EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The journey from championship titles to a toxic sense of entitlement can be a short one.
For the Los Angeles Kings, the journey took five years, from winning their second Stanley Cup in 2014 to last season’s absolute debacle: Getting coach John Stevens fired after 13 games, and then shrugging their way to a 31-42-9 record, their worst performance in 11 years.
When general manager Rob Blake met with his veteran players during last season’s spiral into mediocrity, he realized the concept of “entitlement” was a reoccurring motif.
“It was the entitlement that they could just turn it on when they needed to. Not so much that they were entitled to, say, take five games off. It was more like if they weren’t playing well, they just assumed they’d start playing well. And then they didn’t,” Blake told ESPN last week.
That mindset might seem disadvantageous, but it was an understandable part of the Kings’ makeup. This was the team that rolled to a Stanley Cup out of the No. 8 seed. This was the team that rallied from a 3-0 deficit to eliminate the San Jose Sharks. In the past, they could simply conjure that ability to overcome adversity and right the ship.
“They thought they had that in them. But unfortunately, it wasn’t in them,” Blake said. “I don’t know if ‘entitlement’ is the right word. It was more like ‘don’t worry, we’ll get better.’ And then it never got better. It wasn’t until the whole season didn’t go well that they realized they didn’t have that anymore. It took that long for them to figure it out.”
Figure what out, exactly?
“That they have to be a lot more open-minded to a different style of play, a different structure in play. The game has changed quite a bit from those days,” Blake said.
Defenseman Drew Doughty figured something else out about what the Kings needed in a coach. “I think we need someone that is going to kick our ass a little bit,” he said after the season. “I think some of us got a little too full and we need to be hungrier and we need someone to push us.”
Is new coach Todd McLellan that kicker?
“Yeah,” Doughty said. “He’s really good.”
McLellan laughed. “Quite frankly, I haven’t had to kick asses right now.”
“This is a proud group. That’s what I’ve found,” said the coach. “It’s a proud group that had a real tough season, and is not happy about it. Does that mean we’re going to run away with things and win the Stanley Cup this year? No. But they’re a proud group that’s open to suggestions and trying new things.”
This was a new thing for McLellan, who is entering his 12th year as an NHL head coach: Getting a job from a guy he used to coach.
“When he played, I had a ton of respect for him, and I think it was mutual. That was 10 years ago, but we were able to maintain our relationship. I honed my skills, and now we’re back together,” he said of Blake, whom he coached for two years with the Sharks. “You can see that he’s got the time and the energy and the passion. And that was one of the reasons I wanted to come to L.A.”
McLellan chose the Kings over the Buffalo Sabres and other suitors. He was available after getting fired by the Edmonton Oilers just 20 games into his fourth season with the franchise. He had amassed a 311-163-66 record in seven seasons with San Jose, missing the playoffs just once. He reaching the playoffs only once in Edmonton. As the Kings attempt to repair their reputation, their new coach is attempting to do the same.
“I’m past it, but it hurts to get fired. Somebody’s telling you that you’re not good enough and you don’t belong here anymore,” he said of the Oilers, a team McLellan said he would have gladly coached “forever” if given the chance.
“There’s an old adage that ‘guys get hired to get fired,’ and I don’t buy that one. The outside world sometimes thinks that coaches get paid so much that they shouldn’t care if they get fired. Well, it doesn’t resonate that way for us. It hurts.”
McLellan belongs to a very exclusive group thanks to his time in Edmonton. One that Glen Sather earned entry into when he coached Wayne Gretzky as a 19-year-old. One that Michel Therrien entered when he coached an 18-year-old Sidney Crosby. And one that McLellan earned induction into as 19-year-old Connor McDavid‘s first NHL coach.
“I get asked that question more than anything else I’m ever asked: Tell me about Connor,” McLellan said.
He’ll explain to coaches, opponents and fans who query him about a young generational talent, whom he describes as “an outstanding human being” who “understands his status in the game.” About a player who would leave McLellan speechless on the bench with his offensive arsenal.
When McLellan got the Edmonton job, his peers thought signing up to coach Connor McDavid was like signing up for a winning lottery ticket whose jackpot had yet to be determined. It didn’t work out that way for McLellan.
Does failing to take advantage of that kind of generational talent make the firing hurt a bit more?
McLellan pushes back.
“I think we did take advantage of it. We had a real good run in 2016-17. We fell back the following year, and that’s on everyone in the organization,” he said. “You can’t just win with one player. The people that are around him have to be doing their thing as well. I feel good about my time with Connor.”
McLellan got away, traveled and cleared his mind after getting fired, but kept one eye on the NHL. In particular, he watched the Kings drop down the standings. He didn’t like what he saw.
“Sometimes it doesn’t go well early, and you give yourself permission to take the rest of the year off. And that shouldn’t be acceptable to any human being. Did that happen? I don’t know. But you can deduce that? Yeah,” he said.
Doughty said the Kings earned a reputation for being malcontents under interim coach Willie Desjardins, but that it was a byproduct of losing.
“Thinking back to last year, there were times when it was hard to agree with what we were doing. Maybe because we were losing so many games, we were voicing our opinions a little too much at times. But we were losing every game. How do you not say something?” he said.
McLellan said he had to find a way to get the Kings to be the Kings again.
“Nobody played against this team more than the San Jose Sharks during my time there,” McLellan said. “There were intangibles that the Kings had that I believe pushed them over the hump. They were talented, had a lot of skill, but they had that inner drive and desire to overcome things. I’m not sure that was as high last year as it was in the past. With so many guys still in that locker room, they shouldn’t be giving all that back.”
The task for Blake and McLellan: Find a path back to respectability, get their players to buy into it and convince them that there is a plan in place to return to contention.
Not all of them were guaranteed to return after last season.
Blake explored the possibility of moving some of the Kings’ veteran players, but wasn’t getting the offers he was seeking on the trade market. He began to rationalize keeping the veteran team, for the most part, intact. “I didn’t see that we have young guys that can step in right away. There had to be a fill-in there anyway. So do you move somebody and then just get another veteran in free agency to fill in for a year or two?” he pondered.
The answer, ultimately, was to hold on to most of his veterans under contract. Even after last season’s debacle.
One veteran Blake considered signing for the Kings was his old Sharks teammate Patrick Marleau, whose contract was bought out this summer. “There really wasn’t [a fit],” Blake said. “We understood the idea that we had to get the youngsters ready. Patty would have been a good guy for that, and help those guys, but I felt like we had that already in some veterans.”
Blake said he needed both Doughty and Kopitar to buy into what the team was planning. Both players had rather subpar campaigns — in Kopitar’s case, his offensive output dropped by 32 points — and Blake felt he needed to get their confidence back up.
“I had to explain to them that there’s a little bit of a plan. They have to understand that they have to buy into what’s taking place here,” he said.
The plan is simple: Get the veterans to perform better in a new system while the Kings’ prospect pool, ranked second best in the NHL, matured. He was confident that McLellan was the right guy for the vets and the kids.
“His communication on why you do things separates him from a lot of other coaches. It’s less about ‘do this’ than why you’re going to do it,” he said.
Blake said he first noticed this when McLellan coached the power play. He would break down the routes that players took and why they made the passes they’d make. He’d take what was instinctual, and break down why the instinct existed. His coaching would exist somewhere between the hockey reflex and the self-destruction of overthinking things.
“Todd put it this way once: ‘Do your own thing, but in my structure,'” Blake said.
McLellan said one of the primary goals of the Kings’ training camp was to establish parameters of what’s acceptable and unacceptable, as far as “professionalism and work ethic.” The ghosts of last season’s disaster are still haunting this team. “It doesn’t go away. You still discuss what went wrong, who was a part of that, why it maybe happened. And you adjust,” he said.
The biggest adjustment? The system the Kings play. On top of having one of the oldest cores in the NHL — there are seven regular players over the age of 32 — the Kings were maligned last season as being slow, lumbering and defensive in a league that had become quick, limber and offense-first.
“You can’t win the way you did in 2012 and 2014. There are some fundamentals that you can take away from that, but you gotta learn new things. Get better every day. If you get to a certain part of your career, and you’re not still trying to learn, it’ll pass you by, quick,” Blake said. “Part of the new structure here was being amenable to a new coaching style and system.”
McLellan is trying to rewrite the Kings’ DNA with a style that incorporates aspects of the way teams like the Sharks and Nashville Predators play. And he has little shame in admitting that inspiration.
When they worked together with the Detroit Red Wings, McLellan picked up a term from Mike Babcock: “R&D.” Not “research and development,” but “rob and do.”
“It’s a copycat league. Some teams are having success on a regular basis, and you have to adjust to it,” McLellan said. “Rob and do. Take the idea, adapt it to your team, execute it better than a team that might have more talent, and you win.”
For years, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings would trade Stanley Cups, the former playing an offensive style and the latter playing a prototypical “heavy hockey” style. “No one should apologize for that. It’s great they won here. But today’s game is a little bit different than it was back then,” McLellan said. “The older players want to win again. And I think they recognize that there are things that have to change systematically. So far in camp, they’ve been receptive to that change.”
Doughty likes what he sees.
“We’ve completely changed our systems. Instead of playing above the puck and letting the rush come at us, we’re trying to stop the rush at their blue line or the red line. Changing all those systems has caused us to be more aggressive without the puck,” he said. “The coaching staff here now is very detailed, very hard on us, very honest with us, which is the key thing.”
The other key thing: That the Los Angeles Kings know they’re no longer entitled to anything.