Daily News Kings keep Jim Hiller as head coach with 3-year deal

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The Kings removed the interim tag from coach Jim Hiller’s title and made him the 30th head coach in franchise history, the team announced Wednesday.

They will sign him to a three-year contract imminently, reported former NHL goalie and ubiquitous hockey media personality Kevin Weekes.

Hiller had been an assistant with the Kings since the 2022-23 season and was promoted in February after the team dismissed Todd McLellan amid its plummet in the standings. The Kings also hired assistant D.J. Smith at that time – he now seems like all but a lock to return given his prior experience with Hiller, including being on the same staff in Toronto – and mutually agreed to part ways with assistant Trent Yawney last week, leaving at least one vacancy on the staff.

In his first pro head-coaching experience, Hiller righted the regular-season ship, stewarding the team to a 21-12-1 record and squeaking it into the postseason. There, it was vanquished by the Edmonton Oilers in Round 1 for the third year in a row with both the power play, Hiller’s specialty, and the theretofore much-improved penalty kill faltering completely.

“The mandate with Jimmy, when he took over, was ‘Get us in the playoffs.’ There was going to be some change, but it wasn’t dramatic or drastic enough. There are some things he wants to implement in this team,” Kings general manager Rob Blake said earlier this month. “We’re confident in his presence and his passion that he brings, confident in the message he gives, his communication skills and all that.”

Hiller was an assistant with the Maple Leafs as well as the New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings. His emphasis was on the power play in those stops. Hiller’s head-coaching experience came at the junior level, most notably with the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans, with whom he went to a WHL finals series and won coach of the year honors.

“Jimmy’s a good guy who loves the game,” Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck told reporters ahead of a March meeting with the Kings. “He’s got a good mind for hockey. And he’s just a fun guy to be around. That coupled with his passion and hockey knowledge, they got a pretty good one.”

While promoting Hiller instead of Yawney, who had more than 100 games of NHL head-coaching experience, or minor-league bench boss Marco Sturm, who also guided the German national team, drew some passing questions, keeping him full-time will be sure to elicit more intense scrutiny.

In February, time may have been tight for an external hire. A full-blown system change did not seem feasible. Yet with a relatively long offseason after the Kings bowed out of the playoffs in five games, there were numerous possibilities.

Stanley Cup winner Craig Berube just signed on with Toronto, but Jack Adams Award winners Gerard Gallant, Bruce Boudreau and Claude Julien were among the established commodities remaining on the market. McLellan protégé Jay Woodcroft, 2023 Jack Adams finalist Dave Hakstol, 2021 Jack Adams finalist Dean Evason and two-time NCAA champion David Carle were also potential candidates in at least a threshold sense.

The Kings extolled Hiller’s results, as Blake noted that Hiller’s 34 games behind the bench (21-12-1, 43 points) matched the Kings’ first 34 games (20-9-5, 45 points) of 2023-24.

Yet the Kings had one of the cushiest schedules down the stretch (including disappointing losses to the Ducks and Minnesota Wild with playoff implications), while Game 34 already saw them mired in their midseason freefall.

The peak of their season was Dec. 7, 23 games into the campaign, when they led the league in points percentage, goals per game and goals allowed per game. From that point forward, they had a .542 points percentage (19th in the NHL, ninth in the West) and placed 26th among 32 teams in goals per game.

Under Hiller, they produced a .632 points percentage (10th in the NHL and fifth in the West during that span), all while deploying lineups that often dressed a seventh defenseman and utilized fluctuant line combinations. Hiller credited his players for turning around a stretch where the club had lost 14 of 17 games immediately prior to his ascension.

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For Hiller, this move reified a dream, one he forged from adolescence through his time as a collegiate star at Northern Michigan, during his NHL career (which included a stint in Los Angeles with Blake and Kings president Luc Robitaille), across stints in Europe and as he rose through the coaching ranks.

“It’s a hard game to play, and it’s a hard game to coach. It’s emotional, so I want to be balanced,” Hiller told Northern Magazine. “I try to find the sweet spot of holding people accountable but also understanding that it’s a difficult game.”

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