Los Angeles Kings General Manager Rob Blake introduced Todd McLellan at a press conference in El Segundo today, where the new head coach outlined what drew him to the job in Los Angeles and what his vision is for the future.
Over a little less than half an hour, McLellan laid out what drew him to Los Angeles (no, it wasn’t life without winter), what his expectations are, and where he thinks he can take this team.
McLellan talked frequently of “the plan” that Rob Blake shared with him in their meetings. While neither went into specifics, McLellan said that the plan involves a timeline to return to legitimate competitiveness. It’s a plan that’s conscious of the salary cap world that hockey inhabits. And it’s a plan that recognizes that even if it takes some time to truly say this team is a Cup contender, that the Kings still have to provide some on-ice entertainment. “We have to remember that as we transition the team, we have to be entertaining. We owe it to the fans,” McLellan said.
He also talked at length about the need to integrate younger players. While we’ll have some insight for you in the coming days on exactly how well he managed to do that in San Jose and Edmonton, McLellan was honest about the fact that the league is getting younger, and the Kings need to get younger, too. “That doesn’t mean the older players are insignificant or will be moved out or shipped out, but eventually the youth have to grasp the steering wheel on this team,” he said.
One of the biggest issues on recent iterations of the Kings has been the lack of the “next generation” of players stepping up and taking the reins in words or actions. Perhaps a case could be made for Alex Iafallo, an already-established NHL player coming into the season, elevating his game to provide more consistent offense. But in a season where the Kings were starving for anyone to take a greater role in terms of leadership, regardless of whether or not they wear a letter on their jersey, the young players on the Kings largely faltered.
On day one, McLellan is already saying the right things that at least make it appear as though he’ll strike a balance between being the cool coach who knows how to talk to today’s youth — he mentioned his sons, aged 20 and 23, as helping keep him relevant in terms of how he communicates — as well as the coach who will hold players accountable.
Hard-nosed coaches have a shelf life — look no further than the slow unraveling of the Kings’ relationship with Darryl Sutter, and the swing to the polar opposite “I’m not mad, just disappointed” persona of John Stevens — but with the players all saying loud and clear in their exit interviews that they want someone to hold their feet to the fire, choosing a coach who will do just that was important.
It makes Blake’s insistence on finding an NHL-experienced coach a bit more palatable; if this group couldn’t find it within themselves to respect Stevens enough to perform for him, and couldn’t even respect themselves enough to do their jobs well out of pride or stubbornness, how would they possibly respond to someone who’s never coached in the league before?
“Obviously there’s a clear message that they’re sending,” McLellan said. “I think ultimately we’re all responsible for our attitude and our behavior at the rink. It’s not just the coaching staff. If the players are making those comments, some of that’s on them as well. They’re winners. They’ve proven they can win. They just need to elevate their standards a little bit more and I have to help them do that.”
In talking about the evolution of the Kings year over year, McLellan actually handed out some truths that the organization perhaps hadn’t admitted to quite as openly before.
While McLellan identified areas where the team declined, from the 2017-18 team that at least made the playoffs, to the 2018-19 team that floundered out of the gate, McLellan pointed at falloffs in production from core players, some lapses in key areas that analytics focus on (he didn’t go into specifics, but think special teams, puck possession), but most importantly: attitude.
“I think it’s more maybe the team, the players giving themselves permission to have the off year. When it didn’t go well early, they just said, ‘you know what, let’s get through it.’ That’s unacceptable and we can’t have that anymore,” McLellan said. No one else would really admit it — and there was wide uproar from the players the one time that John Stevens dare say that they essentially stopped playing when the tide started to turn against them in a game — but McLellan hit the nail on the head. When things started to snowball for this past season’s Kings, the effort to pull themselves out of it was lackluster at best. Stevens clearly couldn’t find a way to make that urgency resonate with the players, and Desjardins perhaps never had the room in the first place to even lose them.
The players on this team were shouting for someone to hold them accountable. McLellan seems intent on doing just that. “The players will have to make that decision when they walk in the door, that they’re going to adjust that a little bit, accept some responsibilities for practice habits, for the standards they set for themselves individually and collectively, and I’ll push them on that,” he said.
If McLellan is true to his word — if he can execute on the promises that he laid out today to the press — then maybe he can get this team back on track. He was honest about there being a long road ahead for the team, that a turn-around won’t happen overnight. But if he can manage to strike the right balance to get his team to buy in, to integrate young players like Matt Luff, Austin Wagner, Rasmus Kupari, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, and others, then perhaps he’ll stand a chance of actually playing out his five-year contract.