Los Angeles Kings

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-Kings thoughts: A look at the ties, possible lineup decisions

Flyers-Kings thoughts: A look at the ties, possible lineup decisions

Flyers (1-0-0) at Kings (0-0-0)
10 p.m. on NBCSP, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports App; Pregame Live at 9:30

The Flyers crashed one home opener already. They'll try to do it again Thursday night when they continue their season-opening four-game road trip with a matchup against the Los Angeles Kings at the STAPLES Center.

A Wayne Simmonds hat trick led the Flyers to a 5-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks Wednesday night, giving San Jose its first loss in a season opener since 2009-10 (see story).

Like last season, the Kings host the Flyers to open their home slate.

Let's get you set for puck drop with some thoughts on Game 2 of the season.

• The Flyers face an old friend here. John Stevens enters his first year as head coach of the Kings. The last time he served as a full-time NHL bench boss was with the Flyers for parts of four seasons from 2006-10 (see story). He went 120-109-34 over that span, leading the Flyers to two playoff appearances before being fired in December 2009, during the season in which Peter Laviolette took over and rallied the club to the Stanley Cup Final.

• The Flyers, of course, have plenty of other ties with the Kings. General manager Ron Hextall served Los Angeles as assistant GM the year it won the Stanley Cup in 2012. Dean Lombardi, now with the Flyers in a role not yet announced, was the GM of that club. Lombardi, who was a scout for the Flyers from 2003 to 2006, was fired by the Kings back in April.

And, of course, we all know how Jeff Carter relates to the Flyers. After leading the team with 36 goals in 2010-11, Carter was traded to the Blue Jackets for Jakub Voracek, a 2011 first-round pick the Flyers used on Sean Couturier and a 2011 third-round selection on Nick Cousins. In February 2012, Carter was shipped to Los Angeles, where he's won two Stanley Cups. Last season, he put up his best numbers (32 goals, 66 points) since that 2010-11 campaign in Philadelphia.

Also, Kings assistant coach Don Nachbaur was on the Phantoms' staff under Stevens in the early 2000s. He played for the Flyers, as well, from 1985 to 1990.

• Now to the game. How fun is it to watch Simmonds? He is so proficient at playing in front of the net, and doing so requires serious skill. The hand-eye coordination on his deflection goal — the second marker of his hat-trick performance Wednesday — is a strength he's developed, becoming one of the NHL's best at parking in front of the goalie and doing damage.

No surprise he's off to a hot start again. If you recall, Simmonds began last season with four markers in five games. Tonight, he's in an area he knows well, facing his old team and playing where he won the 2017 NHL All-Star Game MVP.

• Playing the second game of a back-to-back set, the Flyers did not hold a morning skate, so line combinations, defensive pairings and the starting goalie are all uncertain. But one thing we've learned with head coach Dave Hakstol is that he likes to roll with what's working. Given the Flyers are coming off a positive and productive season opener, changes seem unlikely — so if you want defensemen Brandon Manning and Andrew MacDonald out of the lineup, don't expect it.

So, the probable scratches again: Jori Lehtera, Sam Morin, Travis Sanheim.

An interesting decision comes in net. Brian Elliott received the nod Wednesday and wasn't lights out, but stood strong late and saved 32 of 35 shots faced for his first win in a Flyers jersey. However, Elliott was not great against the Kings last season, going 2-2-0 with a 2.98 goals-against average and .902 save percentage. Neuvirth, on the other hand, was excellent against Los Angeles last season, winning the season opener while putting up a 1.47 GAA and .943 save percentage in two matchups.

• The Flyers' power play had great life Wednesday, needing just 1:09 man-advantage time to score three goals and eventually finish 3 for 5. Things won't be easy tonight as the Kings delivered an 84.5 penalty-kill percentage in 2016-17, fifth best in the league.

• There's a stud defenseman in this one and another up-and-coming on the other side. For Los Angeles, Drew Doughty, 27, is one of the best at his position, while Ivan Provorov is a burgeoning blueliner that is already eating up ice time for the Flyers at only 20 years old. Oh, and Shayne Gostisbehere isn't too shabby. He collected three assists in the season opener.

• The Flyers have won nine of their last 12 road games against the Kings. They have not won their first two games of a regular season since 2011-12. Meanwhile, Los Angeles hasn't won a season opener since 2013-14.

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.