This loss of John Stevens hurts, and the Kings organization reels.
Stevens has been a fine leader of men, an analytics-mindful, video-loving, intricately prepared coach who nurtured some of the organization’s most entrenched and evolved defensemen with whom he won Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. On Sunday, Rob Blake made the grueling decision to tell someone who will be in the Kings family forever that his tenure has come to a close.
And because other team levers aren’t so easily pushed and pulled, this is something that essentially had to happen quickly before the team was too far out of the Western Conference boat race. The Kings are 4-8-1, and even after Saturday’s win rank last in the league in points, points percentage and goal differential. They’ve lost by at least three goals in six of 13 games.
This start followed a 1-6-1 preseason and a winless Vegas Rookie Challenge in the wake of a four-game sweep last spring by the Vegas Golden Knights. If we include such exhibitions, this is a team that has lost 23 of the last 28 games in which some L.A. group took the ice in Kings jerseys.
It is important to reference the preseason, because that’s where the current Kings management noticed an unstable foundation to what was being built and maintained. The team didn’t want to panic, though, and sought to identify the shortcomings that led to such comprehensive disappointment on many levels. Defeats by multiple goals piled up, and Stevens was at a loss – as were many of us – as to why a group that had fallen out with its previous coach could have its emotional investment under his successor questioned only a year and a half later. With such tendencies in mind, maybe it’s not on the coaches – maybe it’s on the players.
“We just didn’t play well enough,” Anze Kopitar said. “Last year was certainly a step in the right direction, but last year was last year. This year, for whatever reason, we didn’t perform and a change was done, that’s the bottom line. Everybody in here does and should feel responsible for it. Again, in the end of the day and I hate to say it, my relationship with John was really good and with Don the same thing, but at the end of the day, it’s a business and you hate to see guys losing jobs over it.”
Stevens didn’t help his own matters in one minor episode earlier this season. Several players were put off by his assertion – never mind how accurate it was – that the team had “stopped playing” in the 7-2 loss to the New York Islanders. Taking into account the training camp – referenced by Doughty as the hardest he’d ever been a part of, one that left him “gassed” – and the fact the previous season’s team had plateaued after the first half and hadn’t been showing signs of trending towards sleeker, attacking hockey, a change was made. The team is open towards an honest and thorough evaluation of its practices and operations, and, of course, its personnel.
“We’re evaluating these players just as much as we were the [coaching] staff,” Blake said. “…That evaluation continues from this point on, for sure.”
An honest evaluation is sorely needed for an organization that pitched its fans a rosier, best-case outlook over the summer and at the State of the Franchise meeting but will continue to be beset by shortcomings across a number of team thrusts. This begins with drafting and developing talent to a much more successful degree than they’ve shown over the last eight drafts, which has produced ephemeral success in certain lineup slots but nothing in the way towards the type of skill, speed and permanence that would help offset a number of important personnel defections. It has been shared multiple times, and it bears repeating: Only two non-first round draft picks from the last eight drafts are getting a regular NHL shift at the moment. They’re Colin Miller and Valentin Zykov, and neither plays in Los Angeles.
That recognition puts a spotlight on Dean Lombardi as the elephant in the room. But as much as he’s responsible for the depleted prospect pool and for the types of contracts that have proved to be clunky and extremely difficult to navigate around, or for the delay in transitioning to a more pace and speed-based attack, he was as responsible for the construction of a team identity, and, later, a culture that on the surface exuded a quiet, honest, responsible calm and, if we’re to dig much deeper, was reflected in such a profound team bond during the championship zeniths. But there are no more leadership pillars such as Mike Richards, Willie Mitchell, Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene – or, even going down the line, players like Colin Fraser, Brad Richardson, Robyn Regehr, et cetera, et cetera – and as the team has collectively aged, both production and leadership down the lineup were replaced by younger parts who were less tenured, less productive, and, as necessitated through the salary cap crunch, less expensive. This is the reality of a team that has not lithely navigated through rising wages and limited cap space rather more than any sort of reflection of Stevens’ coaching.
And so the team will turn to a new coaching staff that will include Willie Desjardins and, after he wraps up his work with the German national team, whom he guided to an improbable silver medal at last year’s Olympics, Marco Sturm. Desjardins did not enjoy tremendous fortune with as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, with whom he did not quite have a full stable of horses even as his tactical and personnel decisions left him open for question in a more cynical hockey market. But when Desjardins has found success – with Medicine Hat in the WHL and Texas in the AHL – he has been able to push pace and play fast and rely on an up-tempo attacking mindset.
“I was looking to get the compete and the passion back, we need our players emotionally involved. It’s difficult to win when you’re not,” Blake said Sunday. “We expect Willie to bring that passion and that excitement to this team and that’s why we went in this direction.”
The team also sees assistant coach Sturm as a younger, up-and-coming coach who communicates and delivers the coaches’ message well. He fits the mold of the type of coach the team wanted to bring on board alongside another coach with a more extensive coaching resume. The decision as to whether the coaches will be retained beyond 2018-19 will come after the season.
The ultimate decision to make the change, though it reached a head last week, had been brewing for many months, when it became evident that the team had settled into familiar habits and had leveled off after scorching out of the gate early in the 2017-18 season, according to hockey operations. The players, too, feel responsible for their start, even though they’ve summoned a tepid compete level some 18 months after falling out with their previous coach.
Now, they’ll be guided by a more charismatic figure whose initial foray into professional coaching took him to the Tokyo-based Seibu Bears at the behest of experienced international coach Dave King, a major advocate for Desjardins in the mid-1990’s. Those who’ve worked closely with Desjardins know him as a student of the game but as someone who did not hold reins on players and let them be who they are. The Kings have found their success with a high degree of structure under the direct motivational tactics of Darryl Sutter, but perhaps a loosened grip on the players’ freedom to play will allow an extra degree of skill to be exhumed.
“I think any time you have a coaching change like this, I’ve gone through it once before midseason, you can’t change X’s and O’s overnight. You’re not just going to wake up and play a new system,” Alec Martinez said. “I imagine that there will be tweaks as we go along, but I think that the big, glaring thing is that he wants to bring emotion and passion to the game and it’s rather apparent that you can’t be successful in this league, or perhaps anything in life, if you don’t have emotion or passion in it. That’s something I think that he’s going to bring. I obviously don’t know him that well yet, I’ve talked to some guys around the league and Soupy’s played for him and I’ve heard a lot of good things, that his teams have fun, they play with up-tempo style and with the league trending that way, I think he’ll be good for us.”
This is a new beginning, but it’s not a positive one. Los Angeles is in this position because of failures at many different junctures by a number of different figures and regimes, from players to coaches to management, scouting, development and leadership positions. There are no apparent quick fixes into or out of this wilderness, and the task will be for a comfortable group that left Stevens “befumbled” to raise its consistency, commitment and emotional involvement – not to mention its pace – in order to catch fire and make something out of a season gone immediately askew.
-Lead photo via Harry How/Getty Images