As a Hall of Fame defenseman, Rob Blake lined up opposite prolific scorers like Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman, often tasked with guarding the unguardable.
As he has followed in their footsteps as an executive, he has, at times, had to defend the indefensible.
Massive misfires like Ilya Kovalchuk, Cal Petersen and Pierre-Luc Dubois have tainted his tenure, one that has also now seen four different head coaches in the span of six campaigns.
In his most forthright address this season, Blake said Monday that he lamented having to dismiss now-former coach Todd McLellan. But he expressed little if any remorse over the offseason moves that seemed to ultimately derail the Kings’ campaign after a sound start and cost McLellan his job.
Blake also acknowledged that, as the Kings (23-15-10, 56 points) cling to dear life in a season when they were supposed to thrive, his own employment might well be on the line.
“It’s my responsibility. I hired Todd. It was my responsibility to let him go the other day,” Blake said. “And I fully understand the repercussions if this team does not win or have success.”
McLellan had made linear progress across his four full seasons as head coach, catapulting the Kings out of the sort of rebuild that other one-time Western Conference powerhouses like the Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks were still very much enduring. He followed 2021-22’s campaign of 99 points with a 104-point effort last year, which was one point shy of the best single-season total in franchise history, achieved in 1975.
Yet this offseason, Blake and his staff sliced and diced the roster: they pumped out seven players, two draft picks and retained significant salary. It was all an effort to re-sign the steady and dependable Vladislav Gavrikov for just two years and lock down the red-flag-laden Dubois for eight seasons, seven of which will carry some form of a no-trade clause, at what’s proven an extortionate $8.5 million annual average value.
“Yes, this is a team that we built to make the playoffs,” Blake said when asked if he would make the audacious series of moves required to acquire Dubois over the summer given the benefit of hindsight.
Dubois has produced just 20 points in 48 games with a team-worst minus-16 rating with no discernible defensive or special teams impact.
“Individually, there’s numerous players here that have not been up to their potential, him included, but the team overall needs to be better, too,” Blake continued.
Now attempting to motivate the Kings’ flagging group, which tied for the fewest wins in the NHL in January, will be Jim Hiller, who had run their power play for a season and a half as an assistant to McLellan.
Blake was asked why the Kings opted for an internal promotion rather than an external hire, and what made Hiller, who had no pro head coaching experience, the most viable candidate to lead a team that holds the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference but is only four points from falling out of a playoff spot. Assistant Trent Yawney had 103 games of NHL head coaching experience with Chicago, while the Kings’ minor-league head coach, Marco Sturm, was also an NHL assistant and the steward of the German national team that captured surprise silver medals at the 2018 Olympics.
Blake did not respond to the first question, though he later said in a separate response that finances were not a factor, and opted to focus on Hiller’s head coaching experience at the junior level as well as his work as an NHL assistant. He was similarly nondescript when asked repeatedly what would be different about Hiller’s tenure and approach as opposed to McLellan’s, and it remains to be seen whether he will be allowed to tinker with the team’s 1-3-1 scheme, which relies on forechecking and trapping in the neutral zone to generate rushes on offense.
“Well, there’s a different person. It’s a different person in charge. Meetings are different, meeting times are different, approaches to the game. Every single thing would be different when a new person steps in,” Blake said. “I don’t know if I’m going to get into the systems and structure. Part of the timing here, it does give Jim some days here with our group before our next game.”
Hiller, whose first practice as head coach will be Thursday when the Kings return from the All-Star break and their bye week, has been analytically oriented and offensive-minded, both with the Kings and in his previous stops. Those proclivities could provide some insight into what Blake was looking for as the Kings’ penalty kill has persisted in its excellence even as seemingly every other area of their game soured, producing a series of blown leads and tight losses.
How much has a stretch of 14 losses in 17 games, many of them nail-biters, heading into the All-Star break impacted morale?
“A lot. Very much. Confidence,” said Blake, who added that he was “fine” with the present locker-room chemistry. “It’s the same players we’ve had here, 24 games in, we were doing things really well, playing hard. The word that’s been used lately is a disconnect, our team has played disconnected, I think.”
“Offensively, yes, we have to be better, defensively, we have to be better,” he added. “Through 24 games, we scored the most goals in the league, the next 24 were 32nd [of 32 teams].”
Blake added that the assistant coach position vacated by Hiller would be filled externally. While he said that announcement would come later in the week, roughly an hour after Blake spoke it was reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that former Ottawa Senators coach D.J. Smith would occupy the role (the Kings did not respond to an email seeking confirmation of the report).
Blake also shared that center Blake Lizotte (lower body, week-to-week) could be headed for long-term injured reserve, though he also said there was “no update” on Lizotte a moment later. Lizotte would join goalie Pheonix Copley (knee, out for the season) and winger Viktor Arvidsson (back, progressing toward a return) on LTIR.
Arvidsson and Lizotte’s statuses could determine what the Kings are or are not able to do in terms of carrying close to a full roster and investigating acquisitions as the March 8 trade deadline approaches.
Lizotte and Arvidsson, like integral defenseman Matt Roy, are in the final year of their contracts, though Lizotte will be a restricted free agent. Roy, whom Blake said in October he hoped would come to the negotiating table around Christmas, remains on a path toward unrestricted free agency on July 1.
Blake said there has been no advance in contract talks and would not discuss whether or not trading Roy at the deadline would become an option if the Kings’ struggles continued.
“It’s hard to speculate, the direction, wins and losses will dictate it,” Blake said.