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Hockey

Kings’ opening week is a mix of patience, growth and frustration

Kings’ Ilya Kovalchuk, left, celebrates his goal with Adrian Kempe during the second period against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday in Calgary, Canada.
Kings’ Ilya Kovalchuk, left, celebrates his goal with Adrian Kempe during the second period against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday in Calgary Canada.
(Jeff McIntosh / Associated Press)

Todd McLellan marched away from the locker room. His jacket was off. His arms swayed by his side. He set his sights straight ahead.

The new Kings coach had hit the first speed bump of his tenure, an 8-2 defeat to the Vancouver Canucks that brought his opening week in charge to a sobering close. All at once, the uncertainty of the road he and the Kings are embarking upon was exposed.

“I think you find out something about every individual each day, and they reveal themselves in certain situations,” he said. “We found something out about our group that has to be fixed, and we’ll work towards fixing it.”

When he took the Kings job this offseason, McLellan knew what he was getting into. He knew the Kings were at the depths of a rebuild, facing a long climb back to relevancy. He knew hard nights, disappointing nights, embarrassing nights were on the horizon.

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The first two weren’t so bad. In their 6-5 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, the Kings relinquished a pair of third-period leads but also tapped into a resolve that often went missing last year. Two nights later, they salvaged a strong start with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Calgary Flames.

Some players “have to play a lot better or they don’t belong in the league,” Los Angeles Kings coach Todd McLellan said after an 8-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

But finally, in the finale of their season-opening three-game swing through western Canada, that first futile failure had arrived.

In Vancouver, McLellan’s team had rolled over. He was left with one inconvenient, inevitable takeaway.

“It tells me,” McLellan said Wednesday, stopping to talk to reporters before disappearing down an arena hallway, “that our group’s got a long, long way to go.”

Edmonton: An even-keel approach

The first week of McLellan’s tenure started with a warning: Easy as it may be, be careful not to make snap judgments.

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“We believe we’ve had a pretty good training camp, players have been attentive and worked hard,” McLellan said last Saturday, ahead of the opener with the Oilers. “But we won’t know until we play through Vancouver, really, where we’re at and how many different things we need to adjust.”

Though McLellan is new to the Kings, 11 previous seasons behind an NHL bench have taught him this process — the potential pitfalls that accompany new systems and a new message. He has given his players detailed directions, but also a blank canvas. He wants to see what they can create within the structure he is putting in place.

“You have to have an impact on the game,” he said. “You don’t have to score a goal, you don’t have to set up the winning play. You might have to break something up, you might have to block a shot. But if you go empty the whole night and haven’t contributed, regardless of how many minutes you play, then it begins to get us to think about making changes.”

Which is why, as the third period spun out of control — a five-goal frame that saw the Kings twice take the lead only to lose to the Oilers by one — McLellan kept his demeanor in check. In their first regular-season game together, he wanted to see how his players would react.

“I don’t think there was any panic,” defenseman Alec Martinez said. “I think he’s a pretty even-keel guy. He’s been around a long time. That’s not his first game situation like that.”

McLellan’s presence is different from his predecessors. Darryl Sutter’s iron-fist approach lifted the Kings to two Stanley Cup championships, but lacked the deft touch to turn them into a dynasty. John Stevens opted for a subtler approach, but never solidified his systematic overhaul on the ice.

In McLellan, the Kings hope they’ve found a happy medium.

“It’s going to be somewhere in between,” Martinez said. “He’s obviously encouraging on the bench. Something someone is doing well, he’s positive. Same thing the other way.”

Calgary: Signs of growth

McLellan’s voice grew sharper with each repetition Monday. In the Kings’ first practice since losing at Edmonton, the coach was demanding more inside an empty Scotiabank Saddledome.

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“Move it! Move it! Move it!” he shouted as players and pucks zipped around the rink, weaving through the neutral zone in a blur. “Understand the pace. … The puck has to be faster than us.”

McLellan, a coach who loves to author analogies, has often likened games to “tests.” Practice days like these are the equivalent to study hall.

There is a certain vision McLellan is striving for, a direct and decisive style of play he evolved over his previous NHL coaching tenures in San Jose and Edmonton. He is implementing it with detailed instructions.

“He’s very clear with what he wants us to do, where he wants us to be on the ice, structurally,” forward Kyle Clifford said. “He’s not afraid to voice his opinion. From what I’ve seen, he’s been pretty fair with his assessment.”

By the midway point of practice, McLellan’s tone softened. He saw the execution on the ice improve.

“Much better,” he declared.

It carried over to the Kings’ first period against the Flames on Tuesday night. The forecheck caused four takeaways. Defensively, the Kings clamped down on a Flames team that won the Western Conference last season . In the offensive zone, they scored twice and recorded 20 shots to the Flames’ three.

“That’s a sign of growth,” McLellan said. “We started the season by saying everybody has to grow. Whether you’re 35 years old or whether you’re 20 years old, you have to find a way to grow.”

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The Flames came back and forced overtime. Then, Drew Doughty buried a game-winning power-play goal. Afterward, McLellan sounded like a proud teacher, checking off some of the most crucial boxes to his hockey curriculum.

“We were able to put a team on its heels,” he said. “Being resilient later on in the game was important. Scoring on the power play, we count on the power play to get us something and we executed something we’ve worked on very well.”

He wrapped his first Kings win succinctly: “There were a lot of areas that we improved on tonight.”

Vancouver: A harsh reality

A man of usual routine, McLellan did something different when his first drubbing with the Kings mercifully ended.

After most games, “I don’t go into the room,” he said. “I did go into the room in Vancouver.”

The tenor of his message was clear. Even though the Kings’ external expectations are low, even though McLellan is at the start of a five-year contract with seemingly endless breathing room, even though there are countless excuses — some legitimate, others not — as to why the team might still be a long way from consistently winning, their new coach isn’t willing to wait.

“When we left [for the trip], we said we would come back and have something to base an opinion on,” McLellan said. “It’s a tough opinion to establish, because we played some really good periods. We were Jekyll and Hyde, if you will. Outstanding 20 minutes and awful 15 minutes in Vancouver.”

Prior to their collapse against the Canucks, in which Vancouver scored twice in the opening seven minutes and four times in the final period, the Kings had shown promise.

“I feel like when we stick to our game, we stick to our systems, we’re a tough team,” defenseman Ben Hutton said.

The challenge now will be replicating such success in the midst of a daunting rebuild. The first week of the McLellan era confirmed as much.

“All over the map,” McLellan said, assessing the opening trio of games. “But that may be the stage your team is in. We’ll be working hard to find some consistency.”


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