Rome wasn’t built in a day, and good hockey teams can’t be built in one season. Or, so the prevailing wisdom goes. Todd McLellan came to the Los Angeles Kings to challenge that wisdom.
Armed with a mixed roster of young guns and old blood with seven players over the age of 30, the Kings needed a bench boss who could get the veterans to play the way they can, while also inspiring the new kids to grow into their abilities. It was a big ask; the 2018-19 season saw the Kings finish a soul-crushing eighth in the Pacific Division. Only a coach who could motivate and demand the best of the players – instilling discipline, hunger, and tenacity – would have a chance at success.
Kings general manager Rob Blake wanted a coach with pedigree, credibility, and above all, one who was a proven winner. McLellan was a very solid choice. With a respectable career record of 434-282-90 as head coach for the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers, as well as a Stanley Cup championship as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, he checked all of Blake’s boxes.
But it wasn’t without risk. Famous for leading the Sharks on a long streak of playoff appearances that always ended in heartbreak, followed by the Oilers’ epic meltdown during his final year at the helm, McLellan was always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
Blake decided to pull the trigger and offer him the position – eager to finally clinch that elusive cup, McLellan was ready to be a King.
From the jump, he saw that Los Angeles needed a more high-paced, offensive-minded system that included a higher speed of play and more shots on net. McLellan also expected hard work, discipline, and accountability from everyone.
“Everyone has to improve in every facet of the game,” McLellan said early in training camp. “I think I’ve said this before. Old dogs have to learn new tricks, and the new dogs have to be prepared and open to absorb and be professional.”
But wanting these things, and actually making them happen, are two different beasts. Just past the midpoint of this season, the Kings sport a record of 18-27-5 for 41 points, perched eighth in Pacific and dead last in the Western Conference. There are whispers that McLellan’s winning strategy exists only in locker room theoreticals and falls apart on the ice. In fact, the Kings’ record is mirroring, if not slightly worse, than where they were at this point last year.
So Is McLellan Doing a Good Job?
The easy answer is no. In hockey though, there are no easy answers.
The talk of opening up aggressive forechecking has not panned out. At this point, the Kings have scored 121 goals. That’s good enough for an embarrassing 29th out of 31 teams. Their goal differential is minus-33, which puts them in the bottom four in the league. So not only are the Kings not scoring themselves, their opponents are scoring against them, 158 times to be exact, which puts them in the bottom 10 in the NHL. There is no sugar-coating these numbers – they are abysmal.
But, while the scoreboards and statsheets might indicate that McLellan has been failing, on the micro level, improvements are finally surfacing as players begin to buy into McLellan’s coaching style.
The Kings are becoming accustomed to the new structure, the new coach, and learning to play with each other. The coaching staff has been cementing more steady and cohesive lines, calling out players who aren’t performing the way they should, and they’re no longer being run out of the arenas before they even lace up their skates.
Lopsided losses at the beginning of the season have given way to one or two-goal games. Before this four-game losing streak heading into the All-Star break, they’ve even celebrated some good wins with five-goal outbursts like the ones against Philly and Vegas.
While blame for a failing season is deservedly aimed at the head coach, he is only as good as his players. “The plan is we’ve got to become a younger team,” McLellan said in his introductory presser. “That’s going to be the key — blending the old with the new.”
Unfortunately, the Ilya Kovalchuck experiment didn’t work out (though he is now shining with the Montreal Canadiens), but even the often surly Drew Doughty seems pleased with the progress,
Now it’s just individually getting our games better. I definitely feel that we’re on the right track and guys are getting better every day and I think we do have some more talent coming up soon, so it’s looking bright for us.from ‘Column: Kings showing progress as they buy in to Todd McLellan’s system,’ LA Times, 12/13/2019
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and hockey teams can’t rebuild in a season. Give it some time though, and you might build an empire.