Column: Coach Jim Hiller gives Kings a blueprint for success

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In the few days since Jim Hiller took over as the Kings’ interim coach, he has deliberately worked more on changing players’ mood than on changing the team’s strategy.

His first directive Thursday, after he led them through practice for the first time, was simple and not revolutionary: Have fun. Work hard. Work for each other, and it will become enjoyable and build camaraderie, so you’ll have an easier path toward returning to a solid early-season form. Players liked what they heard.

“We’ve been through ups and downs this year. It’s time to have fun again. It’s time to come to the rink with a smile on our faces,” was Pierre-Luc Dubois’ summation. “Excited to get back on the ice for practice, excited to get back on the ice for games. Doing it together.”

Hiller’s second directive is tricky to quote directly. “I can’t really say it because there’s a swear word in it,” Quinton Byfield said.

When pressed, Byfield said the phrase began with “Let’s” and ended with “Go” and had an expletive in the middle. “We’ll get those on T-shirts,” he joked.

Whether they put that message on T-shirts, caps or tattoos doesn’t matter. What mattered was the Kings played like they believed in it Saturday throughout a 4-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, who had won 17 of their previous 18 games.

Fresh off a long break and playing a team who eliminated them in the first round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons, the Kings put together a strong effort in Hiller’s NHL coaching debut. They scored on one of two power plays and killed all five disadvantages they faced.

Not only didn’t they blow the 2-0 lead they carried into the third period, they extended it. Goaltender David Rittich made 26 saves to record his first shutout as a King and first since Feb. 22, 2021, when he was with Calgary and blanked Toronto.

“We never lost faith or trust in ourselves,” Rittich said. “We know we are good players. Good hockey club. And we can win.”

Dubois contributed more Saturday than he had in the previous month, drawing a penalty, scoring their first goal during a power play and dishing out four hits. Byfield set up their second goal by stripping Connor McDavid of the puck in the defensive zone and feeding a streaking Trevor Lewis. Byfield scored their third goal off a rebound and their fourth into an empty net.

“You just kind of need a new voice in the room. Jimmy stepped up and he was great,” Byfield said. “Todd was really good for myself. He’s a great hockey mind and I’m sure he’s going to get another coaching opportunity but we needed a little spark in here. Something new. A different voice.”

It wasn’t perfect. The Kings were twice penalized for having too many men on the ice, which usually signals a communications problem. The frequent penalties meant fourth-line center Alex Turcott played only five early shifts, though Hiller said that could change when the Kings open a four-game trip Tuesday at Buffalo.

Yet it was impressive on many levels, and it lifted the gloom that had descended on the Kings (24-15-10) while they lost 14 of 17 games and the Oilers zoomed past them to grab third place in the Pacific Division standings.

“There’s no doubt in here, even though the last 20ish or some games haven’t been the way we wanted. There’s absolutely no doubt in here,” Dubois said. “We know what kind of team we have. We know when we play together and do what we can do, we’re a hell of a team. So we showed that tonight. But that’s just a start for us.”

Dubois received a third directive from Hiller, one that was personal and pointed.

“The coaching staff here, the first day I got back, they challenged me,” he said. “They challenged me to be a better player out there and to be a difference-maker, and that can come in scoring goals, assists, but it could also come with hits, drawing penalties. All the things that maybe not everybody notices.

“But since they’ve come in the message is I could do a lot better, and I know. And I knew that but to have it laid out like that, it’s a fun challenge to do.”

He took it to heart on Saturday. He was involved. Assertive. He didn’t float.

“He’s had a tough go,” Hiller said. “He’s a really good player. We know that. He’s got a long history in the league of being a really good player. My challenge for him was to play with intensity and I bet you will have fun. Was he one of the guys who said he had fun tonight?”

Yes, he was.

“I hope he was, because that looked like it was fun tonight for him and he’s had a lot of nights that it didn’t look like he had fun,” Hiller said. “He’s part of that equation too. He’s got to get himself in that place where he’s just going to go for it and play hockey like he did when he was younger, when he loved the game, when he was not in this tough stretch. He brought that tonight and let’s hope that’s a stepping stone for him going forward. Sure nice to see him smile and enjoy himself and enjoy his evening.”

The game puck went to Hiller for his collection of significant souvenirs. It’s a small collection, all from the Kings: the puck from the first goal he scored for them, during the 1992-93 season, as a 10th-round draft pick; the puck from his first win as an assistant coach, last season; and this one.

“I got a hat trick. Hoping to get more,” he said. “For me, it was my dream to get drafted in the NHL, never mind play. The Los Angeles Kings, Luc Robitaille. Wayne Gretzky. That was pretty special. So that has never left me one bit.”

This victory was a good template for the Kings. “There’s a lot of hockey left to be played,” Dubois said. And maybe a lot of fun, too, if they play at the level they reached on Saturday.

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