The shriek of a whistle brought the practice to a halt.
During the Kings’ first 15 minutes on the ice Saturday morning, they’d stayed in constant motion. A neutral-zone stickhandling warm-up drill. Several hard laps around the rink. A simple five-on-zero breakout drill.
At first, new coach Todd McLellan hardly said a word.
But once he saw an issue, McLellan stopped his players in their tracks. Because, as much as the straight-talking, silver-haired coach wants up-tempo practices from his team, he wants their sessions to be mistake-free.
“I want to be direct,” McLellan said. “I would like us to be very clear as a coaching staff of what we require of them, what their responsibilities are in certain areas and then, most importantly, why we’re doing it.
“I continue to try to get that point across. If they understand why, they have a better chance at success.”
In the first weekend of training camp, the Kings’ McLellan-led practices have followed the rhythm of a retro jazz band. Most of the time, they’re hectic and high-paced, a kinetic quality attached to almost every drill. Then the action will stop on a dime, slowing to a hum as the veteran NHL coach delivers detailed instructions.
If the sound of carving ice isn’t filling the air, McLellan’s deep, booming voice usually is.
“He’s going to be straightforward,” forward Tyler Toffoli said. “If it’s good or bad, he’s going to let us know.”
Here is how the rest of the Kings’ Saturday morning practice unfolded:
- McLellan sent the team skating in laps again, shouting, “Move! Move! Move!” as they passed him.
- They spent a few moments huddled around the coach, listening as he quickly sketched directions using a whiteboard on the glass.
- During the ensuing offensive-zone entry drill, McLellan had defenseman Alec Martinez redo a rep, instructing him to carry the puck across the blue line when given space, instead of dumping it in.
- Later, midway through a neutral-zone regroup exercise, McLellan called for another pause and gathered his entire group of defensemen for a short chat near center ice.
- After another stretch of unimpeded play, McLellan stepped in once more after Adrian Kempe missed a chance to drive into open space and past an opposing defenseman. One of the lines McLellan uttered perhaps sums up his message best:
“It can’t get casual here!”
McLellan, who signed a five-year, $25-million contract with the Kings this offseason, is expected to have a lot of freedom behind the bench. He has called such autonomy one of the most appealing aspects of the job. But when it comes to his big-picture objective, he and management already see eye to eye.
They want to re-instill the aggressiveness the Kings seemingly lost last season. McLellan hopes the structure of his training camp practices can help do it.
“What hockey used to get done in 60 minutes, you can almost get done in 40 minutes now,” McLellan said. “Keep the pace up, keep the heart rate up, you don’t have to line guys at the end of practice all the time and skate them.”
Martinez said that at the start of one ice time over the weekend, rink employees hadn’t yet cleared the surface when McLellan whistled for practice to begin. “When he blows that whistle,” Martinez said, “he wants to get going.”
McLellan has maintained a similar tone away from the ice as well. For example, captain Anze Kopitar said McLellan showed the group tape of the San Jose Sharks’ and Nashville Predators’ fast and firm systems. Why?
“Just trying to be more aggressive,” Kopitar said. “[We want to] turn the puck over quicker, or be on offense a lot more. We’ve got to score more goals than we did in the past. The first step is being more aggressive.”
Of course, rebuilding the Kings will take more than a new mind-set.
McLellan wants to implement an entirely new style of play, one that transforms the Kings from a one-dimensional defensive stalwart to a heavy-forechecking, high-scoring squad. He wants to reestablish a Stanley Cup-winning culture. And he needs his players to adjust to his unique terms, phrases and philosophies.
“By the time we get up and running and playing, hopefully it just comes to them naturally,” McLellan said, “and we’re a little more assertive.”
Until then, he won’t waste time or words on the ice. There’s a long road ahead, but he wants the Kings to do everything as fast and as perfectly as possible anyway.
“It’s not a complicated switch, but [when] you do something for 15 years, that’s where the mistakes are going to be,” forward Dustin Brown said. “You’re going to see it in practice out there, all the reads and reacts. But having him be able to break it down for us is a big key.”