The Los Angeles Kings have endured a six-game losing streak, a few eyebrow-raising blowouts, a league-worst minus-17 goal differential and a spiritless attack through the first month of the season. Pair that with a closed-door, players-and-GM meeting following an ugly home loss to the Buffalo Sabres in late-October and coach John Stevens’ seat was so hot it was nearly ablaze. And Sunday morning, despite a 4-1 victory over the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday evening, the Kings sent a message by making Stevens the first coaching casualty of the 2017-18 campaign.
In the wake of the firing, Kings GM Rob Blake said Sunday afternoon that axing Stevens, who has been with the organization since 2010-11, serving as an assistant under Terry Murray and Darryl Sutter with a brief stint as interim bench boss before moving into the position full time last season, was remarkably difficult. Blake also said, however, that it was a necessary decision. On the heels of a campaign in which the Kings made the playoffs under Stevens, Blake said Los Angeles’ often lifeless performances through the first month were a catalyst for the change.
“You look at training camp, and you look at the regular season to where we are now, the expectations have not been met,” Kings GM Rob Blake said Sunday afternoon. “We have really good players, players that can make plays and we expect them to make plays, and we expect them to play with that level of compete…It was an accumulation of a lot of it throughout the season. We need to get that straightened immediately.”
Tasked with righting the ship in Los Angeles is Willie Desjardins, who coached Canada’s national team at the Karjala Cup, Spengler Cup and Pyeongchang Olympics and last stood behind an NHL bench with the Vancouver Canucks during the 2016-17 campaign. During his tenure in Vancouver, which spanned three seasons, Desjardins’ record was 109-110-27. The Canucks’ lone post-season appearance under Desjardins came in 2014-15, with Vancouver ousted in six games. Per Blake, Desjardins’ interim tag is expected to carry the bench boss through to the end of the season.
Desjardins won’t be coming alone, however. With assistant coach Don Nachbaur also relieved of his duties, Los Angeles has also brought aboard former NHLer Marco Sturm, who found his way onto the coaching radar by spurring the German national team to a near gold-medal performance at the Olympics. Germany was defeated in overtime of the gold medal game by the heavily favored Russian squad. Sturm will join the Kings as an assistant next week after wrapping up commitments with the German team. Los Angeles has retained Dave Lowry and Bill Ranford as assistants.
What the Kings are hoping to see with the appointments of Desjardins and Sturm — who Blake called “a new generational coach” with regard to his style — is emotional involvement and buy-in from the roster. Blake said the group has lacked passion, lacked the compete level, which is “why we went in this direction.”
“We had some of that compete and that life last year,” Blake said. “I don’t think we saw it at a consistent level this year going forward. We have some real good players. We need them playing at a higher level. I think you saw a little bit of that last night. When your best players are your best players, you will have success. It’s been an issue this season that we haven’t had everyone going the right direction.”
Make no mistake, though, Los Angeles may not be content to limit their changes to off-ice personnel if the turnover behind the bench doesn’t result in an uptick in performance. Up and down the roster, the Kings have struggled. Other than off-season signing Ilya Kovalchuk and all-star defenseman Drew Doughty, who have 11 and 10 points, respectively, no Kings player has a double-digit point total. Last season’s resurgent performance by Anze Kopitar has been followed by a four-goal, six-point start through 12 games. One of last season’s more notable acquisitions, Dion Phaneuf, has struggled to justify his high salary and is fifth in average ice time among Kings defensemen. Tanner Pearson has only a single point, an assist, through 13 games. Sophomore Adrian Kempe has only managed two points. The list goes on.
“We’re evaluating these players just as much as we were the staff,” Blake said. “That evaluation continues from this point on, for sure.”
If there is no turnaround in short order — and in particular once injured starting netminder Jonathan Quick returns — the Kings could very well shake up the roster before mid-season or the trade deadline rolls around. The expectation in Los Angeles is clear: this is a team, particularly with its window closing and high-priced veteran players, that expects to take a few more big swings at bringing home the Stanley Cup for a third time in the modern era. That begins with Sunday’s move.
“We need to be way more emotionally involved. Part of that was a change here today, and the evaluation going forward continues,” Blake said. “We’re going to create a desire for these players to play well here.”