John Stevens is entering the second full season of his second stint as the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings. For all intents and purposes, the 52-year-old has done a commendable job ever since taking over from legendary predecessor Darryl Sutter at the start of the 2017-18 season.
Despite being handpicked by team vice president and general manager Rob Blake to lead the Kings on two separate occasions and registering an impressive 45-33-8 overall record to boot, his cozy tenure could soon be on shaky ground should the Kings stumble out of the gates this season.
Kings Trending in the Wrong Direction
Last year’s edition of the Kings exhibited both resiliency—in overcoming a serious injury to star center Jeff Carter and a dreadful six-game losing streak to start the calendar year—and a healthy resurgence, in the form of Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown having bounce-back, career seasons despite being 30-plus years old. It definitely was not a coincidence that Stevens was behind the bench to oversee all of it.
The problem is the manner in which the team’s season ended in last year’s NHL Playoffs.
Kings Get Painfully Knighted
The battle-tested Kings must have been licking their chops with the prospects of facing the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to kick off an assuredly long playoff run. The team was relatively healthy and ready to once again relive recent glory despite finishing fourth in the Pacific Division. The Kings seemingly had the upper hand by fielding a team that had played countless playoff games together as a unit, rather than the individual smattering of appearances that the Golden Knights possessed. I even tried to convince THW alum and current Golden Knights reporter, Sheng Peng, of this apparent competitive advantage on Twitter prior to the series commencing:
Only difference is the Kings’ playoff experience has been playing with one another. Should be a great series regardless! Kings in 6. https://t.co/hjzAOpc1V0
— Matt Karas (@MKdoesSports) April 11, 2018
Well, we all know how that worked out. The Kings were swept in four games by a younger, faster and surprisingly savvier team. Although the quartet of games each ended in a one-goal defeat, the boys from Las Vegas displayed a fire and passion to win that well exceeded that of the Stevens coached Kings. Minor tweaks were made to the roster, lines were shifted and pre-game speeches were likely delivered more emphatically, to no avail.
Stevens earmarked some potential areas of improvement following the series sweep:
“Well, it’s a good lesson for us, right, just because I think details matter all the time,” Stevens said. “Start of hockey games, faceoffs, special teams, discipline, line changes. At the end of the day, you’ve gotta find something that just gives you a little bit more than the other team this time of year. And we didn’t and they did. They deserved a lot of credit for the way they played and they deserve to be moving on. Again, I think there are some good lessons to be learned along the way.”
A Preseason to Forget for the Kings
Yes, preseason sports typically have as much value as a participation ribbon at a track-and-field event. The modus operandi for most NHL teams is to have a sneak peak at their young prospects, get incumbent veterans the level of conditioning they require and, if possible, build some team chemistry.
With the surprise offseason signing of prolific winger Ilya Kovalchuk to help address the team’s lack of speed and supplemental scoring, this year’s preseason should have meant much more to the Kings than in year’s past. Instead, the team in silver and black seemed uninspired throughout and looked far from being a Stanley Cup contender. What made their feeble 1-6-1 record really sting was that they were handily defeated a pair of times by their newly found rivals from “Sin City”. To make matters even worse, Dustin Brown sustained a finger injury and will be sidelined indefinitely.
Stevens had no other choice but to seek positives from the situation. “Somebody’s going to get an opportunity to play, or somebody’s going to get an opportunity to play more and assume some of the responsibilities,” Stevens told the OC Register. “Brownie plays in all situations, so there’s a good opportunity for other players to get more ice time, get more responsibility or just get in the lineup.” (from ‘John Stevens, Anze Kopitar: Kings have to suck it up sans Dustin Brown’, The OC Register, Oct. 1, 2018).
This sounds all well and good and “coach speak-y”, but the fact of the matter is that the Kings (and Stevens) simply don’t have time to waste.
NHL is a “Win Now” Business
Whether you like it or not, the NHL is a results oriented arrangement. This means that just about any coach can be here today, gone tomorrow. The main exceptions would be an expansion team (not named the Vegas Golden Knights) that is afforded the luxury of patient ownership, a squad laden with a youthful core trying to find its way, or a team managed by a legendary coach that could do no wrong. The current LA Kings do not fall into any of those buckets.
Aging Kings Core Warrants Results
Kings brass did a masterful job in the offseason to maintain the team’s existing core of superstars – i.e. Kopitar and Drew Doughty. The dilemma is these types of seasoned players tend to chew up a healthy chunk of your team’s salary cap. The inherent result is a limited window of opportunity to succeed, prior to being forced to “break up the band.”
With an average age of 28 years, the Kings currently rank as the seventh-oldest team in the league. This does not necessarily correlate to success or failure this season, it simply means that the team will be under a magnifying glass to prove that they are still capable of succeeding in today’s modern day NHL. Stevens has built a good rapport with the team’s veterans, but that could quickly dissipate should results continue to be underwhelming
NHL Coaching Honeymoon Period
Coaches are said to have “lost the locker room” when their motivational tactics fall upon deaf ears. This generally is as a result of a dissonance between players and coach and/or if losing persists. Given Stevens’ easy going, player-friendly nature, consistently losing would be the likely cause for a unified drowning out of his words.
As per a 2014 study done by fivethirtyeight.com, the average NHL coaching tenure is roughly 2.4 years in total. Stevens is definitely not there yet, but he is still far from indispensable. The study also showed that a year-over-year decrease in the team’s winning percentage by 20% or less increased the likelihood of a coach getting fired by a staggering 26.2 percent.
For the sake of Kings fans and the head coach alike, let’s hope that the team reverts back to its winning ways to start off the season rather than Stevens becoming another statistic.