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Hockey

Kings coach Todd McLellan breaks down the opening-night roster

Kings forward Blake Lizotte has impressed new coach Todd McLellan.
Kings forward Blake Lizotte has impressed new coach Todd McLellan.
(Getty Images)

Todd McLellan did his due diligence this summer. Hired as the Kings coach in April, he studied his new roster, evaluating his players’ stats and breaking down their tape.

Yet, McLellan entered training camp in September with an open mind. If he has learned anything in his 11 seasons as an NHL head coach, it’s to not draw conclusions of new players until he can see them in person during training camp.

“That’s where we’ll truly develop our own opinion,” he said before the preseason began.

That initial process is almost complete now. Less than a week from the Kings’ season-opener at Edmonton on Saturday, the team has trimmed its roster to 23 players ahead of the NHL regular-season roster deadline on Tuesday.

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McLellan has been careful to note that, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings’ personnel could remain fluid throughout the season. “It’s ever-evolving,” he said last Thursday. “Game 1 we could make a change. Game 2 we could make a change. It’s the only way to keep everybody honest.”

Nonetheless, over the course of the preseason, McLellan has offered insights and observations about his roster. At the dawn of the regular season, here are some of his notable training camp evaluations:

Forwards

While the Kings shuffled other lines around this preseason, Alex Iafallo, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown were largely kept together. Why? “They’ve been attentive, they’ve been leading,” McLellan said. “Their standards that they set for themselves are fairly high. It flows through the team.”

  • McLellan repeatedly touted Blake Lizotte’s play during camp, as the 21-year-old became one of the team’s biggest preseason surprises. “I’m gaining a big trust in Blake,” McLellan said of Lizotte, who went undrafted and was signed by the Kings at the end of last year. “If we had the draft this year, Blake Lizotte might have gone in the first round. I don’t know. He’s just a little bit older, he’s got a little more experience.”
Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick played big roles in the Kings’ Stanley Cup wins. They now have to make the team relevant again.

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  • McLellan gave an honest assessment of winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who tallied 34 points and a minus-26 rating in his first season with the Kings last year, following a preseason game last Wednesday: “Real good spurts and then some structure things that we have to work on. … You can see the talent, the creativity at times. But then there’s other times when we need to be really structured and doing things right because we’re relying on five pieces working together.”
  • Coming off an injury-bothered , 33-point, minus-20 campaign in 2018-19, Jeff Carter played center and wing during camp and was praised by McLellan during a media scrum last week: “He’s been pretty impressive in the way he picks things up. He’s got a little bit of a spark to him right now. I hope that carries into the season and he gets feeling really good about himself.”
  • McLellan has seen Tyler Toffoli, a 27-year-old winger entering a contract season, make notable strides over the course of camp: “We’re probably all looking for Toff to skate down the wing and shoot it by the goalie 40 times — that’s a tough thing to do in this league. I’m looking for him to play well positionally, to make good smart plays. Break things up, work for his teammates.”
  • In McLellan’s view, consistency has been the biggest thing holding back 23-year-old center Adrian Kempe. But, McLellan is hopeful Kempe can take a significant step in his third full NHL season: “I see a young man that is fairly confident. … A big man that can handle the puck at a high pace of play. All of that has to translate into production.”
  • Carl Grundstrom, acquired by the Kings in the Jake Muzzin trade last season, didn’t score during his first preseason with the team. But McLellan saw promising flashes from the 21-year-old winger: “Lot of straight-line play, physically strong, goes to the paint, willing to skate through bouncing pucks. … He’s perhaps thinking too much rather than reacting. But we have a team full of those people. It will come for everybody eventually. It will come naturally.”

Defensemen

  • It’s unclear how long 2019 first-round pick Tobias Bjornfot will continue to stick around with the Kings (because Bjornfot is only 18, he can play up to nine NHL games this season without it counting as a year of service time on his entry-level contract), but his expectation-exceeding performance in camp has him on track to potentially make an immediate NHL debut. For all of Bjornfot’s physical tools, another trait has stood out to McLellan: “Incredible poise. Very few errors or mistakes,” McLellan added. “Positionally-sound. Unfazed when things go wrong … A lot of players at that age, you lose them for a little while and they try to make up for it. Tobi just regroups.”
  • On the ice, McLellan has tested Drew Doughty with several different partners, including Bjornfot and Joakim Ryan (Doughty’s normal partner, Derek Forbort, remains out with a back injury). Away from the ice, McLellan plans to give the candid team leader freedom to speak up. “I’m going to let Drew be Drew,” McLellan said. “But it’s always going to be about the team first. He’s got to consider that with his comments and his beliefs. I don’t think that he puts himself in a bad spot very often, and maybe our game needs some colorful people, so there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Los Angeles Kings coach Todd McLellan and Anaheim Ducks coach Dallas Eakins addressed final roster cuts and where their younger players fit into the picture.

  • In a defensive corps that, beyond Doughty, Forbort, and Alec Martinez, came into the preseason lacking much experienced depth, the mid-camp signing of Ben Hutton has been met positively by McLellan: “He’s a good skater, so his ability to be mobile around the ice, get to pucks and initiate breakouts should be part of it. I know in the past he’s shown some offensive awareness or instincts.”
  • McLellan didn’t often cross paths with Ryan during his coaching tenure in San Jose. A 2012 Sharks draft pick, Ryan’s first full pro season came the year after McLellan and the Sharks parted ways in 2014-15. Yet, McLellan has paired the left-handed defenseman, who signed with the Kings this offseason, with Doughty for stretches this preseason: “[He is] finding his way with a new team and a new coach and a new system,” McLellan said last Thursday. “You can tell that he’s got some poise, and he’s a veteran.”

Goalies

  • Between Jonathan Quick and Jack Campbell on the NHL roster, and promising prospect Cal Petersen with the Ontario Reign in the American Hockey League, the Kings enter the season with depth in net. That could prove important for McLellan, who explained his general preference for a somewhat-split workload among netminders: “I don’t want to paint myself into a corner or anything like that, but it’s reasonable to expect starters to probably be under 60 games,” McLellan said, adding: “If somebody gets going, they’re running, they’re hot, we’ll play them. If it keeps on going, we’ll keep playing them. As long as they’re healthy and getting their rest, we’ve got to take into consideration fatigue and injuries and all that type of stuff.”

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