Kings general manager Rob Blake said his desire to hear a new voice and see renewed energy within the team led him to fire coach Todd McLellan and elevate assistant Jim Hiller to the head coaching job for the rest of what has been an erratic and disappointing season.
If firing a coach who received strong support from key players last week doesn’t jolt the Kings out of a slump in which they’ve won three of their last 17 games and plummeted to a wild-card playoff position, the next voice Blake hears will come from his bosses and it will tell him he should find another job. And it would be deserved.
“I fully understand the repercussions if this team does not win or have success,” Blake said at a news conference Monday, his first public comments since he fired McLellan last Friday.
“This was done in an effort to correct the way we have played of late,” Blake said, adding that he hadn’t been pressured from above and had made the decision to fire McLellan on his own. “Our offense, our defense, our overall game, individuals, and the team have not been up to a level of our desired needs.”
Blake was short on specifics regarding what he hopes Hiller will do or will say with that fresh, new voice to turn around the Kings, whose 23-15-10 record includes a dismal 8-9-6 record at home.
Their strong start, which featured an NHL-record 11-game road winning streak from the beginning of the season, fizzled into a parade of close losses, defensive blunders, missed scoring chances, and badly timed penalties. Blake said he still believes in the team he assembled — including underachieving, $68-million center Pierre-Luc Dubois — but he pretty much has to say that because he can’t change the roster as easily as he could fire the coach.
Blake repeatedly said Hiller will change things. Precisely what that means will remain a mystery until the Kings return from their All-Star break and bye week and resume practice on Thursday at 2 p.m. Hiller’s first game behind the bench will be Saturday at Crypto.com Arena against the Edmonton Oilers, who changed coaches early this season and took a 16-game winning streak into their break. Injured winger Viktor Arvidsson is expected to join the Kings at practice but is a ways from playing.
“He’s a different person,” Blake said of Hiller. “It’s a different person in charge. So meetings are different. Meeting times are different. Approaches to the game. Every single thing will be different when a new person steps in.”
Blake said he didn’t look outside the organization for an experienced NHL coach because he felt comfortable with Hiller, who played 40 games for the Kings in the 1992-93 season (with Blake as a teammate) before Hiller was traded to Detroit in the deal that brought Jimmy Carson and Gary Shuchuk to Los Angeles. Blake did say he was seeking an assistant to add to Hiller’s staff for another outside voice.
“Familiarity with the team, being around them here for the last year and a half and understanding his perspective and ability to communicate with players and different things. There’s a lot to Jim,” Blake said. “He’s also been a head coach in the juniors for a long time, so he was running a lot more than the bench in those days and he’s been an assistant under some very good head coaches and been in the league a long time.”
A different tone or manner in meetings might not be enough to correct what Blake called a “disconnect” in the team’s play. If Hiller can awaken Dubois, who has 10 goals and 20 points in 48 games, he should be nominated for coach of the year honors.
Blake didn’t single out Dubois for criticism, because that would be acknowledging he made a huge mistake in acquiring a player who has twice wanted a change of scenery and has yet to make an impact after getting to pick his third destination.
“This is the team we built to make the playoffs,” Blake said. “Individually, there are numerous players here — and I’m going to break it down from [the first] 24 games to the last 24 games that have not been up to their potential. Him included. But the team overall needs to be better, too.”
Hiller has been a good power-play strategist through eight seasons as an assistant coach with Detroit, Toronto, and the New York Islanders. The Kings’ power play last season, his first on McLellan’s staff, ranked fourth in the NHL with a 25.3% success rate. This season, their conversion rate had fallen to 18.0%, which ranked 17th through Sunday’s games. Blake said that must improve, along with their defense. And offense. And everything else.
All of which means Hiller must work through a lot of challenges. “We are win-loss. That’s exactly where our team is,” Blake said. “Everything we dictate from this point and from this going forward is based off of wins and losses.”
Without enough wins, the next voice Blake hears won’t bring him good news.