In the aftermath of the worst Kings season in more than a decade, general manager Rob Blake knew what he needed from his next head coach.
He pinpointed structure, a modern style of play and motivation for an aging sector of their roster that has become admittedly complacent.
“I’m going to demand a lot from that head coach,” Blake said at his end-of-season news conference.
Blake didn’t have to look far to check off all those boxes, and he’s banking on a long-term commitment to get that done. His expected hiring of Todd McLellan was announced Tuesday and reunites the former San Jose Sharks coach with Blake, who played for McLellan in San Jose, for the long term.
McLellan, 51, signed a five-year contract worth about $5 million annually, according to a person familiar with the situation. That’s a significant term and salary, particularly for an organization that has recognized that it is years away from contending.
But Blake targeted McLellan from the get-go after a disastrous season that included the firing of John Stevens in November and a rocky six-month adventure with since dismissed interim coach Willie Desjardins. The Kings are not believed to have gotten deep into the search process with other potential candidates, even after a report last week that McLellan was close to signing with the Buffalo Sabres. McLellan will be formally introduced Wednesday as the team’s fourth coach in three years.
One thread the Kings identified was coaches who have enjoyed success at their third NHL stop, and McLellan now falls under that category. He was fired by the Edmonton Oilers in November with one year remaining on a reported $3-million annual contract, after the perpetual rebuilding project around Connor McDavid devolved back into a second straight non-playoff season.
The bulk of McLellan’s resume was built in San Jose, where he took the Sharks to the Western Conference finals twice, in 2010 and 2011, and won at least 50 games three times, with three Pacific Division titles. McLellan and San Jose squandered a 3-0 series lead to the Kings during the Kings’ 2014 Stanley Cup-winning season.
But McLellan oversaw one of the top mainstay power-play units in the NHL. The Sharks ranked in the top 10 six times in his seven-year tenure. Probably more impactful is that his style is known to work well with both older and younger players. McLellan will have his hands full with the Kings, many of whom owned up to bad practices and a lack of hunger in the latter stages of their career.
McLellan will be charged with getting Anze Kopitar back to his Hart Trophy-finalist form from two seasons ago and coaxing more of a two-way game out of Ilya Kovalchuk, whose fractured relationship with Desjardins “exasperated a lot of the other minor things that we could kind of work through,” Dustin Brown said.
The Kings were 30th with 2.43 goals a game and 22nd at 3.16 goals allowed. They ranked 27th and 29th, respectively, on the power play and penalty kill.
But McLellan will inherit an interesting mix of young forwards such as Austin Wagner, Carl Grundstrom and Matt Luff, and prospects Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Gabriel Vilardi and Rasmus Kupari, pending Vilardi’s recovery from a chronic back injury. The Kings have two first-round draft picks, including the fifth overall selection, in June, and are expected to make roster shakeups this summer to help them stay competitive.
“We have a different team than we’ve had in a long time,” Brown said. “I think the idea is probably to get younger — we have a lot of younger guys with less experience — so I think it’s important we have a guy who can teach us how to play the game. The flip side to that is the accountability. We need a guy who’s going to hold everyone accountable.”
McLellan went 123-119-24 with Edmonton and 311-163-66 with San Jose. He has the most wins (195) by a coach in his first four seasons. McLellan previously served as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings, winning the Cup in 2008. He also coached the North America team in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and the gold-medal-winning Canadian team in the 2015 World Championships.