A season that began with great expectations dissolved into a struggle to stay afloat as the Kings hit the halfway mark. They had more reason to look nervously in the rear-view mirror at the teams gaining on them than to look optimistically ahead toward the top of the Pacific Division, which is where they thought they’d be after they acquired Pierre-Luc Dubois and his eight-year, $68 million contract in an effort to counter their rivals’ superior depth and size.
General manager Rob Blake’s answer to the 1-6-4 slump that left the Kings with a record of 21-13-8 and 50 points after their first 42 games was to say the team must go back to its defensive foundation, even though defense is a pronounced weakness for creative but careless winger Kevin Fiala and for Dubois, who had scored a paltry nine goals and 19 points at the halfway point and is often clueless when he doesn’t have the puck.
Speaking to the media Thursday morning, before the Kings launched the second half of their season by losing 2-1 to Nashville and falling into the second wild-card spot, Blake also said the team must execute more precisely on offense while adhering more closely to its defense-first system. It didn’t seem to matter to Blake that opponents have dissected and shredded that system on a disturbingly regular basis, or that coach Todd McLellan hasn’t made effective counter-adjustments.
No, McLellan got a vote of confidence from Blake, who gave the coach a contract extension last summer that put both on the payroll through 2024-25. Blake said Thursday he hadn’t been considering a coaching change. If that’s true — and Blake is known for fierce loyalty to his friends — then he hasn’t explored every option to turn the team around.
“No, not at all,” Blake said. “Our philosophy here in the past three, four years is on the structure and the system and the design, in the buy-in of players, and he’s gotten that from the players. I’m going to rely on the players and the leadership to get us out of that.”
McLellan might have taken the Kings as far as he can, which isn’t the same as taking them as far as they’re capable of going. His tenure brings to mind Terry Murray’s success in giving the Kings a solid defensive foundation but failing to find ways to generate scoring, which led to Murray being fired and replaced by Darryl Sutter in December 2011. The rest was Kings history, with Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014, but even Sutter’s gruff messaging eventually wore thin.
Blake said McLellan had done a good job installing structure, a system and defending, “and I would say the last little bit it’s gotten a little away from us and we have to get that back as a staple of the game.” This version of the Kings lacks the goaltending, finishing, and feistiness the Cup-winning teams had. But the NHL is different now, featuring more speed and less grinding, and finishing is key.
“We’re obviously at a critical stage right now, I think, in our season,” McLellan said. “Not just [Thursday’s] game but this phase as we head towards the All-Star break is really important that we get things going the right way.”
In analyzing why the Kings won only one of six games on their recent trip, Blake noted several instances when they generated three-on-two and two-on-one advantages but couldn’t capitalize. “The execution part, the finishing part, has dipped in the last 10 games,” he said. “There’s two sides. You drop a little there and you drop on the defensive side that is a structure of this team, then, as a whole, you’re down in those games.”
They’ll have to rebound without buzzsaw fourth-line center Blake Lizotte, who was placed on injured reserve due to a lower-body injury and is week to week. He’s not likely to return until after next month’s All-Star break. Also, team captain Anze Kopitar is playing hurt, as evidenced by the decline of his faceoff skills and usual pinpoint passing. The 36-year-old Slovenian is averaging about 19 and a half minutes’ ice time per game, near his career low. Kopitar’s compromised status hurts the Kings up the middle, where Phillip Danault has excelled but Dubois has let them down.
“He’s not 100 percent every night, but like I said, not all guys are,” McLellan said of Kopitar. “And you’ve got to be able to, with what you have, be as productive as possible.”
On a positive note, winger Viktor Arvidsson, who has yet to play this season because of a back injury he suffered during training camp, has begun skating in a red, no-contact jersey. He might be able to practice with the team in two to three weeks but is a long way from playing.
The return of Arvidsson, who scored 26 goals last season, would be the equivalent of a trade for the Kings before the March 8 deadline. They have little salary cap space to actually add an impact scorer. “We miss him in our lineup. He’s a goal scorer with a lot of energy for us,” Blake said.
The Kings will continue a four-game homestand Saturday with a visit from the New York Rangers and the first return to Crypto.com Arena of goalie Jonathan Quick, whom Blake traded to Columbus last March. Quick, unhappy at the abruptness of the trade, got fine consolation after he was traded to Vegas and won the Cup with the Golden Knights last season. He has been surprisingly effective for the Rangers, who lead the Metropolitan Division.
Blake wouldn’t go into depth when asked to reflect on how the trade played out. “He should be remembered this weekend for [being] the best goalie in our organization and celebrated that way,” Blake said.
Celebrate Quick and those memories because they’ll have to carry fans for a while longer.
Blake said he recently told current players they knew they’d have salary cap and roster issues this season, “but it’s this group that will pull out of it.” This coach, too? McLellan has to prove he can lead them to higher heights, or the end-of-season review could be conducted by a new coach and new general manager.