ron hextall

Kings coach John Stevens reflects on Flyers' tenure, growth as leader

Kings coach John Stevens reflects on Flyers' tenure, growth as leader

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — When John Stevens steps behind the bench tonight for the Kings' home opener against the Flyers, it will be 2,862 days since the last time he found himself in this same position (without the interim tag) in the National Hockey League … with the Flyers, no less.

“It’s been so long now,” the 51-year-old Stevens said Thursday. “Seven years have passed since I coached there. I spent a long time in Philadelphia. I have an enormous amount of respect for the organization. It’s always an exciting matchup because it’s a historic franchise. We’re looking forward to it.”

Perhaps there’s a sense of irony that Stevens' first game back will come against the organization who relieved him of his duties on Dec. 4, 2009, following a 3-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on home ice. That was a Flyers team struggling to find an identity — with a 13-11-1 record at the time of Stevens' firing — following the offseason acquisition of defenseman Chris Pronger. Optimism was high as then-general manager Paul Holmgren assembled a team he believed could dethrone the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference, and Stevens was well aware of the expectations.

“I think just incorporating everybody there, getting them on the same page and just dealing with the whole leadership issue is something I may have tackled a little differently, but if you look back, we got off to a great start that year, we had some injuries, and then we let it slip away after that great start," Stevens said. "Clearly, I didn’t do enough to get that ship righted when we had such a good start."

Stevens was tasked with plugging holes during the shipwreck of 2006-07 when general manager Bob Clarke stepped down and Ken Hitchcock was fired on the same Sunday morning just nine days into the regular season. Stevens was given the head coaching job on an interim basis and proceeded to navigate his way through that tumultuous year as the Flyers finished with just 56 points, a whopping 45-point decline from the previous season.

Beginning Thursday night, Stevens takes over a situation with a Kings organization looking for a similar turnaround after missing the playoffs two of the last three seasons. Despite winning two Stanley Cup championships under Darryl Sutter, the Kings' players are embracing Stevens after the relationship between the players and their former coach had developed such animosity that at one point the Kings' players reportedly locked Sutter out of the dressing room.

“It’s definitely refreshing to hear his voice behind the bench,” Kings captain Anze Kopitar said of Stevens.

“He was my positional coach for a long time,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “When he first came in, we had a few bumping head issues, me and him, but ever since those issues got smoothed out, it’s been smooth sailing from then on. He’s taught me a lot about being a professional and being a leader on the team. He’s also helped me a lot with my on-ice stuff, too. He’s a very smart hockey mind. He knows a lot about the game and he cares a lot about his players, and he wants the best for everyone.”

For a coach that has been just as attached to X’s and O’s as a giddy high school couple, Stevens has also exuded leadership throughout his hockey career. He captained the Phantoms to the Calder Cup in 1997, coached them to a championship in 2005, and has passed down that leadership skill set to his two sons: John Stevens Jr. and Nolan Stevens, both of whom have worn the “C” at Northeastern University in Boston.

But what Doughty and the Stevens' boys have imparted to John is a personal element that comes into coaching that perhaps wasn’t nearly as evident during his days with the Flyers.

“Relationships have always been important," Stevens said. "I’ve been a captain on every team I’ve played on, so I think that you’re a coach within the locker room. But seeing my kids play at a high level, you see how important feedback is to them. I think it’s really brought it more so to my attention. I think through my experiences of successes and failures, I maybe delve into those relationships, especially with older players, more so than I did before. I think all players appreciate being coached and all players appreciate feedback.”

Derailing the 'Wayne Train'
Wayne Simmonds got the best of reigning Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Brent Burns Wednesday night. Simmonds gets a crack at another one of the league’s top blueliners in Doughty, who won the Norris Trophy in 2016. Doughty is well aware of the problems Simmonds presents.  

“He does his magic around the net, and he definitely makes his living in front of the net,” Doughty said. “There’s not much you can do on a power play besides block shots or get under his stick. They've got a good power play and he’s a big reason to that. You've just got to play him hard because you know how hard he’s going to play every night. He’s a competitive guy. You've got to battle him hard. It’s going to be a tough job, but he’s not going to hat trick tonight.”

Tragedy ... again
The Los Angeles Kings organization was devastated once again when 22-year-old Christina Duarte, a native of nearby Redondo Beach, California, was one of nearly 60 people killed at the country music festival across from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas on Sunday. Duarte had recently graduated from college and was working her first full-time job — as a fan service associate with the organization.

Duarte’s death comes 16 years after the Kings organization tragically lost “Ace” Bailey who was flying aboard United flight 175, which crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Bailey served as the team’s director of pro scouting. 

The Kings' players will wear a heart-shaped “CD” sticker on the back of their helmets and the team’s personnel will wear a pin to honor Duarte’s memory. 

“For sure, it’s going to be emotional,” Kopitar said. “Obviously, it’s very sad times. We'll use that as a positive energy.”

The Kings are donating their 50/50 raffle from Thursday’s game against the Flyers to the Las Vegas Victims’ Fund.

Flyers notes, quotes and tidbits: Shayne Gostisbehere's status, alternate captains, rookie talk

Flyers notes, quotes and tidbits: Shayne Gostisbehere's status, alternate captains, rookie talk

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Shayne Gostisbehere was one of the first players on the ice for Tuesday morning’s workout.

Gostisbehere looked good and displayed no signs of an injury he suffered in the preseason finale against the Islanders. General manager Ron Hextall attached an “upper body” designation to the blueliner's injury on Sunday when Gostisbehere was sandwiched by two Islanders defensemen. While Hextall provided a “we’ll see” answer to Gostisbehere’s availability, the Flyers' third-year defenseman sounded supremely confident that he would be ready to play Wednesday night in the season opener against the Sharks.

“I’m good to go. I’m so excited,” Gostisbehere said. “Obviously, you feel better as the day goes on. I think for me it’s just mentally getting ready for the season and the first game of the year. I know we’ve all been waiting. We got the young blood in the lineup, too. I think the boys are going to be ready.”

Here are the defensive pairings head coach Dave Hakstol put together for Tuesday’s practice:

Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald

Travis Sanheim-Radko Gudas

Brandon Manning-Robert Hagg

Sam Morin-Shayne Gostisbehere

Gostisbehere has primarily played on the left side, but feels comfortable on the right with the 6-foot-6 Morin as his playing partner.

“Having him back there is a nice calming effect,” Gostisbehere said. “Big Sammy’s a menace down low. He tells me, ‘I’m going to win every battle I have,’ and I believe him because the puck just squirts to me.”

Of course, there’s nothing to say that Hakstol won’t pull a switcheroo Wednesday morning and reshuffle his pairings for the game. The only combo that would appear to be set in stone is Provorov and MacDonald.

Wearing the 'A'
By virtue of a player vote for the alternate captain role, forward Valtteri Filppula will wear the "A" for all home games this season and defenseman Andrew MacDonald will wear the "A" for all road games. They join Wayne Simmonds as the team’s alternate captains to Claude Giroux.

Hakstol changed up the procedure and allowed the players to vote on their new alternates, who replace Pierre-Edouard Bellemare now with the Vegas Golden Knights. 

Take a number please
On their first day of practice In San Jose, the Flyers' five rookies had a slightly different look — on the back of their helmets. All five rookies will be wearing different numbers to start the season. Some players had requests. Others just accepted whatever number the organization provided.

Sam Morin, No. 5  The number he wore with Team Canada, last worn by Braydon Coburn.

Travis Sanheim, No. 6 — The number he wore with the Phantoms, last worn by Andreas Lilja.

Robert Hagg, No. 8 — Never worn it before, last worn by Nicklas Grossmann.

Nolan Patrick, No. 19 — The number he wore with the Brandon Wheat Kings, last worn by Jordan Weal.

Taylor Leier, No. 20 — Never worn it before, last worn by R.J. Umberger.

The last time the Flyers started the season with five rookies on the opening night roster was 1992 when Eric Lindros, Vyacheslav Butsayev, Jason Bowen, Tommy Soderstrom and Dmitri Yushkevich started the year in orange and black. 

“It is a different feel,” Hakstol said. “It kind of struck me [Monday]. Some of the young guys were hanging out together as we got off the plane, just before we boarded the team bus. Instead of one or two guys hanging out together, there’s a small group of six to seven guys. That brings a little bit of a different outlook and different energy to the team. I think it’s been very good for our team, veterans included.”

Moment of silence
There will be a moment of silence prior to the singing of the national anthem as the NHL remembers and honors the victims who lost their lives in the deadly shooting Sunday night at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.

Ron Hextall not veering from Kings' path with Flyers' young defensemen

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AP Images/USA Today Images

Ron Hextall not veering from Kings' path with Flyers' young defensemen

If that “mirror, mirror on the wall” actually existed, Flyers fans would be lined up right now wanting to know, “Who’s the most deserving of them all?”

And rightfully so.

Unfortunately, without that magical piece of glass from the movie “Snow White,” you may not get the straightforward answer you’re looking for. "Preseason 2017," for lack of a better title, will be remembered as “The Battle on the Blue Line,” and now that we’ve cycled through the credits, culminating with the final game against the Islanders, it appears as if a sequel is already in the works.

It was an intense competition revolving around the team’s talented, homegrown defense. Sam Morin, Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim competed for the two vacated positions. Sanheim displayed an impressive and rare offensive skill set with a team-high-tying three goals, but he flashed shortcomings with his penchant for turnovers. Morin was strong in all phases, most notably his imposing physical presence, while also showing a tendency to contribute offensively. Morin’s mishaps, perhaps not nearly as glaring as Sanheim’s, were mostly positional play. Hagg was perhaps the least flashy and noticeable of the trio, but remained consistent throughout.

All three rookies had their bags ready to go Sunday night — destination unknown at the time. Either they would be joining the rest of the Flyers team on the charter to San Jose or they would be carpooling to Allentown as they begin another season in the AHL. Now with the upper-body injury to Shayne Gostisbehere, all three rookies are California dreaming, and more importantly, California unpacking.

If "Ghost" suits up in the season opener, then in all likelihood, only Hagg will actually crack the lineup to start, and that will remain a head-scratcher for a fan base that's been asked to sit on its collective hands.

And they’re not alone. Even members of the Flyers' Cup teams have expressed to me personally a desire to see the kids play. The decision is even more puzzling to guys like Morin and Sanheim, who both believe they did everything possible to earn their spot.

“Yeah, I’m very excited,” Morin said Monday. “I think I had a pretty good camp. I deserve it. We’re going to see what happens. I’m just living one day at a time. I’m just really excited to prove I can be in the NHL and be a regular.”

For Hextall, this is nothing more than business as usual. He rarely deviates from the script that comes straight out of Hollywood, just not crafted by Disney.

During his time with the Kings, then-general manager Dean Lombardi nurtured his defensive corps in much the same manner.

Alec Martinez — Three seasons of college hockey followed by 2½ seasons with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL. Became a full-time NHL regular at age 23.

Jake Muzzin — Four years in the OHL (Ontario Hockey League) proceeded with 2½ years with the Monarchs. Became a full-time NHL regular at age 23.

Slava Voynov — Three full seasons (266 games) with the Monarchs. Entered the NHL at age 22.

Martinez and Muzzin remain core pieces to the Kings' defensive unit and Voynov was equally as talented, perhaps even more so. However, Voynov was indefinitely suspended for allegedly assaulting his wife, and hasn’t suited up in an NHL game since October 2014. He has since returned to Russia to play in the KHL.

Compare those players with Hagg, 22, Morin, 22, and Sanheim, 21, and you can see Hextall will not serve up one of his defensemen until they are properly aged to his standards. You can place Drew Doughty and Ivan Provorov into a category of all their own.

During his brief press gathering Sunday night following the decision that Oskar Lindblom would begin his North American career with the Phantoms, Hextall had this to say: “American League time hasn’t hurt one player in the history of professional hockey.” In other words, to Hextall, no one regresses playing in the minors … ever.

It seems fitting the Flyers will begin their season just a few hours away from Napa Valley, because Hextall refuses to pluck one of his guys off the vine until the time is absolutely right. There’s no one right way to serve up an NHL defenseman, but there is, in Hextall’s vision, a certain recipe for disaster. Don’t think for a moment the ingredients that go into that will ever change, especially now that Hextall just recently hired Lombardi, who I’m sure packed up his “How to Build a Stanley Cup Champion” cookbook and brought it with him.

When asked about his three impressive, young defensemen specifically, Hextall smiled and said, “When you look at the career of a young player, going to the minors is OK, even if its for a couple years. It’s not a death sentence. You’re still a pro hockey player and you’re still one injury, one day away from a call-up. It’s not as disastrous as you try to paint it, maybe.”

Even Hextall understands that sometimes the best-laid plans have to shelved. It was an injury to Mark Streit that opened the door for Gostisbehere, who burst onto the scene two years ago and never looked back, despite just 21 games of AHL experience.

When will Morin and Sanheim earn their spot, permanently?

If you have a magic 8-ball lying around, now would be a good time to dust it off, and give it a good shake.