Stephens: Kings fire Todd McLellan, but shouldn’t GM Rob Blake share the blame?

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To save their season, once presumably meant to mark their breakthrough as a Stanley Cup contender, the Los Angeles Kings had to fire coach Todd McLellan on Friday. Necessary? Yes. Justifiable? Well…

Singling out McLellan as the sole reason for the Kings’ sudden and shocking fall over the past month would be simplistic. His dismissal might satisfy those who wanted Kings general manager Rob Blake to deliver the pink slip earlier. It doesn’t erase the concerning issues that have metastasized into full-blown problems. And those issues point toward Blake.

It became apparent that McLellan couldn’t pull the Kings out of the whirlpool they’ve been trapped in. Their 4-2 victory at Nashville on Wednesday wasn’t going to be enough to save his job. There is no good reason why they’re now in a struggle to fight off a six-pack of eminently erratic teams (from Minnesota to Arizona to St. Louis, take your pick) for a playoff spot that felt certain just more than a month ago.

The Kings had lost their way. Three wins in 17 games, dating to Dec. 27, isn’t simply a rough spell that every team goes through in the dog days of a season. Certainly not on a team with the Kings’ talent and expectations.

Firing McLellan, hired in 2019 to get the Kings through their rebuilding stage and move them into the contending phase, might be the answer. Blake had better hope it is. It is the only lever he has at his disposal, because the failings of his salary cap-busting roster moves didn’t do McLellan any favors. Now, Blake, whose contract is set to expire after the 2024-25 season, will be the one facing all the scrutiny if the Kings don’t turn things around in the second half of their season.

This has been a long road for the Kings. They hired Blake in 2017 to replace Dean Lombardi, who helped bring the Stanley Cup to Los Angeles in 2012 and 2014, and for most of that time, the Kings have undergone a patient build. Almost seven years in, though, all they have to show for it is first-round playoff losses to Edmonton in 2022 and 2023, plus this season, one that seems to be spiraling. If it doesn’t turn around, won’t Blake have to answer for that?

Blake’s trade for Pierre-Luc Dubois, the signature move that will shape and define his tenure, has thus far backfired badly just months into an eight-year commitment. It isn’t just Dubois’ unremarkable play on the ice. The negative impact is multi-layered.

The Kings also traded point-producing defenseman Sean Durzi — who has flourished in a larger role with Arizona – to free up more cap space in order to accomodate Dubois’ eventual $8.5 million AAV contract. In acquiring Dubois from Winnipeg, the Kings sent away talent, most notably Gabriel Vilardi and Alex Iafallo, players who have brought quality depth to the Central Division-contending Jets. Should we bring up how productive those three have been at a combined $9.1 million cap hit? (Or Ryan O’Reilly’s 42 points for Nashville, at half of Dubois’ eight-year term at a $4.5-million AAV?)

Then there is Dubois’ lack of meshing with Kevin Fiala — the big-money acquisition from the previous summer — and then with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe in a hasty switch to wing that was quickly abandoned. All of that has left the 25-year-old Dubois to center the third line, a position that was supposed to give the Kings some enviable depth, but he’s largely had wingers who are grinders or young, unproven offensive talents. Be that as it may, Dubois’ play hasn’t lifted any of them up.

Lay at McLellan’s feet the inability to pull the best out of Dubois if you will, but he isn’t the only coach who has had trouble with that. Blake knew about Dubois’ past in Winnipeg and Columbus, and how things ended poorly with both teams. Throw in the season-long absence of injured right wing Viktor Arvidsson and the exits of Vilardi and Iafallo, which left holes that Kings haven’t adequately filled, and McLellan’s options to mix-and-match his lineup in times of trouble were much more limited. Once the bottom-six scoring disappeared, those lineup issues were exacerbated.

This isn’t to say that McLellan deserves to go scot-free when it comes to assessing how the Kings have fallen. He rode goalie Cam Talbot too hard early in the season, even given with how tempting it was to do so. Talbot was playing remarkably well, and the Kings benefitted from a first-half schedule that was more spaced out. But there was also a reticence to play Pheonix Copley, who didn’t have a good camp and had some shaky starts before he tore his ACL. The Kings, however, were rolling then, and only needed competent work from anyone in net.

Talbot hasn’t won in 10 starts, and has given up five goals in three of his last four. His signing for a paltry $2 million, initially with just $1 million counting against the cap, made Blake look good. His current struggles and sharp downturn have re-ignited the questions of why the GM put their goaltending in the hands of a 36-year-old and left little money available to address that important position.

And now, Blake’s moves, designed to strengthen this roster, have likely hamstrung his ability to significantly improve the Kings with a trade before the March 8 trade deadline. The Kings may have some salary-cap wiggle room thanks to long-term injured reserve, but not much.

There were some positives for McLellan. The exponential growth of Quinton Byfield over the last two seasons into an impact top-six contributor is a feather in McLellan’s cap. The 21-year-old’s puck-hounding and improved playmaking and finishing have been unifying elements for the Kings, particularly for Kopitar and Kempe. But the counter to Byfield has been Arthur Kaliyev’s stagnation. Is that on the coach or the player?

McLellan’s handling of young defensemen Jordan Spence and Brandt Clarke — alternating their appearances in the lineup — hasn’t been good for either. Spence didn’t particularly thrive but also wasn’t playing so badly that he deserved to lose his spot. Clarke has shown flashes of his dynamic game but has also looked tentative. The two enabled Blake to trade Durzi, but neither has been the added offensive threat the Kings could have on the back end, aside from Drew Doughty.

Speaking of Doughty, the 34-year-old’s vent session with reporters following a recent brutal loss to Buffalo spoke to a fissure developing among the Kings. Beyond his razor-sharp comments — “I think we’ve got guys in this room that are too worried about themselves and worried about their points and worried about stuff like that” — the bedrock defenseman was concerned that his words might be falling on deaf ears.

It brought into question whether McLellan would be able to keep this group together and make the necessary improvements for a turnaround. A strong three-game road trip heading into the All-Star break could have provided a badly needed shot of momentum and reset them for the post-break playoff push. Instead, the Kings were spanked by the Avalanche, as Talbot couldn’t come up with the confident saves that got him an All-Star selection. They were better Sunday in St. Louis, but the 4-3 overtime loss — their fifth of six in three-on-three play — meant another point frittered away. But then they were often outplayed by Nashville and needed huge saves from David Rittich to go with opportunistic scoring that returned for a night.

As opponents have been able to penetrate the Kings’ 1-3-1 system, which made them a lockdown unit on their best days, McLellan’s adjustments to counteract opponents’ growing effectiveness at getting through the neutral zone didn’t have the desired effect. They’ve still been susceptible to breakdowns at inopportune times. McLellan had referred to the Kings as “playing in pieces,” which, in review, is a window into a team no longer displaying the connectivity he coveted and had cultivated.

McLellan should be lauded for his capable hand in establishing a foundation. A surprise appearance in the playoffs in 2022 reinvigorated Kopitar and Doughty. He got the group to play structured hockey that played to those veterans’ responsible two-way strengths.

But with that comes the reality of not being able to take the Kings higher. McLellan’s track record of close-but-not-quite in San Jose and Edmonton only furthers the idea that he’s a program builder, but not the coach who can put a team over the top.

Mostly, it seems, the Kings are now lacking in confidence. Perhaps the necessary element is a new voice to remind them that they got off to a 16-4-3 start. A voice that can reach Dubois and coax more out of other underperforming players.

Interim coach Jim Hiller must provide that voice now, moving from the assistant chair to the big one for the rest of the season. If Hiller can do that and the Kings can not only get in the playoffs but be a real threat, then Blake can feel justified in making the move he perhaps didn’t really want to make, after he gave McLellan a public vote of confidence on Jan. 18. Blake now must count on a spark being created from behind the bench, because he’s backed himself to a corner with the players who are being sent over the boards.

Before the season began, McLellan agreed to a one-year extension that would take both him and Blake through the end of next season. With the Kings’ struggles having yet to cease, McLellan didn’t make it there. If his team doesn’t reach the postseason this spring, Blake may not make it, either.

(Photo of Todd McLellan: Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images)

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