The newest head coach of the Los Angeles Kings is done licking his wounds after being fired for the first time in his life.
Now Todd McLellan is looking at an admittedly long road to take a Kings team to success that has cap issues, age issues, pipeline issues and finished in 30th place this past season. But he’s seen much as the guy who coached San Jose to great — if not the ultimate — success, and the first coach to superstar Connor McDavid.
We had a long telephone conversation with McLellan from his off-season home in Kelowna, B.C., where he plots his return to the NHL this September. Here’s what he had to say:
The GM/coach relationship. How are you aligned with Rob Blake?
“We’ve had a personal relationship going all the way back to Rob’s playing days in San Jose (2008-10). What’s unique about it now is, where I was in charge or directing him, he’s now directing me. But when we were player and coach, we were aligned. And I felt like that in Los Angeles to this point. The trust, the ability to discuss things freely … I feel good about it.”
How long is it going to take the Kings to have success?
“Well, there’s a lot of heavy lifting that has to happen, and there is a clear and concise plan of where they need to go. The game has evolved from the time when the Kings were winning Stanley Cups, so the team has to be constructed a certain way, and you can’t change the construction overnight. It’s not going to be an overnight thing. It’s going to take some time.”
L.A. finished 30th last season, and still has eight players who are 31 and older under contract. The Kings also have 10 picks in the upcoming draft — five in the first three rounds. Where would you like to think the Kings are on their curve?
“We’re at the beginning of the process. Rob’s plan basically began before the deadline [where the Kings dealt Jake Muzzin, Nate Thompson, Carl Hagelin and Oscar Fantenberg]. In the last 24 months, they’ve made the playoffs, and have had players up for various awards. Then this year there was a dramatic fall off. I think this group is somewhere between those two extremes.
“That age bracket (21-28) is the sweet spot for players now, but they’re not apologizing for having won Stanley Cups in L.A. They gave up assets to win championships, and they now recognize it takes a lot of work to recoup it. That’s the stage we’re in.”
L.A. is your third stop as a head coach. How much smarter are you today than the day they announced you in San Jose?
“[Laughs] How much smarter? I don’t even think of myself as smart. Experienced? Learned valuable lessons? Yes. You can take something from everywhere and learn, but I’m still learning as I go along — I think everyone is. I’m comfortable in my skin; I’m comfortable with who I am. I’m not always going to make everyone happy, whether it’s the players or the fans. But I’m comfortable with how I carry myself, how I do things.”
What did getting fired feel like?
“It hurts to get fired. It’s a slap. It’s the first time it’s happened to me, but I’ve recovered and I’m more determined than I’ve ever been.”
If what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, you must be feeling like Hercules after the Edmonton experience. Do tell…
“I loved my time in Edmonton. I would have stayed there forever. I enjoyed the community, the feel of it, the fans, the players, working with Sport Central and helping out as many kids as we could… There are so many positives there, but sometimes things don’t work out and people pay the price for that. I was one of them.”
Coaching Connor McDavid is every coach’s dream. When you write the book at the end of your career, what will you say about your time as his coach?
“There are two parts to the hockey athlete: the human part, and the hockey part. A lot of players have both to varying degrees, but Connor scores a 100 in both areas. He’s an outstanding person you enjoy being around. He’s fun, he’s bright, he’s a great leader — and he’s an outstanding player. We all see him as a player, but I got to see him as a human being as well. His compassion for his teammates, for the community, for the kids who wanted an autograph … I appreciated that as much as I appreciated him as a hockey player.”
As a Pacific Division head coach your whole career, you’ve coached more games against the Kings than any other team. Which players interest you the most, in terms of getting to know them on a daily basis?
“In a strange way, because I’ve coached so many games against the Kings in the past, I feel without shaking everybody’s hands, I have a sense of who they are. But that can be dangerous. I have to dig in a little bit, and create relationships. But you recognize them physically. You can visualize them on the ice without doing a lot of homework. You understand what their reputations are. You have a starting point, but I am also aware that I have to formulate my own opinion.
“That goes one through 23. Everyone’s important on a team. You can’t shortcut anyone when you’re starting out. You have to create relationships with everyone.”
You had lot of success in San Jose, though not the ultimate success. Edmonton, in the end, did not go well. Is there some pressure on you in L.A. to show you can coach a team to the Stanley Cup?
“Yes. But I felt that back in May of 2008 when San Jose hired me, and I felt that in May of 2015 when Edmonton hired me. And I feel it now. When I am done, and I leave the game, I will not have cheated the game a single day. As long as I’m doing everything I think I can do, I’ll feel good about that. I’ll leave the game — regardless of wins, losses, Stanley Cups — feeling good because I won’t cheat it. Do we have to win championships? That’s the goal, and what we’re all getting together for.
“There are two sides to coaching. The ‘what you gave’ part, and the ‘what you got out of it’ part. The ‘got out of it’ part is winning a Cup, and that’s what we’re all in it for. But the ‘what you put into it’ part I’ll always feel good about, because there won’t be a day that I cheated this game.”