Todd McLellan didn’t wait long to sit Matt Roy down in his office early this season. Three games were all the first-year Kings coach needed to see. His young defenseman was in need of a blunt assessment.
“That first road trip, I made some pretty bad mistakes,” Roy said. “He let me know they were unacceptable.”
Added McLellan: “We had a heart-to-heart. … I was pretty straightforward.”
Both men would rather keep the details of that day to themselves. The exact wording doesn’t matter much anymore. The message was received: Play better, or someone else will play in your place.
“It was a really big wake-up call for me,” Roy said.
The results have been worth relishing for the Kings. Roy has 13 points in 38 games, the third most among defensemen on the team. The Kings are 4-1-2 in their last seven games, during which time Roy has had six points.
His plus-five rating is tied for best on the team, while his expected plus/minus (an advanced analytic that accounts for shot location when a player is on the ice) tops the roster. For a franchise in the process of identifying its next generation, Roy’s future is looking increasingly brighter.
“I think I can play like that all the time,” Roy said last week, his soft voice barely rising above the buzz of the Kings’ locker room. “It’s just a matter of staying consistent, having faith in myself. I always knew I could play like this.”
Roy, 24, is something of a late bloomer. The Michigan native was drafted by the Kings in the seventh round in 2015 and spent his next two seasons playing at Michigan Tech. His first full pro season in 2017-18 was spent with the club’s minor-league affiliate, the Ontario Reign.
Last year, he split time between the Kings and the Reign, recording six points in 25 NHL games.
After surviving a preseason spent on the roster bubble, his first three games this campaign put his future in doubt. McLellan made sure he was aware.
“It’s nice that he’s upfront about it all instead of holding everything in,” said Roy, who was a minus-four in those three games. “It gave me a chance to refocus and hunker down. It was a good meeting — even though I didn’t like what was said.”
It was a fork-in-the-road moment for Roy. He was not a high-round draft pick, nor a high-profile prospect. Reaching the NHL had never been a guarantee, and his chances of staying long-term looked slim.
But when his moment of truth came, he had a convincing response. His development process had left him ready to handle adversity. In the next two games after talking with McLellan, Roy was a plus-four.
Unlike some teenage rookies the Kings will soon have to break in, Roy has had a wealth of experience, across several levels of the sport, to lean on.
“Eighteen [years old] to 24 is a dramatic difference,” said McLellan, likening Roy’s growth to the maturation of McLellan’s two college-age sons.
“Socially, physically, emotionally, his extra years certainly helped him. I don’t know where he would be if he played juniors and came out and tried to do this at 19.”
Nelson Emerson, the Kings’ director of player personnel, agreed. He remembers how Roy, during summer prospect camps, would sneak away after the mandatory workouts to spend extra time working on his shot, perfecting stick-handling and building strength.
“Obviously, you hope all your draft picks turn out to be NHLers, but the analytics show which players generally make it,” Emerson said. “The fact that Matty was drafted in the seventh round in 2015, and now he’s doing what he is — this is excellent.”
Roy recognizes this, reflecting earnestly on his college career — the years of working and waiting between his draft day and first extended NHL stint.
“Everyone is different, but for me it worked out perfectly the way it did,” he said. “I definitely needed those years in college, and I needed my time in the minor leagues too. For me, it helped out a lot.”
He knows his game — a two-way defenseman with an underrated shot — better now and has a fuller understanding of the league too.
“You get into a routine,” he said. “You pick up the game, the pace. You get to know the guys. It doesn’t get easier, but you become more familiar.”
In that familiarity, Roy has flourished, especially of late. On Dec. 15, in his first NHL game in his home state, he recorded an assist in the Kings’ 4-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. On Tuesday, he scored a game-tying goal late in the third period of the team’s eventual 4-3 overtime win in Boston.
Steadily, Roy and fellow rookie Sean Walker (an undrafted acquisition by the Kings) have stabilized the right side of the defense pairings behind Drew Doughty.
“Nothing’s been given to them,” Emerson said. “They have to work for everything. Down the line, it helps them become better players.”
Roy’s play has dramatically improved since the early-season hiccup. If his sit-down with McLellan was the spark, the coach hasn’t had to say anything else since.
“We haven’t even chatted, really,” McLellan said. “He just plays. He does his thing.”