When general manager Rob Blake pushed his payroll to the salary-cap limit to acquire center Pierre-Luc Dubois last summer, Blake expected the Kings to have the depth and skill to contend for the Stanley Cup.
On Friday, with his dysfunctional team clinging to a West wild-card spot, Blake made Todd McLellan pay the price for the Kings’ stumbles by firing the 56-year-old coach after slightly more than 4½ seasons behind their bench.
Jim Hiller, an assistant under McLellan, will serve as head coach on an interim basis for the rest of the season.
“This was not an easy decision, but we felt the change was necessary at this time,” Blake said in a statement released by the team. “Jim is a well-respected member of our staff who is familiar with our players. We are confident in his ability to lead our team effectively during this pivotal time.”
The Kings, who beat Nashville on Wednesday in McLellan’s last game, will return Feb. 10 against the Edmonton Oilers, who responded to the mid-November dismissal of coach Jay Woodcroft and elevation of Kris Knoblauch by zooming past the Kings and into third place in the Pacific Division while the Kings flailed and blew leads. Edmonton has won 16 straight games.
Last summer, Blake extended McLellan’s contract through the 2024-25 season, putting them on parallel tracks. They could reunite on the path of unemployment unless Blake can fortify the Kings’ scoring and shore up their suddenly leaky goaltending before the March 8 trade deadline, all the while hoping Hiller can repair a fractured locker room.
The Kings’ 4-2 win at Nashville improved their record to 23-15-10 and snapped a four-game losing streak but also came on the heels of an abysmal 2-8-6 stretch that began on Dec. 28. The boost Blake expected from Dubois hasn’t materialized: Dubois has 10 goals and 20 points in 47 games and hasn’t fit anywhere in the lineup.
Hiller is the fourth coach under Blake’s tenure, following John Stevens, Willie Desjardins, and McLellan.
McLellan’s regular-season record with the Kings was 164-130-44. His career coaching record with the Kings, Oilers, and San Jose Sharks is 598-412-134. The Kings missed the playoffs in each of his first two seasons behind their bench and lost to Edmonton in the first round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons.
McLellan couldn’t achieve the singular postseason success that had eluded him in San Jose and Edmonton, but he was working with flawed rosters much of the time. He gave the Kings a sound defense-based structure, and he was patient while Quinton Byfield developed into a legitimate top-six forward. Probably his biggest weakness was his inability to adjust after opposing teams developed a “book” on the Kings and they became too predictable and too easy to pick apart.
But McLellan apparently still had the ears and support of his players. At least, they didn’t barricade the locker room door to keep him out, as happened on an infamous day in Tampa in February of 2015 when players went to that extreme to avoid hearing another caustic rant from then-coach Darryl Sutter.
Key players made a point of backing McLellan last week. Veteran defenseman Drew Doughty praised the coach while airing locker room dirty laundry and taking the rare step of calling out teammates for being selfish and putting personal stats before the team’s objectives. Most postgame quotes are bland and superficial. These were thunderous.
“I think we got guys in this room who are too worried about themselves and worried about their points and worried about stuff like that,” Doughty said last Wednesday, after a 5-3 home loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
“We get a 3-1 lead tonight and guys start thinking it’s a cookie night and we stop playing the way we know how to play. … It’s about the team. It’s not about yourself, and a lot of guys on this team need to realize that.”
Doughty said the coaches had done their jobs. “It’s about the players. I think the coaches on our team have done a great job. They always inform us with every single situation possible. They prepare us perfectly. It’s not about them,” he said. “It’s all about the players in here.”
Team captain Anze Kopitar backed Doughty, saying some players would “worry about scoring goals too much and not buying into the stuff that made us successful the first 30, 35 games of the year, and it’s frustrating.”
Kopitar also absolved McLellan and the coaching staff of blame for the swoon. “It comes down to this room. They give us the plan, they give us the structure, they give us the motivation or the kick in the ass,” Kopitar said.
Hiller inherits a team that’s beset by scoring problems and has been getting inadequate goaltending. Cam Talbot, chosen the Kings’ All-Star Game representative, is winless in 10 straight starts since he earned a win over Calgary on Dec. 23. He couldn’t handle the heavy workload thrust on him when Pheonix Copley suffered a season-ending knee injury. No. 3 goalie David Rittich isn’t anywhere near elite.
The indifferent play of Dubois, the big-ticket acquisition whose eight-year, $68-million contract put them up against the salary-cap limit, remains a significant concern. Blake saw only Dubois’ size when he traded for the 6-foot-4, 225-pound center. Blake should have looked more deeply into Dubois’ character. Dubois asked out of Columbus, which drafted him third overall in 2016; and being obliged and landing in Winnipeg, he told the Jets he didn’t want to stay there, either. If he’s not willing to be part of a solution, he’s a problem.
The Kings’ collapse has been surprising because they were impressive in the early going, recording an NHL-record 11 straight road wins to start the season. Byfield emerged as a force, and Kopitar was averaging more than a point per game. Phillip Danault was a formidable No. 2 center. Their lines were balanced, giving opponents matchup problems.
But Kopitar and winger Adrian Kempe tailed off, with Kempe going eight games without a goal starting Jan. 9 and Kopitar hampered by an undisclosed injury. Fourth-line center Blake Lizotte suffered a lower-body injury, and the team missed his energy. Five-on-five scoring became scarce. Talbot faded. Veteran forward Kevin Fiala continued to commit confounding turnovers and take needless penalties.
And although Dubois said he wanted to be in Los Angeles and was all-in, he showed few signs of having learned the team’s systems as the Kings reached the second half of the season. McLellan moved him from center to wing, hoping Dubois would thrive if he had fewer defensive responsibilities, but that didn’t last long.
Dubois hasn’t been worth the hefty contract Blake took on while trading wingers Gabe Vilardi, Alex Iafallo, and Rasmus Kupari and a second-round draft pick to Winnipeg. Vilardi and Iafallo have thrived in their new surroundings. Dubois is still learning what to do without the puck. And, sometimes, with it.
McLellan is a good guy. A standup guy through difficult times. Maybe not the coach who would have led a better Kings team to the Stanley Cup but a good foundation builder, as Terry Murray was before Sutter was brought in to guide them on the final steps of their 2012 triumph. That foundation is shaky now, and all the bricks are about to fall on Blake.