LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Kings cited poor practice habits as a major reason for their last-place finish in the Western Conference, with general manager Rob Blake planning to address breakdowns in team culture when hiring a new coach.
"I don't think our practices were good enough," forward Dustin Brown said Monday. "I don't think we practiced hard enough throughout the year. We had hard practices here and there, but there were stretches of times when I think we didn't practice the right way. … And I think it showed in our game sometimes if you look at our inability to pass the puck to each other through stretches of games. I think that's a big part of our practice habits that needs to get back to how it was."
The Kings went 31-42-9 with an NHL-worst minus-61 goal differential and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in three seasons. They were 30th in the NHL in scoring (2.43 goals per game) and 22nd in goals-against (3.16 per game).
Blake fired John Stevens as coach Nov. 4 after a 4-8-1 start, but his apprehension about the Kings' lack of hunger went back to training camp. Willie Desjardins replaced Stevens and went 27-34-8.
The Kings announced Sunday that Desjardins will not return next season, with Blake admitting he put Desjardins "in a tough spot."
"He came in on a team that I wasn't sure was ready to buy in, to play hard enough to win again," Blake said. "I made a change early. I saw it through camp. I felt it through camp. It wasn't something that just crept in."
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Blake met with 11 veteran players when they returned from a four-game road trip after the NHL Trade Deadline passed Feb. 25 to address the poor work ethic he was seeing.
"Are you just going through practice, are you going through the motions every day, or are you trying to get better?" Blake said. "We can't just come in and go through the motions anymore. I have to install that. I didn't do a good job of that this year."
The frustration of a losing season spilled over into other areas, notably the disconnect between Desjardins and forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who returned to the NHL after playing the previous five seasons for SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League.
Kovalchuk had 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 13 games with Stevens as coach. But his role and playing time fluctuated dramatically under Desjardins, and he was a healthy scratch for six straight games March 21-30.
Defenseman Drew Doughty said Kovalchuk fit in well with teammates, but his lack of consistent effort on defense led to strife with Desjardins.
"I think I'm not telling anybody any secrets, but him and Willie obviously had some issues, which I think exasperated a lot of the other minor things which we could work through," Brown said.
Blake plans to meet with Kovalchuk, who has two seasons remaining on his contract at an average annual value of $6.25 million, sometime in the next few weeks so the two can develop a better understanding of what is expected moving forward.
Blake's immediate priority is finding a new coach, citing the ability to instill a culture built on hard work, motivational skills and style of play as the three primary attributes in his evaluations.
The process is underway, Blake said, though he would not discuss individual candidates.
Regardless of who Blake hires, Kings players said they understand that success next season will depend on their level of commitment.
"There's no way around it. Losing [stinks], and we obviously did our fair share of that this year," forward Tyler Toffoli said. "Obviously, this is very disappointing right now, but perhaps (we can) use this as an opportunity to reevaluate and figure out how we can all be better so this doesn't happen again."