Sturm, McLellan keeping teams in sync

Photo: Mike Zitek

📝 by Jared Shafran | AHL On The Beat

The Ontario Reign have always enjoyed a great relationship with their NHL affiliate, the Los Angeles Kings, but a new leader behind the bench this season has the two even more in sync.

Since 2019, the Reign have had their operations and daily practices based out of the same facility as the Kings at Toyota Sports Performance Center in El Segundo, Calif. But now with Marco Sturm — who was named head coach of the Reign in June after spending the previous four years as an assistant with the Kings under bench boss Todd McLellan — at the helm, it’s even easier for the two teams to stay on the same page.

Already having a close relationship, Sturm and McLellan have kept the lines of communication open, frequently visiting each other to discuss what’s going on with their respective rosters.

When recently asked if he’s seen a difference in the way Sturm has communicated to his players and the level of comfort he has with his new position, McLellan answered with a resounding yes.

“I believe so,” said McLellan, who is now in his fourth season with the Kings. “When you’re away from him for a little while — if we go away for 10 days or so and come back — it’s still a little different. He’s his own man, and he’s in a good spot.

“I think he’s adapted to all the other stuff that goes with coaching… Being the head coach versus the assistant coach, there’s a lot of things that you don’t even throw on your resume or you’re not even aware of that pop up on a daily basis.”

McLellan went on to explain the level of responsibility the head coach has, whether it’s staying on the same page with Ontario’s general manager, Richard Seeley, or talking with media and doing interviews as well as handling different requests from agents. There’s also the duty of communicating with players, who want answers for different items.

Sturm played 938 games in the NHL with San Jose, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, Vancouver and Florida before transitioning into coaching. And before joining the Kings organization, he spent three years running the bench for Germany’s national team including the 2018 Olympics, where he helped them reach the final game and ultimately earned a silver medal.

Now Sturm has been thrust into the spotlight as the Reign’s leader.

“The motivating, the poking, the video sessions… You’re responsible for all of them and you’re on all the time,” McLellan continued. “I do think the assistants end up working harder — they’ve got to get in the trenches and work — but the responsibility lies at mine and Marco’s feet and he’s done a tremendous job so far.

“It’s interesting when we have those conversations, it’s a little bit different, but I think he really enjoys them.”

While his role has changed, including having to learn the ins and outs of the American Hockey League, Sturm doesn’t view his relationship with McLellan any differently.

“I don’t think we’ve changed at all,” Sturm said. “I’m still asking questions. I’m on the other side of the hallway now, but I still ask about his opinion. I ask about players and even off the ice we still hang out too. Nothing’s really changed for us. I can tell he’s excited about my gig here as a head coach. I think he knew I wanted to do that, and he’s been very supportive so far.”

Photo: Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images

Sturm said his communication with McLellan is usually about players who are on the edge to go up or down. They want to make sure that when a player does get recalled, it’s got to be the right fit for both him and the team.

“You don’t want to have someone called up who’s been just average down here,” Sturm said. “That’s not going to work. Sometimes as coaches, we’re not just looking at the game, we go very deep into systems and all that. It could be body language, it could be system stuff, it could be off-ice stuff, anything. But if somebody gets called up, that means he deserves to be there.”

Two months into the teams’ respective seasons, there’s already been quite a bit of movement between the two rosters, as is the case with many NHL and AHL affiliates. Forward Rasmus Kupari for example, has had two stints on each side, playing 16 games for the Kings and nine with Ontario. Quinton Byfield, the Kings’ No. 2 overall draft selection in 2020, started his season by playing eight games for LA but is now leading the Reign with eight goals in 12 contests. Others, like defensemen Jacob Moverare and Tobias Bjornfot, began the year in the AHL but have gotten call-ups to McLellan’s roster.

One of the most recent opportunities with the Kings has gone to Samuel Fagemo, was recalled by the Kings last week after recording six goals and two assists in 15 games with the Reign. The Goteborg, Sweden, native has made the most of his time on the NHL roster so far, finding the scoresheet in each of his first two appearances with his first NHL goal and assist.

“Marco doesn’t pull any punches,” McLellan said at a recent media availability. “We sat for 45 minutes this morning, Marco and I. We talked about everything from players that are coming up, to who is playing well there. We talk about individuals like Quinton and others that are down there, all of them. [Tyler] Madden, [Aidan] Dudas, everyone gets asked about. We’re asking all the time.”

The hope is that the close communication between the teams will continue to make each better on the ice, but McLellan is also helping Sturm, who is still developing as a new head coach. So far both clubs have put together a record that has them in competition at the top of their respective Pacific Divisions. There’s no question Ontario will continue to lean on Sturm’s experience and knowledge as his first season in the AHL continues.