LOS ANGELES — Todd McLellan wants to make the Los Angeles Kings playoff contenders again. He faces an uphill climb in trying to make that happen.
McLellan, who was named coach on April 15, inherited a roster with five players age 32 or older that had the fewest points in the Western Conference last season, scored the second-fewest goals in the league and was 29th out of 31 teams in penalty killing.
That’s why McLellan has modest expectations for what will be considered a success this season.
”Growth. Everyone has to improve in every facet of the game,” McLellan said early in training camp. ”I think I’ve said this before. Old dogs have to learn new tricks, and the new dogs have to be prepared and open to absorb and be professional.”
McLellan spent most of training camp trying to get all his players on the same page. They have spent as much time in front of the white board as they have skating.
McLellan, who had previous stints with Pacific Division rivals San Jose and Edmonton, wants the Kings to be more aggressive on the forecheck and also to be quicker to the puck. Whether that can work with one of the league’s oldest lineups, remains to be seen.
Early reviews by players about McLellan have been positive. Ilya Kovalchuk said the Kings are hoping to exceed expectations even though many think LA’s best days are behind it.
”I believe we still got it. In this league you never know,” he said. ”You see the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup, they were the last team in the whole league by Jan. 6 or something. So you just have to work hard and together as a team cause you can’t just be bunch of individuals. We have some new guys coming, but we have a core that knows how to win and that’s most important.”
WHO’S HERE: Defenseman Ben Hutton was signed Sept. 18 with Derek Forbort (back) and Paul LaDue (knee) likely not ready for the start of the regular season. Hutton spent four seasons with Vancouver. He had 20 points in 69 games last season but also posted a career-worst minus-23 rating, which is why he wasn’t extended a qualifying offer. Fellow defenseman Joakim Ryan, who spent his entire career with San Jose, also provides some experience. The Kings also added forwards Mario Kempe and Martin Frk, but they might have a tough time breaking into the lineup.
WHO’S NOT: The Kings bought out veteran defenseman Dion Phaneuf while forward Brendan Leipsic signed with Washington. LA dealt some prospects near the trade deadline for draft picks.
KEY PLAYERS: F Anze Kopitar scored 60 points last season, which was a 32-point decrease from 2017-18. He is expected to bounce back and have increased production this season, but probably not on the level of two years ago.
Kovalchuk had a nightmare return to the NHL last year, with just 34 points and at one point being demoted to the fourth line. McLellan has lauded the Russian during training camp, saying he is more engaged and buying into the new system.
Goaltender Jonathan Quick was hampered by injuries and was in net for only 46 games. This could be the year he is traded after Jack Campbell was signed to a two-year extension prior to the start of training camp
OUTLOOK: Los Angeles is looking to avoid missing the playoffs in multiple seasons for the first time since 2008-09 but has an aging roster with large contracts, which doesn’t give the Kings much salary cap flexibility.
Veteran defenseman Drew Doughty knows the team is in a rebuilding phase. ”It’s just what we got to do,” he said. ”We’re a new team, we’re rebuilding, we’re going to be younger. We shouldn’t be surprised if we make trades this year. We just got to be better.”
PREDICTION: The Kings should improve on last season’s point total but are expected to miss the playoffs and be near the bottom of the Western Conference. The most interesting month of the season figures to be February as they’re likely to be in the trade market again and making the slow steps necessary to rebuild the roster.