EDMONTON, Canada —
Todd McLellan’s emotions were raw, and so were his words.
He wasn’t the slightest bit sentimental in summing up the Kings’ seven-game Stanley Cup playoff loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night. Only a few minutes removed from losing to the team that had fired him 3 ½ years ago, with the realization that eight months’ hard work had ended in frustration, the sting of defeat gnawed at him and he didn’t care who knew.
The Kings had earned a chance to close out the Oilers in Game 6 at home last Thursday but couldn’t find an extra gear or extra goal. Playing before a loud and hostile crowd at Rogers Place on Saturday, they were in good shape after a 0-0 first period in Game 7 and trailed 1-0 after two.
They were helpless as Connor McDavid transformed himself from a superstar to the heartbeat of a team that’s beginning to realize its potential, but McDavid wasn’t the only reason for the Kings’ season-ending 2-0 loss. They fell just short in too many areas and made too many mistakes in unforgiving situations, as fringe and inexperienced players often do.
Those were common themes during an injury-filled season that thrust many players into roles they weren’t suited to play. Yet the season also led them back to the playoffs for the first time since 2018 and gave kids chances to blossom and contribute to the team’s new identity. The light at the end of the tunnel could be the gleam of the Stanley Cup, though that’s far off.
Asked what the experience of playing in a Game 7 might mean for the younger players, McLellan’s voice became loud and his tone crackled.
“This word ‘experience’ has come up the whole frickin’ playoffs. Gain it, gain it, gain it. Experience is only good if you do something with it,” he said. “If you’re just going to go throw it in the closet when you go home, whether you’re old or young, it’s useless.
“So our younger players, in particular, that whether you played in the series or not you gained experience. It’s what are you going to do with it now? And that’s why next year, starting tomorrow, is going to be one tough year. Based on experience that I have. And they will be told that. And there’s a lot of growing up that some of them need to do and they can do it. And they will do it.”
In other words, for this season to mean something it must be followed by even harder work and more progress from future core players. McLellan didn’t say it, but the same stepped-up effort is required from management. General manager Rob Blake will have a good chunk of salary cap space and he has enough prospects to make meaningful moves that move the ship forward.
The defense, patched together after Sean Walker blew out his knee and Drew Doughty injured his wrist, needs upgrades in size and muscle. A legitimate first-line left wing also should be on Blake’s shopping list. Alex Iafallo isn’t that.
On the plus side: Adrian Kempe scored a career-best 35 goals this season and led the Kings in playoff scoring with six points. Phillip Danault, slotted as the No. 2 center, essentially became the No. 1 center while Anze Kopitar slowed. Danault, a revelation after signing as a free agent last summer, also helped linemate and Thousand Oaks native Trevor Moore become a solid two-way player.
“I’m very proud of the group we have,” Danault said Saturday. “The experience we gained all series, but just today, Game 7, is huge. And obviously it hurts losing, but you keep that feeling and next year you try and beat it and overcome in a better way. It hurts but you take that, you suck it in, you come back next year and you’re even stronger.”
As Danault noted, the Oilers got better as the series wore on, especially on defense. The Kings did not. “They played better as a team the last two games. We didn’t play bad but they played a little better,” he said. “They had a little more power and they were a little more ready.”
The absence of 20-goal scorer Viktor Arvidsson (lower-body injury) limited the talent available to McLellan. He put Andreas Athanasiou in the lineup for the winger’s speed and scoring skill but got burned by Athanasiou’s defensive lapses. McLellan pushed a lot of buttons and got a lot of good results, just not enough to spare the Kings teary eyes as they hit the end of the road and watched Dustin Brown, who embodied the boisterous spirit of their 2012 and 2104 Cup championship teams, skate off the ice for the last time. His No. 23 should be retired soon. He should know he also became an important bridge between the Kings’ past success and the promise of future victories.
“Small picture, a lot of pain right now. Big picture, some satisfaction,” McLellan said. “And I’ll finish my statement off by saying tomorrow morning next year starts, and based on experience, that’s going to be one tough year.”
This experience will be what they choose to make of it. This shouldn’t be the end when it has the potential to be the beginning of something good.