Roundtable: Was Firing John Stevens the Right Move?

The JFTC staff gathered together to share their thoughts on the exit of John Stevens and the entrance of Willie Desjardins

In the aftermath of the Kings’ coaching shakeup, the JFTC staff weighs in on whether it was the right call, their thoughts and feelings on Willie Desjardins (and Marco Sturm), and more. Please note these answers were compiled before the Chicago Blackhawks abruptly fired Joel Quenneville. Perhaps some of our answers would have been different had we known that Quenneville would be on the market just days later.

Should the Kings have fired John Stevens now?

Robyn: I am undecided on this. He wasn’t a great coach and the issues were pretty clear last year when they somehow barely scraped into the playoffs but they did make the playoffs. That said, many of their issues were not his fault.

Colin: I think now is as good as a time as any. Nearly 15 games gone in the season and the team underperforming as it has, it really comes as no surprise. Since you can’t fire players, Stevens took the fall. The management wanted to send a message so I have no problem with them changing the coaching staff now in an attempt to turn things around.

Michael: Look, I know John Stevens was a nice guy, maybe the nicest. But after watching the Kings for 45 years, I can say that the last 19 games (2017-18 final regular season game, the playoff sweep by Vegas, and the 13 games this year) has been the most miserable stretch I have ever seen. To top it all off, Coach Stevens blew the pre-season. He was given a brand shiny new toy in Ilya Kovalchuk, a point-a-game-player his entire career, and didn’t find a way to get any semblance of team chemistry in those tune-up games. When Dustin Brown went down to start the season, it was like he was lost as to who to play from all of the rookies. Anderson-Dolan? Walker? Luff? And the defense? That was almost as bad as the offense, but not nearly as bad as the power play. Ugh, the team was a mess and may never recover.

Carlos: John Stevens was an integral part of the Kings championship identity as a smothering, structured, defensive machine. He is also eminently likable as a person. But the Kings’ underlying numbers took a concerning downward turn under his watch last year. Huge seasons from Kopitar, Quick and Doughty masked many of those issues, but it is hard to ignore the Kings’ being thoroughly dominated in a four game sweep in the playoffs, winning only one pre-season game and then embarrassingly getting outplayed through the first month of the season. Their total ineptness in even getting a power play set up (despite deploying what should be one of the better units in the league) has been a microcosm of the structural issues that ail this team. As important as Stevens has been to the success of this current Kings’ era, maybe it was a mistake to believe they were still living in that current era. A fresh start seemed to be the only choice.

Eric: I’m okay with the timing, and even impressed with it. It’s unlikely that they’d have a wider pool of candidates to pick from then they did right now, the team looked lost for long stretches of time, it was hard to envision Stevens making meaningful change, and the loss of Jonathan Quick removes any pressure for the new coach to win immediately. It’s harsh on Stevens that the Vegas series (four games where LA was without several key pieces) proved to be a referendum on his coaching, but he had every chance to keep this job with even a mediocre start.

Sarah: Ugh, I guess. It’s hard to separate feelings about John Stevens the Person from John Stevens the Assistant Coach from John Stevens the Head Coach. It felt inevitable that he lose his job, and knowing the plan had already been set in motion well before the Kings defeated Columbus makes the timing easier to understand. Of course part of the fanbase is all like “Tank! Tank! Tank!” which is presumed what would have happened with Stevens behind the bench. Desjardins coming in and turning the team around will give hope to the “we just want to squeak into the playoffs” crowd but isn’t going to help out the “lose for Hughes” folks.

Willie Desjardins: Intrigued by the choice? Inspired? Terrified?

Robyn: Intrigued and slightly terrified as the Canucks were absolutely terrible when they fired him and replaced him with Travis Green.

Colin: Intrigued and also slightly terrified. I understand he is a great development guy which is what the Kings need to develop the younger players. In fact for that reason alone I’m intrigued by the new coach. It gives some hope that the incoming players will be given every opportunity. I’m terrified because his record with established players is less than stellar. His tenure in Vancouver was a disaster, and I’m worried this could be a repeat scenario.

Michael: Willie D. coached some horrible teams in Vancouver? Was it him? Was it coaching a bare cupboard Canucks team or was it him? Team Canada took home the bronze. Under achieving or over achieving? Who knows. I am happy that they didn’t tab Alain Vigneault or Lindy Ruff. I was hoping to see Dan Bylsma or Kirk Muller. Wille D. seems as good as anyone else. But seriously anything is better than what we’ve seen lately.

Carlos: I admit, when the notification first popped up on my phone, terrified was the first thought. My only point of reference was his tenure in Vancouver, when they were mostly an abject disaster. But I did conveniently forget his first year there, where they overachieved their way to a 101-point season. And how he guided a (relatively) under-powered team Canada to a Bronze medal. And his championship pedigree in the AHL. So now I adjust my reaction to intrigued.

The more I read about him, it seems he falls under the “inspirational” category, rather than the hard-nosed, tactical approach. Of course, that also basically described John Stevens, so it is curious that they would turn towards a coach with a similar temperament. He does seem to be a more passionate, motivational sort, which Blake clearly feels has been this roster’s biggest downfall.

Eric: Nonplussed. (I promise I didn’t have to look up that word before I typed it, though I did look it up after.) The apparent insistence on an interim coach gives this hire some context, but for a team who’s being asked to engineer a major turnaround, Desjardins seems like an odd choice.

Sarah: All of the above. My first reaction was, “I don’t want this!” as my main memory of Desjardins was from his time in Vancouver, which, aside from one overachieving season, did not go particularly well. However, after reading more about him and his emphasis on player development and turning around struggling teams, I was intrigued. But then I read more about his issues in Vancouver and went straight back to “I don’t want this!” So, we’ll see, I guess.

How are you feeling about the “interim” coach decision?

Robyn: I’m all the more intrigued that this is a temporary position. Would a permanent coach make a difference? Who knows! Probably not, though.

Colin: I think this was the best they could do currently, and I have no problem that the appointment is interim. In fact, I welcome the interim title. It gives the Kings an out should a coach who would be a better fit for the long term becomes available.

Michael: I’m good with it. Keep the pressure on. We either need to lose big or win big.

Carlos: I am relieved that they took the conservative approach in naming an interim coach when their options were so limited. The idea of Alain Vigneault signing a three-year deal was not something I found appealing. This gives them an experienced head coach that should immediately be able to take the room over, while giving them time to both assess Desjardins’ performance while exploring other options. I mostly intrigued with the hiring of Marco Sturm, a younger coach who made a name for himself guiding team Germany to a gold medal game at the Olympics. The writing appears to be on the wall that Sturm has been brought on board to learn the ropes under a respected head coach like Desjardins, only to take over the whole operation next season.

Eric: I’m still not quite sure on this one. Marco Sturm is intriguing, simply for not being a retread, and if this is all a long-term plan to give him a trial run, it’s kind of a fun idea. It also could be seen as giving up on the season, which is less fun.

I like the idea of not committing to Desjardins long-term. I don’t know if that’s an endorsement of the plan.

Sarah: Love it. It keeps the pressure on everyone, coach included. Not going out and signing Desjardins to a lengthy contract (while still essentially guaranteeing that he will be here through the end of the season) is great. The steadfastness of wanting only an interim coach certainly limited the Kings in who they could bring on, but also, I’m no fan of Alain Vigneault, Dave Tippett is apparently waiting for Seattle, and the other big names are already on coaching staffs elsewhere, where it would be almost unheard of to pull off a move mid-season.

Any other feelings you want to share?

Robyn: This whole thing is just a mess. They may not have the greatest roster, but on paper, they should not be this bad! Maybe not the division leading Canucks but just not this bad.

Colin: 3 thoughts actually:

1) I feel like this a massive gamble by the Kings, at this point it’s either succeed or accept that we will likely be in contention for the #loseforhughes sweepstakes.

2) As Robyn said this whole situation is a mess, it shouldn’t be this bad but it is. The team needs to take a hard look at the roster, management, and staff. It may be painful but it’s clear the current formula is not working.

3) I’m really intrigued by the Marco Sturm signing. His work with the German National Squad was awesome to watch and while it wasn’t the prettiest hockey to watch it was simple and effective. If he can translate his tactics to NHL ice he could have a massive impact on the team. In fact I remember the commentators during the Russia v. Germany Match commenting on how “NHL-like” the Germans were playing. Could be an interesting story to see develop.

Michael: On October 18th, I wrote that at 2-3-1, what do we do now? Now we are at 4-8-1 (even worse). There was a particular six game stretch there I could have achieved the same record a John Steven did as the coach. The team went 0-6-0 last season around the all star break as well. That a lot of six game losing streaks. That being said, the players need to step it up. Namely guys like Tanner Pearson. I don’t want to remind everyone that Pearson has one more point that all of us who sit in the stands (and all of us have played 13 less games than he has). I am proud of Rob Blake for sending a message that said if you want to be a King, positive results are demanded.

Carlos: Rob Blake has noticeably deflected any blame for the Kings’ horrid start away from himself. He uses jargon like “emotionally invested” while never once asking whether he has done enough to put his coach in a position to succeed. After all, he hired the coach and he assembled the roster. Where is Blake’s culpability in this disaster? That he has yet to point the finger towards himself (at least in the media) shows poor leadership skills and probably a lack of confidence in his own job stability. The Kings will see better results going forward, if only because they cannot possibly get any worse. But if this team ends up a pile of mediocrity by season’s end, is Blake the guy we have confidence in to turn things around?

Eric: Coaching seems really hard, and I don’t envy anyone who has to do it.

Sarah: First, I’m really intrigued by Marco Sturm and see the remainder of this season as much of a referendum on how easily he adapts to coaching at this level as it is on Desjardins.

Second, I’m really on board with what Carlos said. The coach is usually the first person to take the fall for the GM’s poor decisions. Blake is somewhat handcuffed by choices made long before him (including terrible drafting) but Stevens could only work with what he’d been given.

Third, I know the players didn’t like it, and continue to bristle whenever it’s suggested that they’re playing like they don’t care. But it’s also not a lie to describe their overall team play as indifferent, lazy, without passion, low compete level — whatever phrase you want, it’s right there for you. Players are saying the right things, but if they can’t step it up and start playing like this game means something to them now, after they essentially unwittingly got a coach fired, then I don’t know what to tell you. Bring Darryl Sutter back just to scream at them for a couple minutes, I guess.