Then he was asked if the goal was a playoff spot, as his players have suggested, and if it would be a disappointment if the Kings weren’t playing meaningful games by the end of this 56-game sprint.
“Well, I’m not even going to answer the second part, because we gotta play, and I expect us to compete really hard for a spot like that,” McLellan said. “Shame on any team who’s not approaching the season that way, us included.
“I don’t give … you know, I don’t care where we ended up last year,” he added, catching himself before saying what he really felt. “I know who we are right now. And our job is to go out and try to win every game and put ourselves in the best position possible. So for our group to have that attitude, I’m happy. I’m excited about it.”
He might have been thinking of that seven-game winning streak just before the pandemic brought everything to a halt after March 11. It didn’t get the Kings into the playoff bubble, and they still had a shot at the No. 1 overall pick (they wound up with No. 2), but maybe it was a sign.
Longtime Kings fans, those who were around B.C. – Before Cups – might grumble at the team’s current state, but deep down I suspect they understand. For years they were the most loyal and long-suffering fans in this market, living for those brief moments of hope or fleeting success to break up those periods of their team chasing its tail. That stretch of two Stanley Cups and a Western Conference finals appearance in three seasons now seems so long ago, even if Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick are still living reminders of the days when the Kings were considered an elite franchise.
This seems to be a rebuild with a purpose and a plan, and the replenishing of the organization’s talent level was on full display at the World Junior Championships that ended last Tuesday. Three future Kings won gold medals for the United States, center Alex Turcotte (No. 5 overall pick in 2019), right wing Arthur Kaliyev (33rd pick in 2019) and defenseman Brock Faber (45th overall in 2020).
The Kings’ No. 2 overall pick in 2020, center Quinton Byfield, and defenseman Jordan Spence, a 2019 fourth-rounder, played for silver medalist Canada. Add defenseman Tobias Bjornfot of Sweden (22nd overall in ’19), Swedish forward Samuel Fagemo (50th overall in ’19 and the tournament’s leading scorer with eight goals and 13 points in seven games) and forward Kasper Simontaival of Finland (66th overall in 2020), and you’ve got a significant infusion of talent in an organization in which young guys like Gabe Vilardi, Kale Clague, Mikey Anderson and Cal Petersen, among others, are already poised to make an impact.
The prospects of Southern California’s rivalry being rejuvenated by youth are very good, because the Ducks have been on a similar track and are perhaps a little bit ahead of the Kings at this point in readiness to contend for a playoff spot. Anaheim also had five players in that World Juniors final, including center Trevor Zegras, Team USA’s leading scorer in the tournament, and Canada defenseman Jamie Drysdale, who were drafted ninth overall in 2019 and sixth overall in ’20, respectively.
The Kings and Ducks shared the cost of a private plane to get their guys from Edmonton, where the tournament was held, to their Southern California camps in an attempt to reduce quarantine time. Zegras said Monday on a Zoom availability he didn’t notice any tension between the Americans and Canadians – “at the core, we’re all hockey players, right?” he said – but Byfield said he didn’t have much to say on the plane and let it rest until the next day.
“I wasn’t in the greatest of moods so I just slept and kept to (myself),” he said. “But they’re my teammates now, so I gotta get to know ’em. I’ll just kind of push that aside.”
Hey, you adapt. It’s a fundamental of hockey: The guy you’re lining up for a big hit one day could be your teammate the next.It’s probably unwise to expect the kids to have an immediate impact, although with potential COVID-related manpower shortages anything’s possible. The 18-year-old Byfield, by the coach’s description, has fit in well with the veterans in his two days in camp, but he could wind up on the taxi squad that accompanies the big club or he could start the season in the AHL, an option this year because junior hockey is still in a holding pattern.
Whatever decision is made, it will be with the future in mind.
“What we begin with and what we end (the season) with, I don’t know if it will be the same,” McLellan said.
“We know we’re in it for the long haul. There isn’t a quick fix. We’re not going to rush the process. There’s no way you can do that. We’re going to do what we have to do to make sure that the prospects are getting what they need as they develop. And when they’re ready, they’re ready.”
Kings fans surely remember the last time their team had the No. 2 pick, in 2008. Steven Stamkos was the consensus No. 1 and went to Tampa Bay. L.A. settled for Drew Doughty, he made the team and played 81 games that first season, and the Kings wound up with two Stanley Cups. (Stamkos finally won one for the Lightning in 2020.)
Big picture, remember.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter