A pack of reporters moved from corner to corner of the Kings’ locker room Thursday morning, navigating a room full of new faces and empty stalls, documenting the glaring changes of a franchise in transition.
The nameplate above Alec Martinez’s former locker was replaced by a generic Kings logo. Newly acquired Tim Schaller was assigned Tyler Toffoli’s old space, but instead hung his gear in a spare stall along the opposite wall. Former first-round draft pick Gabriel Vilardi plopped down in a spot of his own, preparing for his long-awaited NHL debut on a day most Kings veterans coped with the loss of long-time teammates.
There was excitement and pain, optimism and affliction. It felt like ground zero of the Kings’ rebuild, the day the team’s storied past finally collided with its fast-approaching future.
“You know deep down what they’re thinking and how they feel,” coach Todd McLellan said hours before his team’s 5-4 win over the Florida Panthers. “The bond that group creates when you win championships — not one, but two — is so strong that when they walk out the door it’s not easy.”
Trevor Lewis fielded questions first at the Kings’ practice facility, putting words to the woe he felt when Martinez was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights.
“He’s a brother for life, for sure,” said Lewis, another potential trade candidate. “We grew up in the organization together. We came up from the minors together. Along with [Kyle Clifford]” — another long-time Kings player traded this month — “he was one of my first roommates up here too. It’s tough. It’s tough to see him go.”
Vilardi, the 11th overall pick in 2017 who had his professional debut delayed by a serious back injury that flared up last season, spoke next, anxious to begin his NHL career.
“Pretty nervous,” he said. “But I’ll settle down once I get on the ice.”
Did he ever. Less than 10 seconds into his opening shift Thursday night, Vilardi fired a knuckling shot past Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for his first career goal. His first assist came a period later, a no-look backhanded feed that Martin Frk buried from the slot.
“Pretty exciting,” Vilardi said. “First shift, I wasn’t expecting that. No one expects to score on the first shift. That was definitely cool.”
Once Vilardi’s morning scrum ended, Schaller, a role player acquired from Vancouver, made introductions with the local media. Then, Anze Kopitar was stopped on his way out of the locker room.
Like Lewis, Kopitar grappled with the loss of career-long friends. But the 32-year-old captain is still cemented into the team’s long-term plans too, one of the few Kings players of the past expected to be part of their future as well.
“The mentality shouldn’t and can’t change,” Kopitar said. “It doesn’t matter who is in this locker room. We have to have the same mentality, the same work ethic. We’ve got to execute the system to a tee.”
The Kings did so enough Thursday night, riding Vilardi’s two points and Ben Hutton’s third-period game-winning goal to their third victory in four games. Afterward, they returned to their still somewhat unrecognizable locker room and celebrated, slowly learning how to cope with their club’s new reality.
“It’s all part of the transition,” McLellan said. “The decision was made. The plan was plotted. The execution of the plan is beginning now.”