Kings open season with heartbreaking loss to Golden Knights

When Todd McLellan was hired to coach the downtrodden Kings in 2019, he compared them to marathoners at Mile 1. With a hard-fought playoff series loss behind him and the deepest and most skilled lineup at his disposal, McLellan updated this analogy as he began his fourth season.

“We’ve settled into the race now,” he said. “We climbed some hills. We came to some valleys. I think marathons have runners who break away and sometimes get caught up by the pack. I would say we are in this pack. We’re not in miles 1 through 5 anymore. We’re much further in.

“But if crossing the finish line and hanging a medal around your neck is the Stanley Cup championship, we still have a long way to go.”

TRUE. But now they step purposefully and do not stumble. They have structure, defined lines and a mobile defense that is injury free.

The chrome-domed Kings still had a series of “ifs” and “maybes” to solve as they opened the season with a 4-3 loss to division rivals Vegas at Arena on Tuesday. They were fueled by goals from Gabe Vilardi, Adrian Kempe and Arthur Kaliyev but their defense was patchy and they gave up a goal to Mark Stone with 24 seconds left.

“We squandered an excellent goalie performance by not getting a point tonight,” McLellan said of goalie Jonathan Quick’s performance against a 51-shot barrage.

However, when you look at the big picture, they no longer run to the point of failure on a treadmill. Your way is clear. You just have to avoid hitting the wall.

“We made a step last year but now we have to make sure we use the ability to get over that and keep that going,” general manager Rob Blake said Monday at the season’s briefing. “I think that with our line-up there are less and less concerns. I think there are still different times and there will be times throughout the season, but I think we have players who can fill specific roles and we have some depth in the right positions when needed.”

The implications of acquiring and signing left winger Kevin Fiala on a seven-year, $55.125 million contract extend beyond hopes he can repeat a career-best 33 goals and 85 points, which he scored for Minnesota last season, and join Kempe and Center Anze Kopitar will join to form an elite first line.

“I think Rob made some really good moves and it just shows us that he believes in us and spent that money on a really good player that we needed,” said center Phillip Danault, who gives his typically solid defense an offensive twist Dimension added in his first season with the Kings. “Rob has made a big step and now it’s time to show that on the ice.”

Vegas' Jack Eichel, right, shoots under pressure from Kings' Phillip Danault, foreground, and Viktor Arvidsson.

Vegas Golden Knights’ Jack Eichel (right) shoots under pressure from Kings’ Phillip Danault (foreground) and Viktor Arvidsson during Tuesday’s first half at the Arena.

(Jae C Hong / Associated Press)

Whether Danault can match the 27 goals and 51 points he scored alongside Thousand Oaks’ Trevor Moore and Viktor Arvidsson last season is one of the ‘ifs’ that will determine the fortunes of the Kings. Ditto for Kempe’s career best of 35 goals and 54 points.

If those were leeches, scoring will continue to be an issue. If Danault and Kempe can match or exceed those totals, there will be less production pressure on their children, although 2020 No. 2 Quinton Byfield and 2017 No. 11 Vilardi – in the third row with Alex Iafallo – contribute have to.

“Yes, I can do it again,” Danault said. “I can’t wait to see what this year will bring and of course I’m waiting for what I’ve wanted to achieve all my life – to win the trophy.”

Danault’s offensive performance last season was a bonus. “We definitely have an expectation for Phil going up offensively now but I think a lot of that revolves around his leadership. I felt like he added a big touch to that,” Blake said. “It caused some excitement for some of these players. And now we need to get that out of Kevin Fiala, we need to get that out of some of our youngsters who are going to have a slightly more important role in the team. ”

McLellan said he saw no signs that Kempe had faltered. “Is he a 35-goal scorer? I really hope so,” McLellan said. “But I know he’s certainly a 20-minute player most nights and that’s just as important as being a 35-goal scorer.”

Uh… sure. But another great season from Kempe is imperative, even if new assistant coach Jim Hiller works a miracle and fixes their weak power play. “If you get into a sticky situation or you get into an overtime situation and you count on a big player coming up front, he’s at that level for us now,” Blake said of Kempe.

The only change in defense early in the season, aside from Drew Doughty and Sean Walker returning from injuries, was the presence of 19-year-old Brandt Clarke in the roster, the eighth pick in the 2021 draft. Clarke did not play Tuesday, but he may not wait long as McLellan wants to limit the strain on defenseman Sean Durzi, who has undergone shoulder surgery.

Goalkeeper is their biggest “maybe”. Quick started Tuesday and Cal Petersen backed him; Petersen started in the opener last season but struggled and lost the job. Petersen has been shaky in training camp and if he doesn’t find a footing soon, Blake will have to look elsewhere to support Quick, 36.

Meanwhile, the royal marathon continues. They won’t win the race this season, but the finish line isn’t that far away anymore. Kings open season with heartbreaking loss to Golden Knights

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