“I always feel like I owe the game,” said John Stevens, who returns tonight

Brian Babineau/NHLI

There’s no real way to encapsulate a coaching approach in several pithy sentences. There are varying methods towards maximizing players’ skill sets, some more abrasive and direct than others, others more encouraging and positive. “The player’s got to know you care about them,” Todd McLellan said last month while describing nuances of the coach-player relationship in the wake of Bill Peters’ dismissal.

All of that makes one appreciate the approaches sustained by ex-Kings coach John Stevens, who’ll return to Staples Center tonight for the first time since he and the team parted ways following a decade partnership that began when he was hired by Dean Lombardi and Terry Murray in the summer of 2010 and continued through two Stanley Cups. Stevens coached 99 games over two official coaching stints with the Kings, going 2-2-0 between Murray and Darryl Sutter in the 2011-12 season and 49-37-9 from 2017-19.

Stevens did a very good job of making those, uh, media types – and many other rightsholders and partners – feel as if they were a part of the team. Beyond his renowned game preparation and study, he’s known for his character as a class act, “a man of tremendous integrity,” as Paul Holmgren told Helene Elliott of the LA Times when Stevens was hired. Holmgren had fired Stevens as Philadelphia’s head coach the season prior and quickly recommended him to Los Angeles, even though the “Flyers West” Kings were well familiar with his character and coaching standards.

All coaches who served as assistants under Sutter – Stevens, Jamie Kompon and Davis Payne – continue to coach in the NHL, with Kompon serving as Winnipeg’s Associate Coach and Payne as an assistant in Ottawa.

Payne’s story is especially noteworthy. The 49-year-old has coached professionally since 2000-01, rising up from an ECHL assistant to ECHL head coach to Kelly Cup champion to AHL assistant to AHL head coach to NHL head coach – and that was even before he’d joined Los Angeles. Since leaving after the 2016-17 season, he’s coached under Phil Housley in Buffalo and now, after signing a three-year contract, D.J. Smith in Ottawa.

Not that a coach’s limited shelf life represents breaking NHL news, but tremendous resilience is required to be able to quickly move past thelife turbulence associated with being fired and settling into a great new opportunity without malice or grudges. When the Kings and Senators crossed paths in Ottawa in November, a number of us reconnected and shared a few laughs. He’s a “great man, a really good family man,” Stevens said, praising his intelligence.

There are reasons that certain coaches – and perhaps Dallas Interim Head Coach Rick Bowness, who has coached six NHL teams is a good example – continue to get opportunities. Merit, intelligence, work ethic all applies, but so does character. When those who wrote, texted and called Stevens after he left the Kings, he shared with many of us what must be excruciatingly difficult for someone who’d been out of work for mere hours. He wished the team well, wished us well and spoke about the organization’s class and the pleasure he had coaching the Kings.

It’s only anecdotally related, but when we saw Payne in Ottawa, Stevens’ positivity and willingness to accept a temporary setback in stride one year prior resonated. It’s not easy to fathom the thick skin needed in certain positions within a public sphere, but Stevens, as did Payne, maintained his positivity and an array of contacts with whom he’d left an impression in the past.

“I actually made a call on his behalf to DJ Smith and just gave him my opinion just how much I thought of Davis. I think his approach is a lot like mine,” Stevens said. “I never wake up and feel like the game owes me anything. I always feel like I owe the game. When you start thinking that the game ‘owes you,’ I think that’s when you have trouble. You can get angry at the situation. I know what we signed up for. I think it’s a privilege to work in the National Hockey League, I think it’s a privilege to work in hockey. I look at myself, I was with Philadelphia for a long time and I think they’re just a wonderful organization. I still keep in touch with Paul Holmgren and Bob Clarke and lots of people back there, and a lot of the people there and in my time in LA here was special. All things come to an end at some point, and quite honestly, the opportunity to work in the Dallas Stars and with the people they have there, with Jim Nill and this staff and the players that are there, I feel very fortunate. I just love the game, and I think that the game has given me probably everything that I have in life, so when you hit a bump in the road, I keep my head held high. I have no regrets about anything I did here or Philadelphia or anywhere else, and I look forward to continuing to work in the league in a great situation, much like I have now.”

More excellent reflection from Stevens is below, both on his Los Angeles tenure and on coaching highly talented Dallas defensemen such as Miro Heiskanen, who plays “instinctively well” like Drew Doughty. Stevens equated it to “turn him loose, let him play.”

“I call it freedom of discipline – give him the discipline of how the team wants to play, and give him the freedom to use his talent, because he’s got lots of it.”

Lots more:

John Stevens, on whether he took his game-day run through downtown:
Responsibilities are different. I’ve taken gamedays to get up early, review the day, the presentations, the game plan, all that stuff, and I’ve kind of leaned more towards working out in between games, but I haven’t run as much just because my hips were bothering me a little bit, so I run probably once or twice a week instead of three or four times a week. But I actually missed it, because the downtown LA run is unreal. We used to run down here in the playoffs, and people wouldn’t realize it, but it’s one of the steepest hill runs. There’s a hill that goes up towards where the courthouse is, up past the Omni Hotel up there, what is that, Olive Street? The hill’s unreal. It’s like a 45 degree angle. … We used to come and stay downtown in the playoffs all the time. It was unreal how hilly that run was.

Stevens, on how coaching Los Angeles’ young defenseman impacted his approach with Dallas’:
To be honest, it’s one of the things that attracted me to Dallas. I had some options to get back and work in the league, and obviously my relationship with Jimmy Montgomery, and I think a lot of Jim Nill, and I love the way Jamie Benn plays, but it’s just the defense they had that reminded me of the defense we had here when I got here. My role has changed. I work with the forwards a lot, but since the change, I’ve gone back to working with the D, and it’s really reminded me of my time here. We’ve got some good veteran guys here like we had [in Los Angels] with Polak and Lindell and Sekera, and then we’ve got some young guys with Oleksiak and Heiskanen coming in, Klingberg. It reminds me a lot in I think my time here watching these guys evolve to not just be talented players but be good all-around players has really helped me give them some insight where I think I can help. I use Drew Doughty as an example a lot. I don’t think people realize how well he defends. I think he’s one of the best defenders in the National Hockey League and it’s a reason why this team here has had a lot of success in the past years, and I think that really helps me. These guys are good players already. We know how tough the division is, and if you’re going to beat the St. Louises of the world then we’ve got to continue to improve. It reminds me a lot of the situation we got here when we were trying to beat the Vancouvers and the Anaheims and the San Joses of the world. So, the progression to me is a lot the same, and it’s something I really enjoy.

Stevens, on whether there was a disruption getting back into a routine as an assistant coach:
It hasn’t been for me. I think any time I’ve worked in the league, and I’ve worked with Terry Murray, I’ve worked with Darryl Sutter, and then going back to work with Monty and now Rick, I’ve always taken the stance there’s got to be a lot of overlap in your staff. You’ve got to figure out what needs to get done, how can you cover as much ground as you can to help the team be successful and fill in the gaps when needed. I’ve always considered myself a team player and I’ve always been able to adapt and filter out what needs to get done and make sure it gets done for the good of the team. I’ve enjoyed it. I loved working with Jimmy Montgomery and think he’s a really bright coach and I think the staff here moving forward with Rick Bowness, who’s been in the league forever, Derek Laxdal’s extremely bright, comes up from the minors, and Todd Nelson’s done nothing but win everywhere he’s been. So, I think collectively those guys have had a lot of success because they understand how a team works and everybody has a role and we’re all here to help each other. That’s always been my philosophy. So, getting back in, one thing I love about being an assistant is you get more time to teach. You can spend more one-on-one time with players so we don’t have to talk to people like you guys. [laughs] But I love it. I love spending time with players, I love it. I do most of the pre-scout most of the time, so I love studying the game and figuring out how we can be successful, and I love trying to help the players. Quite honestly, it’s been really enjoyable getting back involved with that role.

Stevens, on scouting the 2019-20 LA Kings:
I haven’t watched them a lot, to be honest with you, just because it’s halfway through the year and we haven’t seen them, but I’ve certainly paid attention to them more lately. I think analytically they’ve done some good things. Their shot volume is high, their shot volume against is low, they’ve got an awful lot of young players in their lineup, I still think Drew’s a star, I think Kopi’s one of the best players in the world. I know they’ve had some injuries with Derek and Brownie and guys like that, so I just think there’s kind of a transition going on with some of these old guys with young guys getting an opportunity. I know they’ve drafted an awful lot of players over the years, but guys that are good players in the league are still really good players in the league. The guys that stand out for me are probably Drew and Kopi because I think they’ve got lots of road left ahead of them where they can be good players and see this thing through, and I’m sure that’s the way the organization feels.

Stevens, on whether it’s strange to pre-scout a team he’s so familiar with:
There’s a lot of new people here, and there’s a different coaching staff here, so the philosophy’s a little bit different. We just try to look at tendencies that we need to be aware of and maybe tendencies we can maybe take advantage of. So, we really didn’t look at them any differently, although if you play Edmonton, you have to make your players aware of McDavid. When you’re playing Los Angeles, you have to make your players aware of Drew Doughty and Kopitar and their tendencies and what they’re capable of. You don’t want those players to beat you on their own, and both of those players are capable.

Stevens, on Rob Scuderi being named as an assistant coach in Nashville:
I think Scuds is one of those guys probably a lot like I was when I played. No disrespect to him, but he had limited skill but a really good brain and detail was important to him, and I think guys like that usually do well in coaching because they’ve always been detail guys. He understands what it takes to win and he’s been a part of some really good teams where he was a big factor because he had detail all the time. And I think those guys make great coaches. He always had good work ethic. I’d kind of lost track of him. I don’t know if he’s been coaching anywhere other than maybe youth level. That is a big step, but for a guy that played that long and had that much success, I know he’s going to have a lot to offer because of the way he was here. He was a player, but he was often a voice of the coaches because he always carried the message that the coaches wanted you to carry because he had so much detail.

Stevens, comparing Heiskanen with defenseman he’s coached like Drew Doughty and Chris Pronger:
Well, he’s different guy than Prongs. Prongs was a big guy that didn’t move around a lot, but he had a vicious stick and he had unbelievable poise with the puck. Miro’s probably one of if not the best skating defenseman in the league. He’s got a lot of poise with the puck. The games get tight, the things I like about him that I would compare to Drew is that he wants to make a difference. If the game’s tight, he does not get timid. He wants to go out there and make a difference for his team. He’s not afraid of the spotlight, but he’s got elite skill. The way he can skate the puck out of trouble and get involved in the attack and become the fourth man in the attack is outstanding, and just like Drew, as he continues to become a better and better defender – he still already plays against top guys in the league, he plays big minutes every night and in all situations a lot like Drew did. I think the sky’s the limit. I think he’s going to be one of the best defensemen in the National Hockey League for the next 10 years.

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