Sometime Thursday morning, Kings coach Todd McLellan decided to call off his team’s practice for the afternoon.
Two days before the Kings’ opener on Saturday in Edmonton against the Oilers, McLellan had another exercise in mind. Entering his first season at the helm, McLellan had been looking for ways to break up the purgatorial eight-day break between his team’s preseason finale and regular-season lid-lifter.
As he reviewed tape of the previous days’ sessions, he saw reasons to reward his squad.
“I liked the pace we practiced with,” he said. “I liked the intensity we practiced with.”
So, instead of taking the ice Thursday, the Kings sat together and “did a lot of video work, reviewing situations.”
A common theme to the clips, according to McLellan: “Most of them [were] positive.”
Stormy skies hang over the dawn of this Kings season. They are coming off a second-to-last-place finish in the league last year, their worst campaign in more than a decade.
Their roster is stuck in the midst of an awkward transitional phase, trying to mesh a veteran core and budding prospect pool. Their long-tenured leaders, who not long ago keyed the club to two Stanley Cups, are now being asked to foot a rebuild.
A franchise that once fostered a winning culture is trying to find itself again.
“The majority of the group knows where they were at one point and where they ended up last year,” said McLellan, who was hired in April. “There’s a big gulf between those two numbers. I don’t think anybody is happy with that.”
Around the league, the Kings enter the season viewed as little more than a long-lost wasteland.
ESPN grouped them in with the “basement” of the NHL, picking them to finish in the bottom four. CBS Sports predicted them to finish last in the Western Conference. USA Today projected them to accrue 55 points (which would be a franchise-low for an 82-game season). According to Oddshark.com, only the Ottawa Senators have longer Stanley Cup odds than the Kings’ 80-to-1 mark.
“If you don’t know,” McLellan said of the team’s dreary external outlook, “you’re probably living under a rock.”
As the Kings try to shuffle out of the darkness of irrelevancy, days such as Thursday provide rays of light. McLellan “can’t guess” how many games his team will win this year. But every little positive teaching moment will be a step in the right direction.
We’ve got to play a bunch of games,” he said, “and do our best and see where we end up.”
During the preseason, McLellan has compartmentalized each facet of the Kings’ game. Some areas have been stronger than others.
The forecheck has been one promising example. On Thursday, McLellan praised the way the team has adopted his new quicker-pace, higher-pressure style of play through the neutral zone.
“From Day 1 of implementation to where we’re at right now, the understanding of how the pieces work together has been a big change,” he said. “And then there’s some detailed stuff in coverages, faceoffs, guys have been quite sharp in those areas.”
He has sounded confident about his goaltending too, all but guaranteeing Jonathan Quick will get the opening night start.
“I think Jonathan’s been really good in camp,” McLellan said. “He’s been outstanding as far as work ethic. He’s a proud player. He wants to be a good goaltender. He wants to improve on last year’s numbers, and we’re going to give him a chance to do that.”
Steady net-minding and sound systems were two things the Kings lacked last year.
A season ago, Quick was hurt and largely ineffective when he did take the ice. In front of him, the team’s structure fell apart at the seams, especially as disconnect set in between interim coach Willie Dejardins and the disenchanted locker room he inherited.
The Kings’ 71 points put them nowhere near the playoffs but were far from the tumultuous tank job some pundits are anticipating this year.
Even if specific internal expectations aren’t clear, the franchise will at the least be hoping its darkest days have come and gone, that last season will prove to have been the climax of an ugly storm.
“Our goal is to make ourselves happy,” forward Tyler Toffoli said. “We’re feeling pretty good. I thought we had a really good camp. Everybody is definitely putting us to the bottom of the barrel. We have a lot of pride in here. We have a lot of good players. We’re excited to sort of get things going.”
Serious unknowns remain. Scoring goals could be an issue for a team that is short on dominant depth at center or many proven playmakers on the wing.
The blueline resembles a patchwork group and will begin the year without injured veteran Derek Forbort. McLellan also said special teams, another weak spot from last season, remain a work in progress.
McLellan has tried to balance all these factors, to weigh his team’s subtle strengths and glaring weaknesses. He’s as anxious as anyone to see which way the scales tip.
Days before an uncertain campaign, one the Kings begin with more questions than answers, McLellan said: “It’s coming together. Where are we at? We don’t know. We haven’t taken the test yet.”