Throughout the Kings slump in December and January, there was a lot of talk lately about how winning breeds confidence; and how the converse of losing erodes that same confidence.
While all of that may be true, PL Dubois clearly has a different word in mind — and it largely comes from several conversations he’s had with new Kings coach Jim Hiller over the past 72 hours.
“We’ve been through ups and downs, but it’s time to have fun again,” he said following Saturday night’s win over the visiting Edmonton Oilers. “It’s fun to come to the rink with a smile on our faces. I’m excited to get back on the ice for practice, excited to get back on the ice for games and doing it together.”
Letting his actions speak louder than words, Dubois opened the scoring by converting on the power play just 2:38 into the second period.
“The last 20 games didn’t go the way we wanted them to go, but there’s absolutely no doubt, we know what kind of team we have,” he continued. “When we play together, when we do what we can do, we’re a hell of a team. We showed that tonight, but that’s just the start for us. There’s a lot of hockey left to be played.”
Dubois could also be starting to heat up. Digging deeper into his season to date, Dubois scored just four times in his first 29 games for the Kings. More recently, he’s had four goals in 11 games.
Saturday also brought him his second game-winning goal for LA, and the first since mid-October in Minnesota.
“When a new coach comes in, he has his view of how things go and it’s kind of like a reset button,” explained Dubois. “It’s like changing your goalie in a game, where [it signals to] everybody it’s time to wake up, see what we’re doing wrong, and to improve.”
It’s also a bit personal now for the 25-year-old center, as he returned from a trip to Hawaii over the All-Star break eager to begin the next chapter of life in Los Angeles, with Hiller at the helm.
“The first day I got back, they challenged me to be a better player out there and to be a difference maker,” he shared, referring to Hiller and new assistant coach DJ Smith. “That can come with scoring goals, assists, but it could also come with hits, drawing penalties, all the things that maybe not everybody notices. Since they’ve come in, their message is that I can do a lot better and I knew that, but to have it laid out like that, it’s a fun challenge to do.”
Given his past comments, Dubois seems to be enjoying the new style of communication brought forth thus far by the revamped staff.
“The plan for what they wanted to see out there, it’s black or white,” he declared. “When you’re getting out there, when you’re feeling good no matter what, it’s just fun to get a big win against a big team like that.”
Hiller later shed some additional light on their recent conversations.
“[Dubois] has had a tough go,” said the former Kings player turned coach. “He’s a really good player, we know that. He has 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 … That looked like it was fun for him tonight. He’s had a lot of nights where he didn’t look like he had fun. I said from the start, he’s part of that equation too. He’s got to get himself into that place where he’s just gotta 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 that he had. He brought that tonight and let’s hope that that’s a stepping-stone for him going forward. It’s sure nice to see him smile and enjoy himself.”
Dubois wasn’t the only one enjoying himself, though.
For Hiller, being an NHL head coach has been a longtime dream come true. It started with him being a 10th round selection by the Kings at the 1989 NHL Draft, and then making his debut with the club three seasons later.
“I was kind of thinking about the game,” Hiller said when asked about what was going through his mind as puck drop was about to happen. “During the anthem, I will tell you, I was thinking about my dad. My dad’s birthday. My dad passed away four years ago, and his birthday was February 8th. So, February 8th was two days ago, when we had our first practice and all that kind of thing. So, I was thinking about a lot of support from family over the years.”
Jim Hiller said he only has three game used pucks:
1. His first NHL goal (with the Kings, 10/2/92 vs Jets at the Forum in LA, assisted by Luc and Darryl Sydor)
2. First win last year as Kings assistant coach
3. Tonight's win
"I went on to play for other teams and coach for… pic.twitter.com/2IOuY7U9Ys
— The Mayor | Team MM (@mayorNHL) February 11, 2024
Getting Hiller his first win wasn’t an individual effort, despite David Rittich posting a shutout in goal. The Kings bench boss was quick to credit what everybody brought to the table.
“I would bring it back to the first practice,” he said. “They skated, and then we had the second practice; which wasn’t as much skating, it was a little more physical. They worked. So, as soon as the puck dropped tonight, they just carried on. I think it’s been a continuation from the first day they got back, and they made a decision that it’s time to get moving again.”
Even so, there was some individual praise for Dubois that extended into his linemates, as well.
“I thought it was PL’s strongest game of the year,” proclaimed Hiller. “PL’s line started really well, as a line. I know he drew the penalty, but I thought Laff had his legs going. JAD was in. So, all of a sudden, it was like a good push from that line.”
And with everybody on board, giving a full team effort, that word ‘fun’ started to creep back into post-game conversations with Kings players and their coach.
“We’re trying to have fun because those guys are out there working,” said Hiller. “You can’t just go out there and work and not enjoy it. I think when you do it and it’s hard, and you do it together, you can appreciate it more. It becomes more fun. That’s really what we’re trying to get back to. We were that team [over] the first 24 games. This is nothing new.”
Sometimes the fun comes in unique ways too. It’s not always about just scoring goals or making big saves.
“We had, what, 25 blocked shots tonight?,” Hiller said. “We talk about fun. Blocking shots isn’t fun. When you do it collectively, it becomes fun. It becomes something where you don’t want to let the next guy down. ‘I’ve got to block mine, he blocked his.’ That, in the end, believe it or not, becomes fun. It becomes a team and a brotherhood.”
For their part, his players pulled off something even more rare than wins in the month of January — by beating the Oilers, they made Hiller just the second Kings head coach to get a win via shutout in his debut behind the bench. Andy Murray was the first, coming in a 2-0 win over Nashville in 1999. Overall, Hiller is only the sixth guy to win in his first game as a Kings head coach; a span of 27 coaches in more than 55 years.
In the end, Dubois made sure to punctuate his comments with a look at what’s ahead.
“It’s just a start,” he again repeated. “We were on the road pretty much all of January. We were lucky enough to get one game at home and then it’s back on the road. It’s a big road trip against four good teams. But to start this one at home, in front of our fans and against a great team, it’s huge for us. … The belief in this team has never, never gone away. Everybody in here knows that what kind of team we have, and we know we can get back to it. It has to start from us. And the coaching staff is doing a great job already of identifying what we can do better. It’s just up to us now.”
Lead photo via ALoImages
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