Jim Hiller was more psychologist than strategist during his first practice as the Kings’ interim coach, more likely to offer an encouraging word than to rewrite the playbook for a team that had stumbled into the All-Star break and week off with a confidence-shaking 14 losses in 17 games.
Forty-eight games into a season that began well but devolved into a lead-blowing, low-scoring mess that cost coach Todd McLellan his job last week, it’s too late for Hiller to obliterate the Xs and Os McLellan installed. The lines and defense pairs Hiller deployed in El Segundo on Thursday were the same McLellan last used. If you had bet (or hoped) Hiller would bench underachieving center Pierre-Luc Dubois, you lost.
The lone change was the presence of winger Viktor Arvidsson, who has yet to play this season after undergoing back surgery. But he wore a red no-contact jersey, so he’s not likely to return soon. Certainly not for Hiller’s head coaching debut in Saturday’s home game against the Edmonton Oilers.
So for now, it’s more of the same, with the aim of producing a different outcome.
“I’m sure they’ll change a few things but you can’t just go in and change everything because then we’d probably drop a few games as we’re learning to do new things,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “I’m sure there won’t be any drastic changes.”
Barring a significant trade before the March 8 deadline, there won’t be much alteration of the roster, either, because of the salary cap constraints general manager Rob Blake created by acquiring Dubois and his eight-year, $68-million contract last summer. With that in mind, Hiller will first try to change the Kings’ attitude. It’s about his only option at the moment.
“I know people probably are saying, ‘What are the tactics and are these things ever going to change?’” said Hiller, who was in his second season as an assistant to McLellan. “The most important thing for me after being around the team, which played very well for the first 24 games of the season, is just getting our frame of mind back where it needs to be.
“That’s 95% of my priority, just getting that back where it needs to be, because if we can help those guys get back , we’ll have time to implement some other types of changes that you [media] will say, ‘Maybe they’re doing something different.’ But the priority now is the mindset.”
Thursday was an odd day. Players straddled the line of looking back to praise McLellan while looking ahead in hopes Hiller will reverse their season-souring slide.
“That’s for sure not entirely his fault by any means, you know?” team captain Anze Kopitar said of McLellan, whom he had supported when the coach’s future became shaky during the most recent homestand.
“I’m sure it was hard for Rob to make this decision and ultimately it’s a hard day for us, too, to see somebody go that has done so much for this organization and kind of turned it around. We have made the playoffs the last couple years. Obviously not the result that we wanted in the playoffs but we took a step forward, so it wasn’t a pretty day for anyone.”
Doughty, who also had publicly backed McLellan, acknowledged players’ fault in McLellan’s dismissal.
“You feel responsibility for it. I know all of us in here felt that responsibility,” Doughty said. “You never want to see [the firing of] someone you’ve worked with so long and someone who brought us from the bottom all the way to where we are now. Todd was a great guy. A great coach. Great hockey mind. So you feel responsible for it and you feel bad for Todd but at the same time you’ve kind of got to move on.
“The past is the past now and we’ve got to keep going. But we can’t thank Todd enough for what he brought us to in this league and how good he was for all of us.”
Center Phillip Danault also thanked McLellan but said the timing felt right for a coaching change. “Blakey did the big move,” Danault said, “and now it’s on us.”
Hiller put players through a brisk practice for about an hour Thursday. Fresh after a long break, they maintained a good tempo.
When he drew plays on the whiteboard they circled him with the attentiveness of kids on the first day of school. He and new assistant D.J. Smith, who was fired as coach of the Ottawa Senators in December, deliberately kept the mood light.
“He could make people laugh,” Hiller said of Smith. “He could be a stand-up comedian. But he’s one of the sharpest hockey guys that I’ve worked with and I have a lot of respect for him.”
Kopitar described Hiller as a good communicator who liked to talk to players a lot. Hiller had time to do that as an assistant but might not be able to do that as much with added duties as head coach. Smith could be the shoulder for players to cry on.
Will the new voices behind the bench spark a fire under the Kings? Changing the delivery of the message, if not yet the message itself, was their only choice short of blowing up the roster. They’re not bad enough to warrant that.
“We were a really good team. We struggled,” Hiller said when asked why the good start went off track. “Let me say it like this: we are a really good team. We’ve struggled. We’re not going to hide from that. But I think it would be a mistake to overreact in some areas of the game when I don’t think that’s necessary.”
Here’s one small reason for optimism: Hiller said Dubois, who has 10 goals in 48 games, stayed on the ice after practice Thursday to do extra work.
“PL wants to get more out of himself. He understands that,” Hiller said. “There’s two parts to the equation. He’s going to be willing to do that. And then we’ve got to push him. He’ll get an opportunity. When he’s playing well, he’ll probably play more. And if he’s not going as well, whoever else is there, they will play more. So it’s not a matter of a magic potion or anything like that. It’s just a matter of getting an opportunity again, doing the work.”
There’s a lot of work ahead for the Kings. The mental exercise of changing their mindset is a reasonable starting point and maybe the last resort before they have to rebuild their ongoing rebuild.