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Kings see changes in philosophy and approach under interim coach Willie Desjardins

Kings see changes in philosophy and approach under interim coach Willie Desjardins
Kings coach Willie Desjardins reacts to a play during a 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild at Staples Center on Nov. 8. (Harry How / Getty Images)

Willie Desjardins’ tenure as the Kings’ interim coach has consisted of only two games, but players said Saturday they can already see differences in his approach and philosophy compared to those of former coach John Stevens.

“Obviously he wants us to play the up-tempo style. It’s not that Johnny didn’t want to, it’s just a little bit different, I think,” center Anze Kopitar said after the team conducted a morning skate in El Segundo in advance of Saturday night’s game against the Calgary Flames at Staples Center.

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“Willie is big on shift lengths, so sometimes he’s pulling us off when we’re on the ice for about 25 seconds. It’s not the greatest thing in the world sometimes. It’s just the time of the game, the position where the faceoff is, all kind of comes into consideration. I think he’s done a good job coming in. Just kind of grasp it as he goes, and I think we’re improving.”

Defenseman Drew Doughty said he has seen more of an emotional component in Desjardins’ structure.

“I think he’s just more about competing. Not that Johnny wasn’t,” Doughty said. “They were all about competing, too, but they were more about Xs and O’s whereas he’s giving us.… Not that he’s not about Xs and O’s but he’s more just about the mood to play, the confidence to play, to try and get some swagger back. Compete as hard as you possibly can. He doesn’t want us to be robots. He wants us to think the game. He wants us to think of all the options we have.

“Yeah, we want to kind of have one that we’re all on the same page of doing, but he realizes there are other options and other plays in the game that can make it not happen. He’s giving us a lot of options with that. I think the practice has been a little different. A little more flowy. I think that’s a good thing.”

After a 4-8-1 start and splitting their first two games under Desjardins, improving their confidence could be helpful.

“We’re not winning games. We’re in last place, I believe. So definitely we need a little confidence boost,” Doughty said of the Kings’ bottom-ranked standing in the Western Conference and the NHL overall with 11 points. “We need to pick it up. We need to start getting on a roll. I think we got a little of the confidence back this week but we can have more of it and keep it going.”

Desjardins said Saturday he’s determined to cut the length of players’ shifts by about 10 seconds to slightly more than 40 seconds per shift.

“If you look at teams’ regular-season shifts and then look at their playoff shifts, their playoff shifts are always shorter,” he said, “and that’s because the intensity of the game goes up. And I think we have to bring our playoff game right now. I think we have to get our shifts shorter and I think that’s something our guys have to buy into, to be successful.”

He also said he’d like to cut Kopitar’s average ice time per game, which stood at a career-high 22 minutes and 36 seconds, and trim Doughty’s average ice time, which stood at a league-leading 26:58 before Saturday’s action.

“Drew’s a really good defenseman. I think I want to make sure Drew has energy at the end of the game and at the end of the season as well. It’s important,” Desjardins said. “But at the same time we have to win games now. So that’s a tough one. I would think if Drew’s between 22 to 25 minutes a night, that’s probably where he’ll end up playing.

“The way Drew plays, he’s smart. He can play more minutes. You see some of the top guys around 27, 28 minutes. If he plays 25 minutes a night I think that’s great for us.”

Desjardins might have trouble resisting the temptation to play Doughty and Kopitar as much if not more because both are such key players, and Kopitar is so valuable defensively as well as offensively. Desjardins will have to figure that out.

“You always have to win with your big players so those guys are key, but it’s my job to give them energy so that they can play in the third period,” he said. “It’s not fair to ask them to do something if I’ve played them so they have no energy left. I have to be smart about how I manage their time.”

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