advantages for the team, we all like that and in most cases, it’s offense, goals, assists, nice passes. Those are simply just advantages that you’re creating for your team, easy to see, easy to recognize. But, sometimes you create disadvantages, less perceptible, but that’s what coaches focus on. Often times, you’ll see different players, they do these things good, they add to the bank account, and when they do these things [poorly], they take out of the bank account and the coach looks at it. To me, you want to have a positive bank account every night. That’s creating advantages and not too many disadvantages.”
As Rob Blake said on Monday, he and Hiller went up and down the roster, offering up evaluations of where they feel each player is at through 48 games. A wide-array of evaluations, certainly, though everyone across the board has more to give and has more to offer.
There will be lots more of that to come.
Full video embed to follow once uploaded! Hiller spoke on Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Viktor Arvidsson, Arthur Kaliyev and more, all available in the full recording.
Spoke with Kopitar, Doughty and Phillip Danault today about Hiller, with a few others to follow tomorrow. Lots more to come Insiders.