Todd McLellan had a good first day of training camp. The Kings’ new coach found his way to the rink, for starters, and while that’s a low bar it put him ahead of his predecessor. Willie Desjardins got lost on his way to Toyota Sports Performance Center for his first day as interim coach last season, and players quickly followed his lead by trudging through a lost season.
McLellan arrives at a strange and uncertain moment in the Kings’ history. The memories of their 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup triumphs are fading and they haven’t found the right mix to climb back to prominence. Management’s mistaken belief that the core players of the championship teams had two more kicks at the Cup left in them delayed the necessary rebuilding process. It all cratered last season with a 30th-place finish and league-worst goal differential of -61 that showed how far they’d strayed from their identity as defensive demons.
“We need to be a winning team this year. We were embarrassed with the last four seasons, if you ask me,” defenseman Drew Doughty said on Friday, honest as always. “Since we won the last Cup it’s been ----. We’re ready to go, and we need to get on each other and expect more out of each other.”
That’s a good start. As last season fell apart, players fell into poor practice habits and stopped dispensing the kind of tough love in the locker room that Doughty credits with pushing him to be better when he was young. “That doesn’t happen as much anymore, and sometimes I think that’s why we’ve gone south, because we don’t have those guys that get on guys,” said Doughty, whose eight-year, $88-million contract kicks in this season.
Those failings are on them. At least they seem to know it. “Everyone should be harder on each other,” Dustin Brown said. “Young guys, old guys, should be hard on everybody especially after the last couple of years.”
McLellan, who previously coached San Jose and Edmonton, isn’t being asked to work miracles. He’s being asked to provide structure and a more aggressive forechecking style to a team that urgently needs those changes, and also give hope to fans whose numbers are likely to dwindle this season. The Kings’ dark period isn’t over. But McLellan sees pinpoints of light among the veterans, and it’s his job to play and polish the kids whose time is here or nearly here.
Success, McLellan said, will be defined by growth. “And that comes from players that have been here for 15, 16 years all the way down to the guys that have been here 15, 16 hours. Everybody has to improve in every facet of the game,” he said. “Old dogs have to learn new tricks and new dogs have to be prepared and open to absorb and be professional. Day One we had that. It’s going to take some time. The mistakes that were made today were great teaching moments. I think that’s a great way to stop practice, to teach positioning and the thought process behind why we’re doing it. I thought we got a lot out of it.”
Brown appreciated McLellan’s frequent communication. “It helps having a guy, you know where you stand and you know what he wants,” Brown said. There will be mistakes, especially as Brown and Anze Kopitar break old habits from years of playing a 1-2-2 forechecking system, but that’s what training camp is for.
McLellan said he had met his early goals for camp. “One was to establish what was acceptable and unacceptable. I think we did that on Day One,” he said. “The second one was to put some structure into place so that they would rely and be predictable on the ice when it comes teammate to teammate, and the third one was learning how we were going to behave and how they were going to behave in certain situations. Ten hours into training camp, I think we’ve done that in Day One. We can’t let it slip tomorrow. We have to get better.”
They have to do it by looking ahead, not looking back. “I think there’s a big chunk of guys who have won here,” Brown said. “That’s great but that’s a long time ago now.”
There are fewer certainties regarding this group than in past years, but Brown believes that can be good. “I think there’s more opportunity for new players to push other players out of the way. That’s the nature of the business we’re in,” he said. “No one’s going to say, ‘I don’t want to play, you guys can have the spot.’ I think that’s a good thing for the makeup of our team, for the organization as a whole. If you don’t have younger guys pushing for spots, you’re stuck, right? That’s what you want, it’s the competitive nature, and as an older guy, at least for me, it’s come and take it if you can.”
McLellan’s arrival also should provide a better read on Ilya Kovalchuk’s ability to contribute. Kovalchuk, who signed a three-year, $18.75-million contract in 2018, was misused last season and scored 16 goals in 64 games. McLellan said the Russian winger on Friday “had a little sparkle in his eye, I thought, on the ice. He wanted to try things. I saw him smiling. I saw him working. I saw him trying to absorb the structure we were putting in place.” Maybe McLellan can work miracles after all. “I think it’s a fresh start for everybody,” Kovalchuk said cheerfully. Obviously we want to forget the last year and move forward. I think all the guys came up in great shape. Everybody was very hungry to go out there.”
We’ll see if that’s true in a week or a month, but it’s a start. And we know that McLellan knows the way to the rink.