Kings GM Rob Blake’s coaching change gambit has put him in a precarious position

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — In firing Todd McLellan during a lengthy conversation Thursday night at the veteran coach’s home, Rob Blake joined five other NHL general managers who bounced their head coach this season.

For Blake, who hired McLellan in 2019 to lead the then-rebuilding Los Angeles Kings, there was no other recourse after his team followed its January road trip that contained multiple blown leads with a homestand that included bad losses to San Jose and Buffalo. Another discouraging trip before the All-Star break where the Kings couldn’t halt their five-week tailspin sealed McLellan’s fate.

“This was done in an effort to correct the way we have played of late,” Blake said Monday in his first comments since cutting McLellan loose after four and a half seasons. “Our offense, our defense, our overall game, individuals and the team have not been up to a level of our desired needs.”

The Kings have won three of 17 games since holding a 20-7-4 record on Dec. 27. While they gained points in reaching overtime on six occasions, they’ve only earned 12 out of a possible 34 points over their downturn and have fallen from a comfortable position in the Western Conference playoff picture to the first wild-card spot.

But they are also hovering precariously over St. Louis, Nashville and Seattle, with just four points separating the four teams vying to fill the two wild-card positions. Blake is counting on a different leading voice in interim head coach Jim Hiller and his players to be the answer that stops their lengthy slide and turns their fortunes around because, as he acknowledged, there may be no trades he can make to impact their roster before the March 8 deadline.

NHL coaching changes in 2023-24 season

Team Fired coach Incoming coach Hire date

Jay Woodcroft

Kris Knoblauch

Nov. 12

Dean Evason

John Hynes

Nov. 27

Craig Berube

Drew Bannister*

Dec. 13

D.J. Smith

Jacques Martin*

Dec. 18

Lane Lambert

Patrick Roy

Jan. 20

Todd McLellan

Jim Hiller*

Feb. 20

*interim basis

“We have 34 games left,” Blake said as Hiller’s first game is Saturday against Edmonton. “Our job is to get in the playoffs. The team was built and assembled to get in the playoffs and that’s what we need to do.”

What can the Kings do to fulfill the high expectations they set before the season and further heightened in the first three months? What can their GM do now to spark his suddenly underperforming roster? Can he even do anything else, given the group he put together sits at the salary cap ceiling?

There hasn’t been much good for the Kings since they came out of the Christmas holiday break. But they are in a playoff spot as Blake noted on Monday. And they could get back a valuable addition in Viktor Arvidsson.

The 30-year-old right winger hasn’t played a game after undergoing back surgery in October, his second such operation within 17 months. The Kings will hope that this procedure takes in the manner that his operation did in the spring of 2022. Last season, Arvidsson had 26 goals to finish third on the team and his 59 points ranked fourth. His absence in the lineup and the power play has been glaring.

Arvidsson has been skating on his own for the last few weeks and Blake said he believes the winger will participate in his first practice with the club on Thursday. It will take him some time to get back up to speed but the Kings are hoping that he can play at some point this month, perhaps when they return home from an Eastern road trip.

Blake is leaning on the veteran becoming the impact acquisition he gets from within as he’s largely without the ability to add salary with a deadline trade. While he’s been able to gain roster flexibility over the course of the season by putting Arvidsson on long-term injury reserve, Blake must incorporate Arvidsson’s $4.25 million salary cap hit into the accounting when he activates him.

The Kings have been able to stash Pheonix Copley’s $1.5 million cap number on LTIR as the goalie has a torn ACL and is out for the season. But that doesn’t do much to give them space to make a move. In fact, Blake alluded to injured center Blake Lizotte (out week to week with a lower-body injury) and his $1.675 million cap number possibly going on LTIR.

“If everybody’s healthy, we don’t have a lot of space where we would be able to carry one extra player just like we started the season,” Blake said.

While part of their 2023-24 plan was to incorporate more of their younger talents and they’ve gotten a step-up season from Quinton Byfield and have Alex Laferriere and Jordan Spence as regular contributors on entry-level contracts, the Kings are still being hurt by past bad moves. Blake was able to deal Cal Petersen and his $5 million cap hit but he had to retain $2 million of Ivan Provorov’s cap number in the three-way trade with Philadelphia that moved the defenseman on to Columbus.

It’s used cap space for a player that never dressed for them. Factor in contracts for nine players with cap numbers ranging from $4.125 million (Mikey Anderson) to $11 million (Drew Doughty) and the Kings have no room. Blake had little money to use on their goaltending and the edges of their roster.

Trading Arthur Kaliyev, who has been a frequent scratch of late, won’t do much for cap relief as he’s on a cheap rookie deal. The Kings could consider Carl Grundstrom ($1.3 million) as a salary dump but that still doesn’t put them in a position to make a major addition outside of activating Arvidsson unless they got a team to retain salary. But that also likely means surrendering an additional asset.

Matt Roy and his $3.15 million cap number would free up some cap room and potentially allow the Kings to play both Spence and Brandt Clarke on the right side. But even though Blake said there is no new development to report on any talks toward an extension for Roy, he wasn’t eager to consider the possibility of moving a salaried player like the pending unrestricted free-agent defenseman. Plummeting completely out of playoff position over the next few weeks may force his hand.

“It’s hard to speculate the direction,” Blake said. “Wins and losses will dictate.”

Multiple times Monday, Blake referred to a roster that’s playoff-worthy in his mind. And while that was hardly a question when they jumped out to a 16-4-3 start that included a record-breaking 11-0-0 mark on the road, it is one now with a few areas of his club either struggling or flat-out underperforming.

Blake pointed to the Kings’ top-ranked penalty kill as the only part of their game that has remained consistent. But he’s been perplexed at how it’s been essentially the same group of players that have done an about-face when it comes to offensive production, shutdown defensive play and not getting enough saves in net.

The flashpoint of their disappointing play has been Pierre-Luc Dubois, the center they acquired from Winnipeg and made an eight-year commitment to. The 25-year-old is in an NHL home of his choosing for the first time in his career, but his uninspiring play has not made them formidable through the middle as was the design. With Blake staking his legacy as GM on the line, Dubois has just 10 goals, 10 assists and a team-worst minus-16 rating in 48 games.

“We want him to help our team win,” he said. “Help this team win. Help it be harder to play against. Help the offense and help the defense.”

To the question of whether he’d still make the series of moves that brought Dubois to Los Angeles, Blake shifted away from that and pointed to “numerous players” that haven’t played up to their potential over the last 24 games compared to their first 24. “Him included,” he added. “But the team overall needs to be better too.”

Pierre-Luc Dubois has struggled to make an impact in his first season with the Kings. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

The Kings can use better goaltending as well. Cam Talbot was an All-Star for the second time and earned it with outstanding numbers put up through the middle of December. But Talbot hasn’t won in his last 10 starts, posted an .881 save percentage over that span and lost some shifts to David Rittich at the end of McLellan’s reign. (Perhaps Rittich with his 5-1-3/2.09/.925 line could be the one to lean on in the playoff push.)

There is the sense that Anže Kopitar is showing signs of wear because of over-usage. Perception isn’t always reality as Kopitar’s ice time is down 45 seconds on average from last season and has trended that way the last three years as he is now under 20 minutes on average. But this is also where Dubois was supposed to help lessen his load. (Though the Kings have not divulged any injury for Kopitar, what is more likely is he’s been playing with one.)

Trent Yawney remains in place as essentially the defensive coordinator and the longtime assistant will oversee the erasing of the slippage that’s crept into that side of the puck while continuing to manage their top-ranked penalty kill. But as Hiller takes on the head coaching duties after running their power play, he’ll have a familiar face alongside him.

The Athletic initially reported Monday that former Ottawa Senators coach D.J. Smith will join the Kings as an assistant. Smith, who led the Senators for four-plus seasons until his firing on Dec. 18, worked with Hiller for four years under Mike Babcock in Toronto. The Kings have yet to formally announce the hiring, but Blake on Monday talked of bringing in another outside voice, one like Hiller that didn’t have prior ties to McLellan.

Unless he finds employment with another team, McLellan remains on the books through next season after the one-year extension Blake gave him. Blake shot down the idea that team finances played a role in the promotion of Hiller instead of going with an experienced out-of-work coach like Craig Berube, Jay Woodcroft or Dean Evason. “Jim’s our head coach,” he said.

To that, Hiller will be counted on to be the right voice the Kings need now. The one that can pull more out of Dubois. The one that can possibly reintegrate Kaliyev and further incorporate Alex Turcotte, who scored his first NHL goal and has looked good in two games following his call-up. The one that can ease the pressure and inject some levity into a dressing room that needs it.

“That’s why these changes take place,” Blake said. “Everything is different. His one-on-one meetings will be different than Todd’s, which were different than any other coach. … Everything about the person is different. Now assistant coaches are really good at staying in their lanes going forward. When they take a head job, those things come out more.”

Hiller must for Blake’s sake. This might be the only move he has left. And it’s quite simple for him, with the Kings in “win-loss” mode as he states. It’s playoffs or bust for the man who’s on the hot seat.

“It’s my responsibility to hire Todd,” Blake said. “It was my responsibility to let him go the other day. And I fully understand the repercussions if this team does not win or have success.”

(Photo: Morgan Hancock / Getty Images)

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