LOS ANGELES – It’s not an uncommon sight. A struggling team makes a coaching change, the players who let that previous coach down give themselves a good, hard look in the mirror, and the new guy benefits from their increased effort – and, yes, some manner of guilt.
It had previously happened with the team the Kings were facing Saturday night. The Edmonton Oilers replaced Jay Woodcroft with Kris Knoblauch Nov. 25 after starting the season 3-9-1, and they’d won 27 of 34 since going into Saturday night, including a 16-game winning streak that was snapped in Las Vegas Tuesday night.
And maybe the Kings’ self-reflection following Todd McLellan’s firing Feb. 2, and the burst of energy that has followed in the past few days under interim coach Jim Hiller, will have a similar effect for a team that was among the league’s best in the first 23 games (16-4-3 and a league record for consecutive road victories at the start of a season, 12) and then among its dregs in the next 25 (7-11-7, and just three victories in all of January).
Consider Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was among the stars in Saturday night’s 4-0 victory over the Oilers, scoring the first goal and providing some engaged defensive play against Edmonton star Leon Draisaitl. The words “Dubois” and “defense” haven’t gone hand-in-hand much this season, but they did Saturday night.
Was McLellan’s firing the necessary shock to the Kings’ system? Here’s Exhibit A, maybe.
“When a new coach comes in, he’s got his view of how things go, and it’s kind of like a reset button,” Dubois said. “I mean, in a way, it’s like changing your goalie in a game … it’s time to wake up and to see what we’re doing wrong and to improve. It’s never easy, a coaching change, to see somebody that you’ve worked with – whether it’s three months or five years for some guys – go. But when a new coaching staff comes in, they have their message.”
The Kings had more jump from the start Saturday night, and energy and strong goaltending can go a long way. David Rittich, who was one game above .500 at Ontario when he was called up in December after Pheonix Copley’s injury, is now 6-1-3 with L.A. after shutting out the Oilers, playing a big role in another perfect penalty killing night (4 for 4) from the No. 1 team in the league in that department. And yet Rittich surrendered the game puck to Hiller on the occasion of his first victory as head coach.
“I don’t know how, but somehow I’ve got a couple of shutouts already,” Rittich said. “So it was more important to give it to him.”
Hiller earned it by challenging his players to be better, like the assignment to Dubois to defend one of the league’s top offensive players.
“He’s a really good player,” Hiller said. “We know that. And he’s got a long history in the league as being a really good player. My challenge for him was, ‘Play with intensity, and I bet you will have fun.’ And I don’t know – was he one of the guys who said he had fun tonight?”
“Because that looked like it was fun for him tonight,” Hiller said. “He’s had a lot of nights that it didn’t look like he had fun. I said from the start, he’s part of that equation, too. He’s got to get himself into that place where he’s just got to go for it and play hockey like he did when he was younger, when he loved the game, when he was not in this tough stretch that he had. He brought that tonight. And let’s hope that that’s a stepping stone for him going forward. Sure nice to see him smile and enjoy himself.”
There’s another coach in this town, UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin, who has described his philosophy as, “Fun is spelled W-I-N.” But you can also make the case that mixing joy with the hard work, and bringing back the elements that made the game fun before it became the job, can lead to winning.
“Fun all starts with work and how much effort you put in,” said Quinton Byfield, who had two goals and an assist Saturday night. “Coming off the break, we had two really good practices. Fast, a little bit longer, working hard. You work on the backside of the puck in the defensive zone. Then you go to the fun zone, the offensive zone. That’s something he’s really (stressing) with us right now, play both sides of the puck, play fast. And his motto, you know, I can’t really say because there’s a swear word in there, but the message came across clear and it’s really good.”
Two of the three words are “let’s” and “go.” Feel free to fill in the rest. And maybe there is more than a little guilt involved by players who feel they let McLellan down and now have an opportunity to atone for it.
“He’s a great hockey mind, and I’m sure he’s going to get another coaching opportunity,” Byfield said. “But, you know, we needed a little spark in here, something new, a different voice.”
Hiller’s ascension is the story of a hockey lifer finally getting his big break, and it’s appropriate that it came with this franchise. He was a 10th-round pick by the Kings in the 1989 entry draft and turned pro after three college seasons at Western Michigan. He reached the big club in 1992 and played 40 games – getting an extended look during a season in which Wayne Gretzky missed the first 39 games with a herniated disk – before being traded to Detroit.
His NHL playing career lasted all of 63 games, he had subsequent detours to the American and International Leagues and teams in Germany and Italy before retiring, and has coached in juniors and as an assistant with the Red Wings, Maple Leafs, Islanders and, for the last season and a half, the Kings on McLellan’s staff.
And yes, this opportunity is meaningful even beyond the first opportunity to run his own NHL team.
“I went on to play for other teams and coach for other teams, and I can’t speak for everybody,” he said. “But for me, it was my dream to get drafted in the NHL, never mind play. Drafted, Los Angeles Kings, Luc Robitaille, Wayne Gretzky. That was pretty special. So that has never left me. Never left me one bit.
“I never knew I’d get back to the NHL as a coach. So that was my club. And so to be back and to be part of it and to be part of it with Rob (Blake, general manager) and Luc, who were teammates … and then, what a big game in front of just an incredible crowd. Wasn’t the crowd incredible tonight? They gave us some energy right from the start, just like the club.”
Maybe Kings fans were saying, subtly, “Welcome home.”