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How McLellan attempts to keep his Kings youngsters committed

The new head coach hasn’t hesitated to move young players around in the lineup, or take them out entirely.

Nashville Predators v Los Angeles Kings Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NHLI via Getty Images

This season, Kings fans might expect a lot of ups and downs, but maybe more of those downs. While it’s not always fun, the Kings are finally starting to take the next steps in their rebuild. And although they’re not going to be winning the Stanley Cup in the immediate future, the long rebuild will quickly be forgotten if the Kings come all the way back to claim the ultimate hockey prize in the future.

The Kings hired Todd McLellan last summer with the promise of a putting an influential coach behind the bench for the rebuild. The understanding, of course, is that the rebuild may be painful at times, but overall can be very effective. McLellan was the man to lead the Oilers from nothing to a legit contender. Unfortunately for him, things fell apart in Edmonton, but he now has a chance for a fresh start in Los Angeles.

While the Ilya Kovalchuk saga continues to evolve, he can’t become McLellan’s top priority. After all, the coach doesn’t need to teach the 36-year-old veteran anything new, and Kovalchuk’s time with the team may be dwindling to a close anyway.

McLellan has, however, shown some quality signs of being able to handle the young and promising talent on his roster.

For example, Adrian Kempe, voted high enough in our Top 25 Under 25 Rankings for two years in a row to be considered as a top Kings youngster, has had a challenging beginning to the campaign.

In his first 17 games, he had only one goal and three assists for four total points. Not ideal. McLellan felt like he needed to give the 23-year-old Swede a lesson. Last week against the Canadiens on the road, Kempe was demoted to center Alex Iafallo and Dustin Brown.

Why the word demoted when those wingers are quality ones?

Because this line played only 5:45 at even-strength. Kempe finished the game in Montreal with only 9:21 of ice time, which ranked dead-last throughout the Kings lineup. With his Corsi-for percentage at 35.71 and his expected goals for percentage at 6.68 at even strength, statistically speaking, his performance was woeful.

With Kempe continuing to have difficulties on ice, the next move from McLellan was obvious, although uncomfortable. Kempe was a healthy scratch on Tuesday versus the Wild. The Kings won 3-1 to a struggling Minnesota team.

On Thursday against Detroit, Kempe was back in the lineup, this time as a winger with Austin Wagner on the opposite flank and Blake Lizotte as a center. Who had a glistening Corsi-for percentage of 75.00 and expected goals for percentage of 75.04 at even strength? Bingo, Adrian Kempe!

Having seen Kempe’s performance throughout the game, McLellan trusted him on the ice in the final two minutes of the game after Jonathan Quick was pulled to give the Kings the extra attacker. McLellan was rewarded for his faith when Kempe tied the game up at two apiece to force overtime. Overall, the Swede was on the ice for 15:40 against Detroit.

”At the end of the night he relaxed, he knows he belongs in this league, he knows that we’re very confident in him when he’s playing well and it was great to see him rewarded with a goal,” said McLellan after the game.

The second guy on the line in Montreal was Alex Iafallo. The Kings expect a lot from Iafallo moving forward. The 25-year-old New York native had three goals and four assists ahead of Thursday in 18 games. In Montreal, he recorded an assist on the first Kings goal of the night, scored on the power play.

However, at even strength, Iafallo didn’t play much, stationed alongside Kempe and Brown. Iafallo played 11:55 in that game while recording a Corsi-for percentage of 33.33 and expected goals percentage of 6.34 at even strength. Those were even worse numbers than Kempe’s at even strength.

Against the Red Wings, however, Iafallo was slotted back to the top line with Kopitar and Brown. His Corsi-for percentage was at 56.67 and his expected goals percentage was at 59.16 at even strength.

More importantly, Iafallo had an assist on the opening tally, then won the game in overtime. Both Kempe and Iafallo went from zeros to heroes in a few days. While we can’t know what they were told by McLellan or others in the Kings coaching staff, the message appears to have been well received and both players bounced back with strong performances.

”They can have as many conversations with the coach as they want, but once they come out, they tend to take it a little more serious. So good for him, he responded the right way,” said McLellan of Kempe, but sure he meant likewise of Iafallo. Both Kempe and Iafallo re-signed in the offseason and remain a huge hope for the Kings’ future. Todd McLellan inclines to hold them accountable and committed, despite their young age.