Kings coach Todd McLellan had issued warnings – some thinly veiled, others purposefully direct – all season.
Like after an 8-2 loss to Vancouver on Oct. 9, when he said: “Some of the players we’ve counted on, or we need to count on, have to play a lot better or they don’t belong in the league.”
Or a week later, in the wake of a home loss to Buffalo on Oct. 17, when he reiterated: “We’re going to find guys that can play in the system. If they can’t play, then they’re going to watch. Pretty simple.”
And especially after a 5-1 drubbing in Chicago last Sunday, the finale of a 1-3-0 road trip, that prompted him flatly stating: “This trip was good because it let us know that there’s some players that probably can’t play in the league right now. So maybe we’ll have to make some changes.”
On Wednesday night, Tyler Toffoli got caught in those crosshairs. He became the first Kings veteran to find out exactly how short McLellan’s leash truly is.
The forward was a healthy scratch during the Kings’ 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks. Out of the lineup, Toffoli wore a suit and watched from the press box. While his teammates showered and changed postgame, he meandered through the tunnels of Staples Center on his own.
It didn’t matter that he is in the middle of a contract season, or had a streak of 207 straight appearances, or was once thought to be a lock for the franchise’s long-term future. He quickly found out how fine a line the Kings’ players now walk. He faced reality head-on.
“Tyler was a really good player for a good period this season, then things kind of fell off for him,” McLellan said of Toffoli, who has five points and a minus-four rating this year. “He’s got so much to give this team and to give himself, that maybe an opportunity to get a little angry – whether he’s angry at the coach or whoever – and then come and give us what he has, that’s what we’re looking for.”
The Kings may be in a rebuild, but McLellan has set a high bar for his veterans. He has cautioned of considerable consequences should they fall short. For Toffoli, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and has been speculated as a potential trade chip this season, the last straw came last Sunday in Chicago.
The 27-year-old winger suffered a minus-four rating while failing to record a single point, shot, hit or block in the loss to the Blackhawks. When the team returned to practice this week, he rotated into line rushes as the extra skater. Ahead of the team’s game Wednesday, McLellan delivered the news.
“I’ve been in the league long enough where I think I can handle the situation,” Toffoli said. “I know what I have to do on the ice. When that time comes, I’ve just got to worry about playing my game and helping the team win.”
Speaking with reporters Thursday, Toffoli argued that “I wouldn’t consider my game is off the rails, not one bit.” He acknowledged a need to play better, but also expressed disappointment with the decision, especially with the Kings’ in a four-game losing streak.
“It’s tough when you have a group here that wants to win games,” he said. “Everyone keeps talking about a rebuild but I don’t think anybody in here is thinking about rebuild. We’re competitors in here, and we’re not wasting our time and energy everyday to come in here and do nothing. We all want to win games.”
To do that, however, McLellan knows players such as Toffoli need to improve.
Four years ago, the skillful former second-round draft pick collected 31 goals, 58 points and an NHL-best plus-35 rating. Though some of those numbers had regressed by more than half last season (13 goals, 34 points, minus-16 rating), he still graded out analytically as one of the Kings’ better players.
But this season, Toffoli has struggled to put performances together. After scoring four points in his first five games, he has a lone goal in the eight games since. He is averaging just 14:49 of ice time per game, sixth-lowest of Kings forwards who have spent the entire season on the NHL roster.
“I thought the season started really well, obviously with a couple bounces here or there,” Toffoli said. “That’s no excuse. The last road trip didn’t go my way, those three or four games. It’s unfortunate.”
McLellan insisted he scratched Toffoli only to send a message to the player. But it could easily have ripple effects throughout the rest of the locker room too.
Within the first month of the season, the coach has already backed up his harsh words with sharp action. Toffoli is far from the only under-producing veteran in the lineup. Asked Thursday if his other players should heed Toffoli’s scratch as a warning, McLellan was blunt again.
“It depends on the individual,” he said. “If they believe that can occur in their situation, then maybe it does. If they don’t believe it can happen in their situation, then maybe it doesn’t. But that’s probably a dangerous way of approaching it.”