EL SEGUNDO, CA — With new head coach Todd McLellan taking over behind the bench this season for the Los Angeles Kings, one of the things he was charged with was making his new team faster and more aggressive up the ice. That meant that the system they played would have to change, at least somewhat.
Indeed, there has been a lot of talk about the Kings’ new system and how it differs from what they had been playing in previous years, especially given the fact that the Kings have struggled to start the 2019-20 season—it is apparent that they are still working out the kinks of learning to play under the new system, as evidenced by the plethora of defensive breakdowns in their first handful of games.
“We’re still trying to work towards our identity,” said McLellan. “We’re trying to clean things up, defensively, get going offensively—we’re certainly a work-in-progress. We’re going to continue on that progress… . We’ve got to become a better team and that will be our goal.”
“We’re chasing parts of our game,” added McLellan. “That usually means that we’re not good enough right now. We’ll continue to work on it.”
So how is the Kings new system different from before?
“The positioning of the forwards has changed,” said center Anze Kopitar. “That’s one thing on the forecheck. We’re also much more ‘in their faces’ in the neutral zone. We’re just trying to get the puck back quicker.”
“There’s more onus on the forwards now,” defenseman Drew Doughty explained. “Before, the defense just accepted the rush and there was a backchecking forward. Now we have a forward, acting as a defenseman, depending on how they dump the puck in or how they enter the neutral zone. There’s a lot more onus on the forwards, which is kind of why you’re seeing more odd-man rushes and goals against—we’re not 100 percent, sometimes, in those areas.”
“The defensemen are more aggressive down the walls on the offensive zone forecheck,” Doughty elaborated. “Every team is kind of doing the same thing, nowadays. The forwards go in hard and you have the F3 forward hanging back, higher in the offensive zone. If the puck comes up the wall, the defensemen are coming in to pinch every time, while the F3 reloads and covers for that defenseman. We kind of did that in the past. But now, we have to do that, or else you’re in [expletive deleted].”
The Kings play in the neutral zone has changed quite a bit.
“It’s like a 1-3-1,” said Kopitar. “Maybe the line of defense is pushed up ice a little. We’re trying to prevent them from getting to our zone as easily as in the past. That’s probably the biggest change in our system.”
“As for the neutral zone forecheck, we’re using a 1-3-1 now, not a 1-2-2,” Doughty noted. “It’s a completely different system. You’ll see the right defenseman mostly in the back of that triangle—the very last guy.”
“What we’re trying to get out of that is for their guy to dump the puck,” Doughty added. “That right defenseman should be able to cheat back a little bit and have a little more time to make a breakout play. Because we’re in a 1-3-1, sometimes, the right wing has to be below the goal line instead of the left defenseman. But if the right wing is below the goal line, the left defenseman has to jump in the play. There’s lots of stuff.”
“Last year, it was a 1-2-2, so the forwards were [all] in front of us [the defensemen]. We were all inside the dots—all of us. Now, we’re three across the blue line, one behind the right defenseman and then there’s one forward checking with two defensemen.”
Things haven’t changed a whole lot in the defensive zone.
“The defensive zone coverage hasn’t changed much,” said Doughty. “But if other teams run plays off face-offs, we might play those a bit different. But nothing major.”
“I guess the biggest difference is that there’s a lot more onus on the forwards,” added Doughty. “You’re going to see them below [our] goal line on breakouts, which you’ve never really seen [regularly] before.”
Contrary to what conventional wisdom might dictate, the offensive zone isn’t likely to be where the new system has its greatest impact.
“The neutral zone is going to be very effective for us,” Doughty observed. “I really like what we’re bringing in. We just have to trust—we do trust it. I keep saying that we don’t trust it. But we do trust it. Even myself, if I see a guy coming down right wing against a forward, I’m going to think that there’s a good chance that he gets beaten because he’s not a defenseman. That’s just the bottom line, so I might be cheating over there when I shouldn’t.”
As Doughty alluded to, it is apparent that the Kings are still working out some of the kinks in their new system.
“We know what we’re supposed to do,” said Doughty. “But we don’t always trust ourselves or trust the other guy 100 percent just yet, But we need to get that trust because when we do it right, we see how effective we can be and how dominant we can be in periods.”
“Our system, our style is aggressive,” said Kopitar. “But we have to play within it. ‘Aggressive’ means hunting the puck and getting it back as quickly as [we] can after we lose it. ‘Aggressive’ also means playing in the offensive zone and making sure that we throw a lot of pucks at the net,”
“In the defensive zone, ‘aggressive’ means that you want to take away the ice and time for [opposing teams] to make plays,” added Kopitar.
On October 19, in a decisive 4-1 victory over the Calgary Flames at Staples Center in Los Angeles, McLellan noted his team lost their way, system-wise, late in the third period.
“We put a plan in place, and when they played to that plan, I thought for tonight, 52 minutes of it was pretty good,” he said. “Then, with eight minutes left in the game, we get a double minor or a power play, and we strayed from it again. That just means we’ve got a lot to learn, still.”
“I know the guys in that locker room, the ones that won many years ago, would’ve shut that game right down and put a clamp on it,” he added. “So, we’ve got to get back to doing that. We still see old habits slip in, and ‘here’s a coach, we won 4-1, played a pretty darn good game and he’s finding a way to whine about a few things.’ But they’re things that have to be addressed and fixed.”
But adjusting to a new system isn’t easy for the veteran players. Indeed, trying not to revert back to old habits has been a bit of a challenge.
“Some of us have played the same system for 10+ years [with only minor changes over the ensuing years]. It’s tough to turn it off and turn the new one on, so there’s still some lingering effects, if you will, from the other one,” said Kopitar. “But we’re taking steps in the right direction.”
“It hasn’t been too tough,” added Kopitar. “But sometimes, you catch yourself thinking, on the ice, about what you’ve got to do instead of just playing, which should come instinctively. It’s that split second that could make the difference between making a play and not making a play.”
“I’m in a different spot in the neutral zone and I’m not able to get up in the rush,” Doughty noted. “But more than anything, I’m more worried about getting scored on. That’s always in my head because I was one of the [worst plus/minus players] last year. I think that messed with my head, so that’s all I’m really focused on this year, which is probably a bad thing. But I think my defensive game has been really good.”
After a very rocky start with their new system, the Kings have shown improvement over their last few games—it appears that they are starting to play within the new system.
“What is it now? [Eight] games in,” Kopitar noted. “It’s evolving. Guys are getting used to each other and they’re finding themselves and their roles within the system. We’ve been together for a little over a month now. There’s been some significant changes where that, [in some aspects], it’ll take a little more time. But we’re on the right track… . We’ll get better, system-wise. We’ll [start] reacting more than thinking on the ice. It’ll get better.”
“You saw when we did execute—we just dominated,” said Doughty. “We can’t get away from it. When we get away from it, we struggle. We get dominated. So we have to stick with it.”
“It’s not that big of a secret,” said Kopitar. “But you’ve got to execute to be successful.”
That’s something to look forward to, right?
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, shown here during practice at the Toyota Sports Performance Center in El Segundo, California. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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Trusting a forward to play defense like a dman… No wonder coach McLellan hasn’t won squat