EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The bitterness of a disappointing season fueled Alex Iafallo during his summer workouts in Buffalo's LECOM Harborcenter.
Iafallo, a 25-year-old winger for the Los Angeles Kings, spent many mornings skating with Matt Ellis from the Academy of Hockey, taking hundreds of shots per day while practicing the various situations he finds himself in during the season.
"A lot of motivation," Iafallo, an Eden native, told The Buffalo News hours before he faced the Buffalo Sabres in Staples Center. "All of us in this room are itching to get going and get to winning games. We don’t want last year to ever happen again. A lot of motivation. We’re ready for this year."
Following a rookie season in which Iafallo scored his first goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he and the Kings endured a tumultuous season that resulted in a coaching change. Though Iafallo scored 15 goals among 33 points while playing all 82 games, he yearned for more.
This season presents another challenge for him. Iafallo must make a strong impression on new Kings coach Todd McLellan and opponents are now keenly aware what sort of threat he is around the net. So far, so good.
"Alex really grows on you quickly," McLellan said following the Kings' morning skate Thursday in Toyota Sports Performance Center. "He’s a player that you appreciate a lot more when you’re around him for 10 days to two weeks and you start playing games. He competes hard. He takes it to places where there’s risk involved and what I mean by that is contact and physicality, but he takes it into those holes. He’s responsible defensively. He quietly goes about doing his job and I didn’t appreciate him when I was with my former teams as I do now. Usually that’s a sign of a pretty good player, a consistent player."
Yet Iafallo has pinpointed areas in which he needs to improve. He wants to capitalize on his scoring chances around the net and better protect the puck from defenders. Entering Thursday, Iafallo had one goal -- a game-winner against Nashville in Staples Center on Oct. 12 -- and one assist in six games. He ranked third among all Kings forwards in ice time per game (17:56) and fourth among all players in total time on the power play.
External expectations have also risen significantly since Iafallo signed with the Kings as a college free agent out of the University of Minnesota Duluth in April 2017. He plays on their top line with captain Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Those two have played a combined 2,134 regular-season games and won two Stanley Cups in Los Angeles.
Additionally, Iafallo signed a two-year, $4.85 million contract in July. He's not the only player in the Kings' dressing room who struggled at times last season but a summer of workouts in Buffalo have helped Iafallo make a strong impression on his teammates.
"He’s improving each and every day, so to speak," Kopitar said of Iafallo. "He made a name for himself a couple years ago. Last year, everybody had a down year. That’s just the way it was. He’s back playing the game, being excited and hunting pucks. He’s been complementing me and Brownie, and vice versa. Very good. The chemistry has been there.
Iafallo scored a signature goal against the Predators in the Kings' home opener. Brown fired a wrist shot on net to create a rebound and Iafallo was on the doorstep to direct the puck over the goal line with 59 seconds remaining in regulation. The Kings are counting on Iafallo to produce offense during this transition under McLellan.
The Kings' 199 goals last season were the second-fewest in the National Hockey League and their power play was the fifth-worst. Iafallo is among a promising core of young players complementing established veterans such as Kopitar and Brown. Additionally, Iafallo became a fixture on the team's power play last season, and he's established himself as a solid defensive player during his two-plus seasons.
"I just have to get better," Iafallo said bluntly. I have to produce a little more. Stay on the forecheck and produce more. I have to do more in the scoring areas. Finding the right places down low and just protecting the puck more. Take control in the offensive zone."
That's a harsh self-assessment. After all, Iafallo entered Thursday with only one giveaway. He also ranked seventh on the team in shots on goal and was tied for fifth in blocked shots. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Iafallo had also been on the ice for the third-most 5-on-5 high-danger scoring chances among all Kings and led them in offensive-zone starts.
The Kings are still finding their way under McLellan. They entered Thursday having allowed the second-most goals in the league and their power play ranked 27th. Iafallo wants to be an important part of their turnaround.
"It was a terrible season," Iafallo said of 2018-19. "You have to work all summer to get better and stronger. I focused on controlling the puck in the offensive zone, fending off defenders and holding the puck a little bit longer."