What happened to all the Kings men?

17.2.2024. Just last summer, we expected the Los Angeles Kings have the depth and the skill to possibly contend for the Stanley Cup. Now, with the season approaching its most critical weeks, the first California team is barely clinging to a wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference. 

Hollywood Hockey Optimism

There was some well-justified optimism around the City of Angels, and around the National Hockey League last summer, that the LA Kings would be very good this season. Good enough to come out of the Pacific Division and even the Western Conference to compete for the Stanley Cup, when the big games start. The Big Dance, as we like to say. 

Fresh off a captivating 104-point regular season, the finale of the 2022-23 season didn’t go down exactly like a well-written Hollywood script (had to get that one in there, to try to capture the spirit of the thing). 

The Edmonton Oilers – from a city where all surfing is done inside in a huge shopping mall – sent the Kings packing, for the second year in a row. Like a recycled Hollywood script, and another first-round exit in and old Western style shootout in the hands of the not-real-cowboy Albertans. 

The Executive Director, or General Manager if you will, of the Los Angeles Kings, Rob Blake, decided to flip the script on Edmonton and the rest of the NHL. It seemed like finally the lessons of the past were learned. 

He brought in a new cast member, possibly the most promising French-speaking action hero since Jean-Claude Van Damme, from the frozen Manitoba tundra in Pierre-Luc Dubois, to try and change the chemistry. Sure he had a bit of a checkered past. But Hollywood is a place where you can reinvent yourself. Nobody cares who you were in Ohio or someplace in Canada anymore.  

With PLD, a one-time surprising draft pick by the newly fired Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen, the Kings were supposed to add to their very solid core of Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Kevin Fiala, and Adrian Kempe. Now the Kings could avenge its annual losses to Edmonton, kick ass in Northern Alberta, just like Charles Bronson did in the 1974 film “Death Wish”. 

It didn’t turn out that way. At least not so far. The movie of Los Angeles Kings, season 2023-24, seems as confusing like that “Mulholland Drive”. What the hell was that all about? 

What happened to All The Kings Men? 

Nobody expected the Kings to collapse. It has been surprising because they were very impressive early, winning their first eleven road games – an NHL record – to star the season. 

The Kings had 44 points after the first 31 games to start the season (20-7-4). Tied for the most in team history after that amount of games. Then they lost eight of the following 17 games, averaging only 2.35 goals per game over that span. 

Last season, the Kings finished 10th overall in the NHL scoring with 3.34 goals per game. Kempe had 41 goals, Fiala 23. Viktor Arvidsson had 28 goals and Lady Byng winner Anze Kopitar 28. Newcomer Dubois (27 goals in Winnipeg) was supposed to improve the firepower. Now, it seems that the Winnipeg Jets won that trade without acquiring the best player. 

Gabe Vilardi, Alex Iafallo and Rasmus Kupari had combined for 40 goals for the Kings. The team has not ben able to compensate for that loss. 

Todd is out

Kings GM Rob Blake made head coach Todd McClellan pay the price for the dysfunctional Kings` stumbles by firing him on February 2nd. Los Angeles went into the All-Star break still with the first wild-card spot in the west, but only four points from falling out of a playoff spot. 

McLellan was fired halfway into his fifth season with the Kings. He won his last game behind the bench at Nashville. Just last summer, Blake had extended his contract through the 2024-25 season. 

It is fair to say that Todd McLellan was working with flawed rosters much of his time in LA. Under his coaching the Kings had a sound defensive structure to their game. Over time, it seemed that opposing teams had figured them out. They looked slow. Maybe too predictable a game plan, which other teams started to feast on.

The players respected and supported McLellan till the end. Several key players went out of their way to back him up when it seemed apparent that he was close to being fired. 

Expect Todd McLellan to find employment soon, maybe after taking a well-deserved break. He is a good coach, and a good man. A standup person when times are difficult. 

Interim coach Jim Hiller

Can interim head coach Jim Hiller restore the badly needed confidence of the Kings in their last 30 or so games? 

Hiller, known as a power play specialist, was an assistant under McLellan. Kings` power play was fourth best in the NHL in 2022-23, with a success rate of 25.3 percent, and 33.3-percent in the playoffs. Actually, 10th round draft pick by the Kings in the 1989 NHL draft. Formerly an assistant with the New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings. 

He inherited a team with well-advertised scoring problems and also shaky goaltending. Cam Talbot went winless in ten straight starts after Christmas. 

Jim Hiller will serve as interim head coach for the rest of the season. “This was not an easy decision, but we felt the change was necessary at this time,” said the statement released by the Kings, words by Rob Blake. 

“Jim is a well-respected member of our staff who is familiar with our players. We are confident in his ability to lead our team effectively during this pivotal time.”

Maybe Blake was trying to copy the script which helped turn the season around in Edmonton. The Oil dismissed their head coach Jay Woodcroft on November 12th. New head coach Kris Knoblauch and Oiler legend Paul Coffey in charge of the dcorps, elevated the struggling Oilers. Edmonton blew by the Kings into third place in the Pacific. They had first a 8-game winning streak and then another one of 16 wins, to save their season. 

Rob Blake may join Todd McLellan one day unless he can pull off some successful trades in the coming weeks. Kings` scoring needs to be fortified and their suddenly leaky goaltending may need to be shored up. Hiller is the already the fourth coach under Blake`s tenure, following John Stevens, Willie Desjardins and McLellan. 

Their dressing room appears fractured somehow. This team has too many good players to be where they are at. Pierre-Luc Dubois has 11 goals after 51 games, and doesn’t appear to fit anywhere in the lineup. Not fair to pile up on just one player, of course. 

This team needs to follow the leadership and emulate the work habits of its tireless, hardworking players in Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty. These future Hall-of-Famers should keep the Kings` culture solid, the embodiments of Kings hockey, but they can not be doing it forever. 

Veteran defenseman Doughty, who still logs more ice time than any other NHL skater at age 33, praised his coach. Doughty made some rare, thunderous postgame comments just before, calling out his own teammates for being selfish and putting personal stats before the team after a home loss to the Buffalo Sabres. 

Doughty`s criticism of teammates added to the tension. But now, GM Blake is under pressure to make changes after a coaching change and poor performance by the team. 

Tough weekend

LA Kings are 2-1-0 with Jim Hiller running the bench. They surprised the Edmonton Oilers after the Oil`s 16-game winning streak had ended at home by an impressive 4-0 victory, with David Rittich recording the shutout to boot. 

Pierre-Luc Dubois scored a goal and showed a lot more bite, tangling with Corey Perry.

They got smacked 7-0 in Buffalo. The team that just beat Edmonton didn’t show up. But they came back with a solid effort and won by a score of 2-1 in Jersey over the Devils. A road game that resembled their type of road games in October and November. 

The game at the Prudential Center was also badly missed Viktor Arvidsson`s return after a very long time off because of injury. And the infamous trash talk by Jack Hughes, who people apparently pay money to see play.

Now, the question is, can the Kings build on that with two very tough road games back-to-back this weekend; first in Boston on Saturday, and then in Pittsburgh on Jaromir Jagr`s big jersey retirement day on Sunday?

Bruins can be beat. The Penguins have been probably the most inconsistent good team in the National Hockey League all season. 

Small steps.

No easy wins, and there should not be.

Is it time for GM Rob Blake to finally do the one thing he has not done yet this season, to pull a legitimate trade?

These next few weeks are critical to the Los Angeles Kings season. Still, with a winning record, and in a playoff spot. Hollywood ending still possible. 

Jouni Nieminen, Edmonton

X:   @OnsideWithJouni

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