The team had won seven games in a row as its remade, post-trade-deadline roster reeled its best hockey of the season.
“Players were doing things the right way, we were coming together as a team, we were structurally much more efficient and less error-prone than in the past,” McLellan said, “which is everything that we could ask from a relatively new group.”
Even with only 12 games to go and no real chance to mount a playoff push, McLellan was eager to see what came next.
“It would have been interesting to see if we would have maintained it,” McLellan said, “or if we would have begun to stray from structure, stray from the commitment to doing things right. Often with success, that begins to happen, especially with a young team. So it would have been a great teaching and learning opportunity for us to go through.”
The COVID-19 pandemic robbed the Kings of that test, and could cost the NHL the rest of the regular season, if not more.
For a rebuilding club such as the Kings, it means potentially 12 fewer opportunities to gauge their growth in McLellan’s first year.
“We’ve had enough share of failure throughout the year, and they handled it quite well,” McLellan said, speaking to reporters during a Monday afternoon conference call. “But how are we going to handle success? How are we going to behave in practice? How are we going to approach games down the stretch? I think that reveals a lot about your team, and we’re probably not going to get that opportunity.”
In the short-term, the coronavirus outbreak is costing the Kings little compared to other NHL clubs. In the most serious cases, the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche have had players test positive for COVID-19 since the season stoppage. From a pure competition standpoint, clubs stuck on the wrong side of the playoff bubble might miss a chance to climb back into the postseason picture.
For the Kings, it will be consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance for the first time in more than a decade.
“If [the season] does go away, we’re looking at a very extended summer,” McLellan said, noting how a delayed postseason likely would delay the start of next season’s training camp. “That would create a scenario where we’re done from mid-March to call it, [a potential] October 15 training camp. That is a huge period of time where we’re not involved hockey-wise.”
In the interim, the team’s coaching staff has tried to continue important player conversations. Along with general manager Rob Blake and team president Luc Robitaille, McLellan has organized weekly player conference calls to keep developmental dialogue going. But even in those chats, topics have revolved as much about the health crisis and uncertain schedule as they did hockey.
“We continue to have hope we’ll get up-and-running again as a team,” said McLellan, who has remained at his home in the South Bay instead of returning to his usual summer spot in Canada. “I think the coaches are going to be proactive on that. As soon as things happen, we’re the first ones that have to get prepared.
“I’ve been going through a lot of old games from this past season. Trying to sort things out so I can find good individual clips for each of the players but also [team] clips that we might use if we come back and start.”
McLellan stopped and added an unwanted qualifier: “Or if we don’t, it will be used in training camp in the fall.”