Meet the New Guy in LA

by | Feb 13, 2024

Meet the New Guy in LA

by | Feb 13, 2024

Welcome, new guy. Do you need to know how to get from parking spot to coach’s office? No? Wait. Haven’t I met you somewhere before? Hey—you were with the Kings, right? As a player back in the 1990s? Played 40 games and scored six goals on the way to a 63-game, eight-goal career?

Probably not the scenario that played itself out last week as Jim Hiller took over the bench boss duties with the LA Kings. Rather, the 54-year-old would have quietly moved his stuff from one office to another as he slid into his new job, the first head coaching vacancy he has had the luck to fill after a career behind a bunch of NHL benches as an assistant, including the one in LA.

Two things have eventuated in Hiller’s first week as head coach after moving from a year-and-a-half tenure as an NHL assistant with the Kings. First, he wants speed. Even in practice, this has been his mantra as the Kings got back on the ice after their All-Star break and rest break. Todd McLellan was perhaps more into careful pace of play, something fans had seen enough of under former Coach Darryl Sutter. But with him, it worked, producing two Stanley Cups. Fans won’t tolerate slow (and boring) if their team is losing.

That speed is Hiller’s mantra was confirmed by Quinton Byfield in his second intermission in-arena interview as Hiller made his head coaching debut, versus Edmonton. When asked how he accounted for the way things were going for the Kings, who were up 2-0 by that point, Byfield  said, “One of our main objectives was to be fast” as they entered the game. It’s a simple formula, and if you have a team that was ready to break out of a defensively oriented approach, and that has the skill to do so, then a potential shortcut to winning ways.

Byfield backed up his statement in the dressing room after the game, giving away the secret that Hiller’s motto for the team is, “Let’s [Flipping] GO!” Only the coach didn’t say “flipping,” but rather used some other F-word.

Byfield put this in context: “It all starts with work. Coming off break we had two really good practices. Fast, a little bit longer. We were working hard.” Speaking of the motto, he said, “The message came across clear, and it’s really good. I think we’re all getting behind it.”

This makes you wonder: does a coach who is surprised by a move from assistant to head have to come in with a specific motto, motif, or plan? How many days does he get to implement that
“way,” to invoke a word that you best understand if you’ve read a bit of Bruce Lee. Hiller said after the game, “I don’t think I have a personal stamp. I think Todd [McLellan] has done a tremendous job. He brought the team forward. He led the team through the trough back up to the first 24 games being one of the best teams in the NHL. This [job now] is just getting back there.”

Hiller was equally candid as he revealed his demand for speed, saying after Saturday’s win, “I would bring it back to the first practice [after he took over]. They skated. The second practice . . .  they worked. As soon as the puck dropped, they just carried on. I think it’s a continuation from the first day they got back, and they made the decision, ‘You know what? It’s time to move again.’”

The other thing that’s obvious is that Hiller wants maximum effort out of everyone. All the time. The irony, according to one person I talked to this week, is that he was let go with the Kings back in the early 1990s, with Barry Melrose at the helm, for lacking in effort.

The prime example of where Hiller wants more effort is PL Dubois, who was candid after the game as to what he’s been asked for. “When a new coach comes in, he’s got his view of how things go, and it’s kind of a reset button,” he explained, “They challenged me to be a better player out there and to be a difference maker. . . . Since the new coaches have come in, the  message is for me to do a lot better. I knew, and I know, but to have it laid out like that, it’s a fun challenge to do.”

According to insider reports, Dubois is plenty willing to work hard, and shouldn’t be faulted for lack of production as a result of lack of effort. It’s not fair, so the thinking goes, to blame him just because he got a killer contract. And he’ll be better when he gets an upgrade on his wing, when he returns to center. Even then, he’s the third-line center, and hardly the driver of the whole team’s success, or lack of it. But he’s expensive, and so an easy target for fans. Perhaps for coaches, too, but he’s absorbing it well, apparently.

Speaking further, he commented, “They laid out [the plan] for me out there, and it’s black or white.”

Behind the bench, Hiller has had two phases to his coaching career so far. For about a decade, he was a head coach in the Western Hockey League. He once led his team, at the time the Tri-City Americans, to the league final, in a losing effort. He then moved behind a series of NHL benches as an assistant coach, including Detroit, Toronto, the Islanders, and, since 2022-23, the Kings.

So at least you can say that his debut in Los Angeles was without the drama of being in a new town. However, it’s got to be a bit intimidating to suddenly be the person who bears responsibility for how a team does. On the other hand, this is obviously what a person works for. So what are the upsides and downsides of how the Kings have done things by Mr. Hiller?

He’s named as the interim head coach. There’s no guarantee of a future in the role. But at least he has the comfort of knowing that he has half a season to at least show the league his demeanor in this job. GM Rob Blake indicated that this job will continue without further changes behind the bench for the rest of this season. Thus Hiller doesn’t have to worry about the club suddenly replacing him. (Anybody remember John Torchetti as Kings’ interim?)

Maybe he doesn’t even have to make major changes. You can’t change much in a practice or two, and who would be foolish enough to try? Plus, there’s the old wisdom that says that if Hiller, or anyone in his position, knew the secret to the team’s doing better, he would have said something to his old boss and thus saved his job. So this isn’t about forging a remake. It’s about offering a steady hand and guiding voice.

So with a new person installed behind the bench, was anything different against the Oilers? Maybe the Kings played a little less uptight against Edmonton than is their norm, but that’s only a guess from the top reaches of the arena where the press sits. They played with pace and contained the Oilers’ most dangerous players, all without making the game into one where it looked like everyone was wading through sand. Is that how it will be as the season moves on? Will it be all about speed?

The Kings are now headed for the east and a four-game, six-day road trip, starting Tuesday in Buffalo. On-lookers will be anxious to see how the Hiller era unfolds.

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