Todd McLellan

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Kings’ big money men are under pressure

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

The 2019-20 season was already slated to shine a harsh spotlight on the most expensive Los Angeles Kings players, particularly if they fail to rebound from a brutal 2018-19.

Already-high cap hits don’t tell the story, as the actual salaries could make management queasy. Between Drew Doughty ($12M), Anze Kopitar ($11M), and Jonathan Quick ($7M), the Kings are spending $30M on three players who are coming off of seasons that were absolutely disastrous.

Take a look at the rest of the Kings’ roster, and you’ll realize that, if this team hopes to be competitive next season, they’re counting on those three – particularly Doughty and Kopitar – to return to elite status, or something close to that. The Kings wisely stayed on the sidelines instead of spending big in free agency, yet this means that the Kings are crossing their fingers on improvement from within.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three Questions | Kings’ rebuild  | X-factor]

Now, the lack of free agent moves would make you believe that the Kings are acknowledging reality and settling for a wonky rebuild where they might not really be able to blow things up, but might at least be able to absorb some tough years to improve draft lottery odds.

Yet … the thing is, if you’re gearing up for a rebuild, are you really giving Todd McLellan this kind of money, or even hiring McLellan in the first place?

That hefty salary indicates that the Kings are banking on McLellan succeeding with Los Angeles in a way he rarely did with the Oilers: steering a flawed, top-heavy roster to contention. Considering the stuttered development of players like Jesse Puljujarvi, it’s tough to spin the McLellan hire as anything beyond a “win-now’ move.

With that in mind, the Kings still seem like they want to be competitive, and basically all of that rides on a $35M quartet of Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, and head coach McLellan.

None of them have an easy job ahead.

As tough as 2018-19 was for Kopitar, it’s not an accident that Dustin Brown had a career renaissance while playing almost 1,000 even-strength minutes and less than 100 minutes without Kopitar last season. Chances are, Kopitar will be asked to lug one or even two questionable wingers with him, and it’s up to McLellan to determine what is the most optimal combination. Should Kopitar stick with Brown and Alex Iafallo as the team did last season, or might it be helpful to mix in a little more talent? Could Kopitar + Ilya Kovalchuk work out better with another try? Would Kopitar rejuvenate Jeff Carter? In virtually every scenario, Kopitar will be asked to carry others. Not the easiest assignment for a guy who’s turning 32 soon.

Doughty may be asked to boost defensemen in a similar way, and McLellan must weigh the temptation to play Doughty a ton as one of their only needle-movers (especially if they eventually trade Alec Martinez) versus trying to keep Doughty fresh to avoid injuries and poor play from overuse.

Jack Campbell and Calvin Petersen were sharp where Quick was dull in 2018-19, but a lot still seems to ride on a 33-year-old “athletic goalie,” especially if McLellan’s system can’t hide the Kings’ poor defensive personnel beyond Doughty.

It’s not just the big-money players who need a rebound after having terrible seasons, as McLellan carries the ignominious mark of being fired mid-season, and also being a coach who couldn’t make things work despite having Connor McDavid on his team. As much as the Oilers’ struggles came down to terrible asset management by former GM Peter Chiarelli, McLellan has a lot to prove in his third head coaching gig — and a big salary to justify.

The scary thing is that the Kings probably need these four to do more than merely rebound to a place of “respectability.” They probably need Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, and McLellan to be worth pretty close to this $35M-ish collective investment, and that means that they’re all going to be under a lot of pressure. Probably too much, to be honest.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Which Kings can bounce back from last season’s meltdown?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

While every team hopes a few players can rebound from disappointing seasons, the Kings are hoping to evoke prime, funny hair-era Dennis Rodman by gobbling up plenty of rebounds next season (or to be more sport-appropriate, like peak Espo?).

Let’s consider the biggest X-factor for the Kings: can these players rebound in 2019-20?

Anze Kopitar: In 2017-18, Kopitar was a Hart Trophy finalist, scoring 92 points and being an all-around demon. A year later he, uh, finished 38th in the Lady Byng voting and only managed 60 points.

Maybe the Kings just need to admit that Kopitar is no longer Superman. Yes, he dragged Slovenia to an impressive run in the 2014 Winter Olympics, or was a force during two Stanley Cup victories, but he’s about to turn 32 on Aug. 24. It’s time to start easing his burden, like fellow perennial Selke candidate Patrice Bergeron. Instead, the Kings kept asking for more and more from Kopitar, including having him start 58.6 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone in 2018-19, easily his career-high.

The aging curve is cruel, but the Kings should at least look at ways to dull its sharp edges.

Drew Doughty: Doughty experienced a Kopitar-like trajectory: better-than-ever offensive numbers in 2017-18, then just about everything plummeted in 2018-19.

Personally, I compare Doughty’s struggles to that of P.K. Subban; it’s just difficult to believe that Doughty’s fallen this far from being Norris-caliber. He won’t turn 30 until December, and while Doughty’s (and, to an extent, Kopitar’s) contract is absolutely terrifying over the long haul, I expect a healthy rebound in 2019-20. Also like Kopitar, I don’t expect a rebound to 2017-18 levels, however.

Jonathan Quick: The good news is that Quick has a decent chance of bouncing back from an abysmal .888 save percentage. The bad news is that it’s possible that his improvement might be offset by Jack Campbell (.928) and Calvin Petersen (.924) sinking closer to average.

Most signs point to Quick’s 2018-19 meltdown being an outlier. Then again, Quick does rely heavily on athleticism, so what if that’s slipping at age 33?

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three Questions | Kings’ rebuild | Under Pressure

Tyler ToffoliIt’s not perfect, but a shooting percentage far below 10 is usually a sign of a forward who’s had especially bad luck, while something above 20 shows that they were on a hot streak they won’t duplicate.

That thought explains why Toffoli is the easiest rebound to point to, as he should shoot at a much higher rate than last season’s dismal 5.8 percent. Toffoli is also entering a contract year, so motivation shouldn’t be in short supply.

Jeff Carter and Ilya Kovalchuk: These two (once?) highly skilled players are tougher to feel optimistic about.

With Carter, it’s simply hard to believe that he’s healthy. Honestly, it’s surprising he suited up for 76 games last season. If his lower-body (full body, really?) issues are behind him, who knows? Still, I can’t help but be troubled by how rarely Carter shot the puck last season.

Then again, Toffoli was the only King with more than 200 SOG last season (226), so this is one of the many cases where it’s tempting to throw out all numbers from that miserable 2018-19 campaign.

Ilya Kovalchuk would probably sign off on the “let’s just forget last year” idea.

It’s tempting to give Kovalchuk a mulligan, as he sometimes found himself a healthy scratch last season as part of the head-scratching Willie Desjardins era. On the other hand, Kovalchuk didn’t score anywhere near enough to justify lousy all-around play, and at 36, he simply might be done.

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The 2018-19 disaster makes a lot of Kings’ numbers difficult to weigh, and 2019-20 a challenge to predict. Yet, even an optimist would struggle to get too excited about the mess Todd McLellan has been asked to clean up.

Ultimately, rebounds (or a lack thereof) stand as a big X-factor for the Kings.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

What is Rob Blake’s plan to turn around the Kings?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings. 

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Los Angeles Kings.

1. What is Rob Blake’s end-game this season? 

The short-term outlook appears to be incredibly grim. Even if Anze Kopitar bounces back (and he better at $10 million a season for the four years) and Jonathan Quick stays healthy and improves upon his disastrous save percentage from last year, will it really move the needle in the right direction?

Blake’s ace up his sleeve, if he has one, is several should-be motivated players entering contract years. The likes of Tyler Toffoli, Trevor Lewis, Kyle Clifford and Derek Forbort will be looking for new deals (and likely not in L.A.)

Ideally, Blake and Co. would be promoting these folks so they can ship them out at the trade deadline for assets.

There’s not a whole lot else he can do. There are some contracts — Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Ilya Kovalchuk — that likely aren’t going anywhere, so Blake needs to get what he can for the players he can deal.

This season needs to be about prospect development and getting the most back from the trade deadline as possible. Give fans a reason to hope again after last season’s abomination.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-factor]

2. Is it time to usher in the next crop of goaltenders? 

Quick is coming off the worst season of his career and still has four years left on a contract paying him $5.8 million annually.

The days of him being worth that kind of cash seem behind him. Two of the past three seasons have been marred by significant injuries and with the team deteriorating around him, questions of motivation understandably have come into play.

It’s entirely possible that Quick bounces back this season. If healthy and rejuvenated under new head coach Todd McLellan, perhaps Quick can rekindle his Vezina-caliber play.

But even if everything falls into place for Quick, should the team run with it?

If this team is truly thinking of rebuilding, more time should be afforded to Jack Campbell — the one bright spot on the Kings roster last season — and Cal Petersen, who the Kings are very high on when it comes to leading this team in the future.

And perhaps that’s the direction the team should take, with Quick acting more as a high-priced mentor.

3. Can Todd McLellan start to fix the problems? 

The Kings aren’t expected to be relevant this year in terms of the standings, but can they at least ice a competitive team?

That’s the tall order that McLellan took on when he accepted the post in Los Angeles.

He enters a situation where the team had the second-fewest goals-for, fourth-most goals against and special teams that were hardly memorable. And he’s been given a cast of players, many of which are on the back nine of their careers.

A tall order, indeed.

McLellan should be focused on the young blood in the team while using the veterans he has to mentor them. He also needs to showcase the team’s pending unrestricted free agents to receive as much value as the team can get at the trade deadline.

McLellan isn’t going to be expected to win now, or at least shouldn’t be. But progress on the team’s future needs to be made.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kings give McLellan his third head coaching job

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The Los Angeles Kings officially announced former Sharks bench boss Todd McLellan as their new head coach on Tuesday.

This continues a tour of the Pacific Division for McLellan, as he was most recently fired by the Edmonton Oilers.

From 2008-09 through 2014-15, McLellan served as Sharks head coach; he then spent 2015-16 through a portion of 2018-19 behind the bench with the Oilers, before making way for Ken Hitchcock. While the Sharks made the playoffs in six of his seven seasons (the final being the failed year, which in part cost McLellan his job), things didn’t go so swimmingly with Edmonton. While their run to Round 2 in 2016-17 represents the best season the Oilers have enjoyed in years, Edmonton only made the postseason that one time under McLellan, so he bares the mark of “not being able to get it done while having Connor McDavid on his team.”

Of course, McLellan didn’t pick the groceries, he just tried to do the best he could with those ingredients.

Unfortunately, you could also argue that his “cart” is full of expired (or nearly expired) and/or overpriced items, as the Kings sure looked like a slow, broken-down mess at times in 2018-19. McLellan inherited a tremendous Sharks team upon leaving as a Red Wings assistant, and he also came into Edmonton during McDavid’s rookie season, so this is the least promising situation McLellan’s started with. At least on paper.

There were rumblings that the Buffalo Sabres were also after Todd McLellan, including this recent bit from Pierre LeBrun:

Maybe McLellan sees more potential in the Kings (particularly in getting a few more years out of an aging core featuring Anze Kopitar [31] and Drew Doughty [29])? Or maybe this as much a statement about the way the Sabres are running things than what Los Angeles might be doing well?

Whatever the explanation might be, the McLellan era is set to begin for the Kings. How do you feel about the decision to have McLellan sit in the throne?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ken Hitchcock returns to coaching, replaces McLellan in Edmonton

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Ken Hitchcock’s retirement lasted a whole 221 days.

On Tuesday morning, the Edmonton Oilers announced what we’d all been waiting for: that head coach Todd McLellan had been fired. What we didn’t expect to hear was the 66-year-old Edmonton native getting back behind the bench to replace him.

McLellan’s days were numbered in Edmonton. After making the playoffs in 2017, we all expected that that was the beginning of the Oilers taking steps to being a respectable team again. Well, last season they crashed back back down and returned to having an early offseason.

In parts of four seasons in Edmonton, McLellan led the team to a 123-119-24 record. There was only so much Connor McDavid could do.

Saddled with some bad contracts (Milan Lucic, Kris Russell) and a few bad trades later (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle), general manager Peter Chiarelli was unable to build a support system around McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. It’s resulted in a 9-10-1 Oilers team that is heading for another summer of hoping to win yet another lottery.

There’s no light at the end of the tunnel right now for the Oilers and it’s going to take some serious re-shaping to turn things around. But will Chiarelli be the one in charge of that?

“I’m certainly not absolving myself of any responsibility on the player personnel and this isn’t just an indictment of Todd or the players,” Chiarelli said Tuesday. “This is a collective thing. It’s our job to get to the playoffs. We owe it to our fans and I felt this was the right move for it.”

As for Hitchcock, whose status will be evaluated at the end of the season, he announced in April that he would be retiring after a season back with the Dallas Stars and has been a consultant with the team since. While the NHL’s third-winningest head coach has been able to find success from a number of stops in his career, it’s hard to imagine him pulling a miracle in Alberta and steadying what looks to be a sinking ship.

MORE: How much longer can Oilers go on like this?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.