It only took one weekend to turn the early narrative of this Kings season on its head.
Entering play Thursday, the rebuilding club had authored an auspicious start. In their first nine games, the Kings had won four times (all against playoff teams from last season), made seemingly quick progress adapting to new coach Todd McLellan’s system, and had the best shot differential in the NHL — a statistic that usually correlates with success.
Then, in an untimely throwback to last season, they tripped over themselves. By the time they reassembled in Los Angeles on Tuesday — on the heels of a four-day stretch that saw them lose three games by a combined 15-4 — the Kings (4-8-0) had slipped to the bottom of the Western Conference standings, suddenly struggling to keep all their early progress from coming undone.
“We’re going to have to fix it,” McLellan said.
There is an existential question emerging with this Kings team. On the one hand, they want to build for the future by implementing McLellan’s quick, aggressive approach and acclimating their young prospects to the NHL level — objectives that will take time and a lot of patience.
In the interim, they are stuck with a roster in transition, one still largely built under the guise of heavy, defense-first hockey — the decade-old ideology the franchise is trying to phase out.
McLellan believes the team can blend the two realities, broaching the question himself during his post-practice chat Tuesday with reporters.
“Are we equipped to play the structure we’re putting in place? The answer would be, yeah, for the most part,” he said.
The results remain inconclusive.
Up until last weekend, the Kings had capably handled the cultural change of course. McLellan said “we felt fairly good about ourselves” at the start of a four-game trip, and he praised his team’s “strong game” in a 3-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 22 that that opened the trip.
Even in a 5-2 loss Thursday to the St. Louis Blues, which saw the Kings take a 2-1 lead before the Stanley Cup champions scored a pair of power-play goals that turned the tide, “we weren’t a disaster,” McLellan said. “The penalty kill let us down a little bit, but we hung in there and threw punches with them.”
It wasn’t until the third period Saturday night, when the Minnesota Wild broke open a tight game en route to a 5-1 victory, that the Kings came completely unraveled. After another 5-1 loss Sunday, to the Chicago Blackhawks, McLellan was blunt with reporters.
“It let us know that there are some players that probably can’t play in the league right now, so maybe we’ll have to make some changes,” he said. “There are some veterans that really have to pick up their play.”
On Tuesday, defenseman Drew Doughty didn’t accept the adaptation to McLellan’s system as the only explanation for the Kings’ weekend stumble.
“Yeah, it takes a little bit of adjustments, and yeah, we’ve got to trust guys, forwards in defensive situations, more,” he said. “But we need to stop using this system as an excuse. Twenty other teams in the league are doing it.
“It’s not that difficult to do. We just need to execute it. If it doesn’t execute and the other team gets a goal, it’s about coming back stronger and not getting down on yourself, which I think we can all say we’re guilty of.”
McLellan described the Kings, who host Vancouver on Wednesday night, as the “perfect incubator group.”
Though few current players are assured to be a part of the franchise’s future (Doughty, Adrian Kempe and Jack Campbell are the only players under 32 signed past the end of next year), McLellan insisted the roster offers enough talent to manage the on-ice transformation of play.
“There might be some weak areas, some holes,” he said. “We might be bleeding some chances in certain parts of the game. But that’s how we’re going to play moving forward. And that’s how we’re going to build our team around.”
McLellan emerged from Tuesday’s hourlong practice, one of the Kings’ longest of the regular season, with his silver hair disheveled and right hand stained with blue ink from a whiteboard marker. He’s hopeful he can get the reeducation of his team back on track, that the Kings can have success in the present while also keeping their future plans intact.
“This is our mandate, to play a certain way and a certain type of game,” McLellan said. “We’ll take it on the chin sometimes because of it, but we’ll find the right people too and we’ll make the players better here so they can have success.”
Carl Grundstrom recalled from AHL
Forward Carl Grundstrom was recalled from the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Ontario Reign, bringing the club’s roster to the maximum 23 players. Grundstrom, 21, made the team’s season-opening roster but only appeared in one game, recording one assist, before being sent down.
With the Reign, Grundstrom collected seven points (five goals, two assists) in four games. In 61 career AHL games, the former second-round pick has 49 points.
“He played well down there,” McLellan said. “He did exactly what was asked of him. He’s been able to score goals. Can it translate to this level? I don’t know. But he had an intensity there that maybe we need right now.”