LOS ANGELES — The magnitude of being an NHL head coach hit Jim Hiller on the morning of his first game.
His own personal routine hadn’t changed Saturday. He still dove into the coffee at the team’s practice facility, explaining his sense of eschewing Starbucks or some other joint on the way to work. “It’s free,” Hiller cracked. “Why would I (skip) the free stuff? I’m like everybody else. Take the free stuff. We got plenty of it here.”
But there was plenty of difference in now being the one to run the Los Angeles Kings than operating in the assistant’s role he was in just a week ago.
“Some of your focuses and the different things you have to manage is expanded,” Hiller said. “It’ll take me a bit of time, I think, to try to find a better routine that way. I’ve been going in a lot of different directions and the reason is because you want to talk to guys. There’s so much to do, but you want to talk to each guy and connect with them. Even if it’s only for a few minutes. So, that’s really taken the most part of the day.”
With his morning full of meetings with individual players and select groups, the 54-year-old first-time NHL bench boss had to leave his pregame scouting of the Edmonton Oilers to the afternoon. Since he replaced the fired Todd McLellan, Hiller has worked hard at uplifting the Kings’ spirits and repairing any wounded psyches during the mystifying stretch of 14 losses in 17 games before the All-Star break.
His first mission Saturday night was a rousing success.
The Kings were far from their sharpest and there were times over the 60 minutes against Edmonton where they lived dangerously. But they more than made up for that with vigor, renewed energy and determination, getting inspired performances throughout the roster in an impressive 4-0 victory over the Oilers.
— LA Kings (@LAKings) February 11, 2024
It was apparent from the outset and then throughout. Maligned center Pierre-Luc Dubois got his feet going to draw an early penalty and built on that with a power-play goal to open the scoring while remaining involved in puck battles and even some post-whistle scrums. Aging — or ageless — winger Trevor Lewis had his motor revved up and used that to finish off a two-on-one rush with Quinton Byfield just 49 seconds after Dubois scored.
Byfield had a huge night with two goals and the assist to Lewis in another step taken toward becoming a nightly force. David Rittich backed his teammates with 26 saves — a few of them of the Big Save Dave variety — to earn his first shutout with the Kings. But it wasn’t just the performances that stood out on the scoresheet.
Big Save Dave doing Big Save Dave things 🤝 pic.twitter.com/j7BXFFJei8
— LA Kings (@LAKings) February 11, 2024
It was Kevin Fiala playing disciplined hockey and providing a strong backcheck to break up a play after he committed a turnover. It was Lewis throwing his body in front of a big Evan Bouchard slap shot, one of 25 shots his team blocked. It was a collective effort defensively to keep Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl from taking over the game at any juncture.
Mostly, it was a Kings team that for an important night regained its swagger.
“We know that we’re a good hockey team,” said Rittich, who has the L.A. net now in improving to 6-1-3 in 10 starts. “We know that. We just went (through) a tough stretch. Sometimes it’s hard. You’re falling on your back again and again. You’re working and just can’t find a way to win. We never lost faith or trust in ourselves. We know we’re good players, good hockey club and we can win.”
The Kings gained two valuable points as they began the Hiller era by maintaining their first wild-card position, especially when St. Louis, Nashville and Calgary all won Saturday. The win was a panacea for the nine days since their game at Nashville that were equally restful and tumultuous.
General manager Rob Blake pulled the plug on McLellan after 4 1/2 build-up seasons that ended with one terrible month. Hiller was tabbed to be his replacement on an interim basis for the rest of the season. The promotion comes after 10 years as an assistant with three teams, the last 1 1/2 with the Kings after McLellan brought him in following a stint with the New York Islanders.
Hiller didn’t go about making sweeping changes since he ran his first practice Thursday. He felt his biggest job at the beginning was reminding his players of the group that soared in October and November before their plateau in December and pratfall in January.
“They’ve got a break and they’ve got a lot of prove,” Hiller said. “They’re a really good team. They’re proud players, good players. All of a sudden, people are doubting us, I guess. You know what I mean? I don’t think anybody likes to be doubted around here, do they?
“Sometimes when you get doubted a little bit, that might just give you a little extra to come out swinging a little bit and prove that hey, you know what, we like what we have here. And I think that’s the case.”
One of those with a lot to prove is Dubois. His first four months in a Kings jersey were inconsequential. It was a new start for the 25-year-old center, and he provided the kind of play that has tantalized a few general managers over the years. He was engaged from his first shift and got some reward early in the second period when he squeezed a one-time power-play shot through Edmonton goalie Stuart Skinner.
Dubois joked that he probably lost 12 pounds throughout the game. More seriously, the major $68 million summer acquisition answered the call from Hiller and incoming assistant coach D.J. Smith — the former head man with Ottawa — to be an impact player. Hiller went as far as to say it was the center’s best game of the season.
“They challenged me,” Dubois said. “They challenged me to be a better player out there and to be a difference maker. That can come with scoring goals (and) assists, but it can also come with hits, drawing penalties. All the things that maybe not everybody notices. Since they’ve come in, the message is I can do a lot better. I know and I knew that. To have it laid out like that, it’s a fun challenge to do.”
Coaching changes can often provide the desired immediate bounce, and it remains to be seen how long this one lasts for the Kings. But they’re making it clear that a new voice was welcomed and possibly needed. The room had become a dour place, particularly within the last few weeks.
“I think that we’re as a group (putting) an emphasis on getting the energy up,” winger Trevor Moore said. “Playing with more energy. Having more. I think we’ve always had camaraderie but maybe a little bit more. If someone blocks a shot — we all want to pull in the same direction. Good energy is part of that.”
Players have been quick to point out that McLellan wasn’t to blame for their tailspin. They were that way before he was fired and have remained so afterward.
“What he did to this team (and) organization, rebuilding us — he got us to this point,” Byfield said. “Sometimes it sucks, but it’s business at the end of the day. You kind of just need a new voice in the room. Jimmy stepped up and he was great.”
It is easy to be reinvigorated for a moment, a period, a game. The Kings must build on this. They go back on the road for a four-game eastern trip with the hope that an additional boost comes from Viktor Arvidsson returning to action after undergoing back surgery in October.
“The message since we’ve been back is it’s not going to be easy,” Dubois said. “We’ve been through ups and downs this year. But it’s time to have fun again. It’s time to come to the rink with a smile on our faces. Excited to get back on the ice for practice. Excited to get back on the ice for games. Doing it together.
“There’s no doubt in here. Even in those last 20-ish or so games haven’t been the way we want to go, there’s absolutely no doubt in here. We know what kind of team we have. We know when we play together and when we do what we can do, we’re a hell of a team. We showed that tonight, but that’s just a start for us. There’s a lot of hockey left to be played.”
A win over a scorching hot Pacific Division rival that’s eliminated them in the last two postseasons is a promising start. For the team. And for its new head coach.
(Top photo of Trevor Lewis shooting to score past Edmonton’s Stuart Skinner in the second period Saturday: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)