Kings: Todd McLellan’s First Season Behind Bench Showed Great Potential

Todd McLellan has had immense levels of success as a coach in the NHL. In 2008, he was an assistant coach for the Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings. In his time with Detroit, he gained wisdom from Mike Babcock, who is one of the most accomplished bench bosses in recent history. Todd left Detroit in the summer of 2008 to take a head coaching gig in San Jose.

In his first season as a head coach, he guided the Sharks to their first and only Presidents’ Trophy. In his first nine seasons as a coach in the NHL, neither of the teams he coached (Detroit/San Jose) missed the playoffs. This all changed in 2014-15, when the Sharks missed the playoffs. Subsequently, he was fired. Since then it’s been tough sailing for McLellan.

Todd McLellan Sharks
Todd McLellan with the San Jose Sharks (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

He coached the Edmonton Oilers from 2015-16 to 2018-19, where the team only made one playoff appearance despite having the best player in the world, Connor McDavid. On April 16, 2019, McLellan was named the LA Kings’ head coach. Despite the Kings’ poor record, his coaching did bring numerous positives.

Team’s Record Improved

In 2018-19 the Kings, coached by Willie Desjardins, posted an abysmal record of 31-42-9, finishing 30th in the league ahead of the Ottawa Senators. Desjardins was a weird pickup by the Kings as he hadn’t coached for over a season before being hired, and he’d last led a team to the playoffs in 2015.

Willie Desjardins
Willie Desjardins (Photo: Michael Connell/Texas Stars Hockey)

Similarly, McLellan hadn’t recently achieved success when he was hired, but he brought a much better coaching pedigree to LA than Desjardins. In 2019-20 the Kings posted a record of 29-35-6, finishing ahead of Ottawa, Detroit and San Jose. The Kings had a points percentage (P%) of .457, which was a sizable improvement over their .433 P% from 2018-19. The Kings were not a good team this season, but McLellan did get them playing better than before.

Even-Strength Defence

McLellan’s biggest effect was on the Kings’ defensive system. Under his watch, they dramatically improved defensively. In 2018-19 the Kings were scored on 263 times, meaning they allowed 3.2 goals against per game. The only teams who let in more goals than LA were Chicago, Edmonton, Ottawa, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Detroit, Florida, Buffalo and the New York Rangers. LA finished 18th in shots against (SA) and 21st in scoring chances against (SCA), meaning they were giving up tons of shots and chances.

With McLellan at the helm, it was a completely different story. LA finished 11th in SA, moving up seven spots. The only non-playoff team to finish in the top-10 was San Jose, meaning LA was giving up shots similarly to how most of the league’s top teams did. LA ranked 15th in SCA (six spots up), which was the best among teams that didn’t make the playoffs. LA finished the season with 140 goals against, which is equal to exactly two goals against per game. This was a humongous improvement from letting in 3.2 per game in the previous season.

Even-Strength Offence

The Kings goalscoring in 2019-20 was relatively the same as compared to before McLellan arrived. In 2018-19 the Kings scored 140 goals and had an expected goals (xGF) total of 141.63. Expected goals measures the shot location, and uses league-wide averages to determine the likelihood of that shot being a goal.

Todd McLellan, Jeff Carter
Los Angeles Kings coach Todd McLellan, right, talks to Jeff Carter (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In 2019-20 LA potted 118 goals, which translates to 138 in an 82-game season, down two from the year prior. However, LA had an xGF of 140.51 in 2019-20 in just 70 games played. Only Vegas, Montreal and Toronto were better than LA in this category. Obviously, actually putting the puck in the back of the net is much more important than being expected to, but this shows that LA was generating way more scoring opportunities with McLellan coaching. Typically, more chances lead to more goals, so this is a positive sign, as it means McLellan had LA getting into good scoring areas.

Neutral Zone

LA wasn’t very flashy in the neutral zone like some of the younger and faster teams. However, the style McLellan had them playing can win games. Using Corey Sznajder’s model, it’s apparent that LA typically tends to enter the offensive zone via dump and chase. The team most closely linked to LA’s zone entries and exits is Dallas.

Both LA and Dallas exited their defensive zones with possession of the puck 37% (meaning they dumped it out) and both carried the puck into the offensive zone 47% of the time (meaning they mainly dumped and chased). Both teams are stingy defensively, giving up few opportunities and this could help explain why.

Both teams had the same puck recovery percentage off of the forecheck. Upon dumping the puck into the offensive zone, each team recovered it 13% of the time; putting both above the league average.

Jeff Carter, Andrew Cogliano
Los Angeles Kings Jeff Carter and Dallas Stars Andrew Cogliano (AP Photo/LM Otero)

This means that McLellan has the Kings playing a proven, successful style of hockey, as Dallas made the Stanley Cup Final in 2020. However, Dallas has a much more talented team than LA. Dallas boasts a lineup consisting of players such as Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Joe Pavelski, Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg and more. LA obviously cannot match up with this talent level.

Related: Los Angeles Kings’ 2021 Roster Projection

Looking towards the future, when some of the Kings’ batch of elite prospects such as Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte and Gabriel Vilardi are NHL ready, it’s a promising sign that they’ll immediately begin learning a system that has been successful for teams in the past.

McLellan’s Grade for 2019-20

Despite LA posting a lackluster record, it was an improvement from the year prior. The Kings offence and defence improved tremendously. Finally, McLellan had the team playing a smart game in the neutral zone, which has been greatly effective for teams such as Dallas.

Overall, McLellan’s season grade is a B. With him steering the ship, LA’s systems improved tons, but it didn’t translate into much success. Kings fans should be excited for when the team’s prospects start making the NHL, as they have a former Stanley Cup Champion and Presidents’ Trophy-winning coach to teach them a successful style of hockey.

Stats per: Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference, Corey Sznajder’s Public Tableau