EL SEGUNDO - April 18, 2019 - Todd McLellan accepted his job as coach of the Los Angeles Kings knowing he must bridge the gap from the older players who won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014 to a younger group.
"I understand where this team is, and maybe even more so than the players," McLellan said Wednesday. "I have accepted the plan. I can be patient, but when it comes to standards and practice habits, what we talked about, the execution or attempt to execute, that's where the patience can come a little thinner."
McLellan is replacing Willie Desjardins after Los Angeles (31-42-9) missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. Desjardins took over when John Stevens was fired Nov. 4.
The task McLellan faces with veteran players is improving an attitude that manifested in poor practice habits. Forward Tyler Toffoli, who played for McLellan when he coached Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Championship, described Kings practices as "kind of pathetic a lot of the time" during exit interviews April 8.
McLellan saw what the Kings can achieve at their best during his 11 seasons as coach of the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers. McLellan was 434-282-90 and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs seven times, including in 2014, when the Kings trailed the Sharks 3-0 before winning a best-of-7 Western Conference First Round series. The Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons.
"I think this team won Cups because of attitude and character, not because they were the most skilled team, and it got them to the top of the mountain," McLellan said. "Attitude and character can't take them deep into the valley now. … The players will have to make that decision when they walk in the door that they are going to adjust now a little bit, accept some responsibility for the practice habits, for the standards they set for themselves individually and collectively, and I'll push them up."
McLellan started the process of building relationships to address those issues by meeting with Kings captain Anze Kopitar on Wednesday before the center left to play for Slovenia at the 2019 IIHF World Championship.
McLellan said he also plans to meet with forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who clashed with Desjardins over his role after he replaced Stevens.
"I think anytime you hear the exterior world talk about 'buying in,' there's always a bit of a red flag, so I want to sit with Ilya," McLellan said. "I want to make sure that he's in, and then it's my job to create that relationship and to try to help him have success here in our team environment."
Kings general manager Rob Blake said he is confident younger players will embrace McLellan's offensive-minded style of play and approach to teaching the game. Blake, who played for McLellan with San Jose in 2008-10, said McLellan's system was "by far" his favorite in his 20 seasons as an NHL player. The first-hand experience of seeing McLellan explain why something had to be done made him Blake's No. 1 target before hiring him Tuesday.
McLellan's ability to relate to younger players is vital after the Kings had nine players debut in the NHL this season. The team could be even younger next season; Los Angeles has three of the first 35 picks in the 2019 NHL Draft, including the No. 5 selection.
McLellan said he believes the Kings are somewhere between the team that finished last in the Western Conference this season and the one that was swept by the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference First Round in 2018.
McLellan pointed to the defensive drop-off between the two seasons, when the Kings went from first in the NHL (2.46 goals allowed per game) to 22nd (3.16), as a reflection of the breakdowns caused by commitment issues from veterans and inexperience from newcomers.
"It's going to take a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of buy-in from players, management, coaches, and if we can all come together over time we'll get it going the right way, but that's what the goal is," McLellan said.