Will Stevens firing trigger more change for beleaguered Kings?
If it wasn’t already, the clock is officially ticking on this iteration of the Los Angeles Kings.
Head coach John Stevens, fired Sunday morning by general manager Rob Blake, has taken the fall for a 4-8-1 squad sitting last in offense and 23rd in defense a month into the 2018-19 NHL season. (Don Nachbaur, one of Stevens' handpicked assistants, was also fired.)
Promoted to his post in April 2017 following the dismissal of longtime bench boss Darryl Sutter, Stevens made it through only 13 games of his second season. For perspective, it took until the end of the 2017-18 regular season before a coach (the Rangers' Alain Vigneault) lost his job. November firings just don't happen often.
So, why now? On a conference call, Blake emphasized the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup champions have struggled with emotional investment since training camp, and the sluggish attitude had to be addressed "immediately." As is tradition, the coach is the first one out the door.
Willie Desjardins, who led Team Canada at the Pyeongchang Olympics following three years behind the Canucks bench, has been tabbed as the interim head coach. According to Blake, the "interim" period for Desjardins spans the rest of the regular season and, if successful, possibly longer.
"You know, right from the start of camp, we’ve been keeping an eye on the team and it hasn’t gone the way expected it to and we haven’t played the way we expected to," Blake said Sunday afternoon, 15 days after the club held a closed-door meeting without Stevens.
"Fast forward here today, I think what Willie will bring, what we want to bring back is we’ve got to get the compete level up on our players and we’ve got to get the passion back in our game and we expect fully that he can right that and take us in that direction."
Desjardins, 61, will be joined by new assistant Marco Sturm next week, once the ex-NHL forward finishes up his duties with the German national team. The Kings will continue to employ assistant Dave Lowry and goalie coach Bill Ranford.
The players, meanwhile, are not off the hook. If anything, the pair of firings amid a seven-game homestand serve as a warning of sorts. "The evaluation going forward continues," Blake said.
This is where the situation gets tricky for L.A.’s brain trust, because relieving Stevens of his duties does not solve the recent Western Conference titan’s primary issues.
It doesn’t make the second-oldest roster in the NHL any younger. Nor does it rid the Kings of their continued struggle to play even remotely fast, a matter which is on display seemingly every time they take the ice and was underlined this past spring over the course of their first-round playoff loss to the speed-happy Golden Knights.
After inking 35-year-old sniper Ilya Kovalchuk to a three-year deal but doing little else to beef up, the hockey world seemed hot and cold on the Kings heading into camp. Kovalchuk would help their scoring woes, the typical line of thinking went, but, man, that lineup screams average. Split the difference and L.A. was a projected fringe playoff team in a top-heavy Pacific Division.
So far, the Kings have been a mess at even strength - with and without the puck - and mediocre on special teams. Goalie Jonathan Quick is out indefinitely to recover from knee surgery. And losses to three rebuilding clubs (the Islanders, Sabres, and Senators) could really sting down the stretch.
Making matters worse, the attack, led by premier center Anze Kopitar and all-world blue-liner Drew Doughty, is having a hell of a time penetrating the middle of the ice. It turns out that not only are the Kings old and slow, they’re also easy to tame.
Below are two heat maps illustrating 5-on-5 shot volume and location. The Pittsburgh Penguins, tied with the Washington Capitals for first in goals per game heading into Sunday's slate of NHL games, are shown first. The Kings, 31st in goals per game, are second. Red is good, blue is bad.
Basically nothing but blue in front of the goalmouth and in the slot area for the Kings. It’s no wonder L.A. ranks 29th in all-situations shooting percentage, converting on just 7.5 percent of their 371 shots on goal.
Perhaps, like Blake said, this team has a serious compete problem. Not just in regards to penetrating the middle of the ice; a general compete problem. However, it is surely not the lone factor sending the Kings down a path of irrelevance. Now on their third coach since winning the 2014 Cup, they are in danger of missing the playoffs for the third time in five years.
The roster, first and foremost, is in need of major reconstruction. While Doughty and Kopitar are locked up for nine and six years, respectively, a healthy Jeff Carter is still a force, and the prospect pool is solid, the list of long-term positives is a short one.
Eleven players remain from the 2014 team, with nine over the age of 27. It may be time to finally pull the plug on this group and press the refresh button, signaling a semi-rebuild. It's up to Blake to determine if that's the prudent play.
Some of the work will be done organically, thanks to a few expiring contracts. As for the rest, if he's truly motivated to move on from the old guard, Blake will be forced to get creative (see: term and money still owed to Dion Phaneuf, Dustin Brown, others).
The Desjardins era begins Tuesday when the Kings host the Anaheim Ducks. How different will the coaching staff and lineup look next Nov. 6?
John Matisz is theScore's National Hockey Writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.
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