A transformation took place at the Kings practice facility over the summer. Their U-shaped dressing room was remodeled with dark wood paneling and darker lighting to resemble their Staples Center confines. Their logo was moved from the floor to the ceiling so visitors couldn’t step on it.
Something else is noticeable too. It can be measured in the good vibe and different atmosphere that goes beyond the usual preseason optimism and relates to John Stevens, who officially debuts as Kings coach Thursday.
“It’s not a new face, but a new philosophy comes in,” Anze Kopitar said. “There’s definitely a breath of fresh air. … I think everything’s a little bit more upbeat. Everything’s a little looser, but loose in a good way. We’re not out there being careless or anything. For sure, we know why we’re here and what our goals are. But being a little more upbeat, it’s refreshing.”
That’s not specifically a reflection of former coach Darryl Sutter and his avuncular-yet-scowling presence, so much as the approachable, low-key manner of Stevens and the possibility of more offensive freedom.
At the outset of camp, Drew Doughty said he hadn’t seen this much excitement among his teammates to get going. Not making the playoffs is a prime motivator, of course, but they openly embrace the honeymoon with Stevens, knowing it will wear off.
“It’s just a new feeling around the team, and it feels good,” Doughty said. “We want to become the team that we were two years ago, three years ago, probably even four years ago. It’s not going to just happen because we made these changes. We’re going to have to work our butts off, and we have to make this team get there. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to happen with a lot of work and detail.”
Stevens knows detail. He was in charge of defense under Sutter and has developed a healthy relationship with the defensemen over the years, from Norris Trophy-winning Doughty to those trying to become regular NHL players.
“John really cares about you as a person and about the team and how you’re doing,” said Kevin Gravel, a young defenseman who has shuttled between the Kings and the minors.
“He was really good for me last year. He’s a very intelligent guy, and been around the game a long time. I thought he was very good with our D-corps last year and he’s had a ton of success since he’s been here. A lot of that reflects on him.”
Previously an associate head coach, Stevens was the person players could vent to or consult. His desk isn’t in the same place because of the remodel, but as coach his policy is the same.
“He was stressing that from day one: His doors are open,” Kopitar said. “Literally, they always are.”
Stevens said that’s one of the tenets he learned from a 35-year career in the game. He’s a hockey lifer who has “earned his stripes,” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said, and he knows the value of relating to players constructively.
“I’m always been a big believer in feedback and communication,” Stevens said. “The message doesn’t always have to be one the player wants to hear because it has to be honest, and I think we’ve always done that here.
“Sometimes it’s just a conversation, but I’ve always been that way. It’s the way I like to be. As a player, I enjoyed that type of feedback. Having kids that play at a pretty high level now, I see the impact it has on them, so it only reinforced what I already believe in.”
Stevens said the chipper demeanor in camp had much to do with players ready to move on from seasons past. It didn’t hurt that they were 5-1-1 in a preseason interrupted by a trip to China. It’s only preseason, but “I think a lot of things are derivative of having success,” Stevens said.
Big questions surround the Kings as they try to recapture their past successes. There are no more bitter facial expressions from Sutter behind the Kings bench. Nor are there the yellow ties Sutter wore as a good-luck charm.
“I don’t think I own as many as Darryl did,” Stevens said. “I certainly can’t argue with the success we had when he wore them that year.”
Will Stevens dip into his closet for one?
“If it looks good with what I’m wearing,” he said, “I will.”
As expected, rookies Alex Iafallo, Jonny Brodzinski, Oscar Fantenberg and Kurtis MacDermid made the final cut Tuesday. The tryout contract of Brooks Laich expired but he is practicing with the team and said he expects some clarity on his situation this week.
Marian Gaborik (knee) has not skated, Stevens said, but is progressing and hasn’t been set back.
“They felt he could use some rest, maintenance days,” Stevens said. “We haven’t put a timetable on it, so I wouldn’t call it a setback. I think he’s just going to need rest and time and we’ll make sure he gets it.”
Four rookies are part of the mix
In a sign of the times for the Kings, four rookies — Alex Iafallo, Jonny Brodzinski, Oscar Fantenberg and Kurtis MacDermid — dot their lineup to start the season. Young legs are on tap as they try to get quicker for today’s NHL. But their nucleus must still carry them out of irrelevance and back into the playoffs. “Enjoy he Grind” is one of the mottos painted in their new dressing room and it’s a familiar refrain for the two-time Stanley Cup champions, who are seeking their first playoff series victory since taking the Cup in 2014. Here are projected lines, defense pairings and goalies, including sweater numbers:
Line 1 LW Alex Iafallo 19 C Anze Kopitar 11 RW Dustin Brown 23
Kopitar must get back to his dominant ways in his 12th season, contrasted with Iafallo, the offensive surprise of camp whose next NHL game will be his first.
Line 2 LW Tanner Pearson 70 C Jeff Carter 77 RW Tyler Toffoli 73
The Kings can hang their hat on this line, which produced 72 of their 199 goals last season. Pearson and Toffoli each signed offseason contract extensions.
Line 3 LW Jonny Brodzinski 17 C Adrian Kempe 9 RW Michael Cammalleri 14
This will be an important season of development for Brodzinski and Kempe, and a new beginning for veteran Cammalleri.
This line was a fixture in camp although Lewis tends to be interchangeable in other lines.
Defense 1 Derek Forbort 24 Drew Doughty 8
Doughty should thrive under the forward-thinking offense as his partnership with the steady Forbort picks up from last season.
The veteran pair needs a do-over after a mostly forgettable 2016-17 but can be dynamic when both play to their strengths.
Defense 3 Oscar Fantenberg 7 Christian Folin 5
The Swedish pairing fit like a glove in preseason with Fantenberg’s offense playing off of Folin’s conservative role.
Goalie Jonathan Quick 32 Darcy Kuemper 35
Quick is ready to resume his place as a rock of the franchise as the Kings would like to avoid the goalie dramatics of last season. Kuemper needs to be stellar when called upon.
Spares: Marian Gaborik is an injured nonroster player until he becomes healthy. Nic Dowd and Andy Andreoff are bottom-six forwards who are typically interchanged there in the lineup. Rookie Kurtis MacDermid won a roster spot as the seventh defenseman.
Special teams: The Kings ranked 15th on the power play and fifth in penalty killing last season.
Who’s new: Cammalleri was their primary forward addition. Folin and Kuemper were offseason signings after both began their careers with the Minnesota Wild.
Who’s gone: Future Hall of Fame wing Jarome Iginla was not re-signed. Goalie Ben Bishop was traded to the Dallas Stars. Defenseman Brayden McNabb was exposed to the expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights and defenseman Matt Greene was bought out. Forward Devin Setoguchi and defenseman Tom Gilbert are playing in Germany.