What amounted to an 11th-hour win wasn’t enough to save John Stevens’ job as coach of the Kings.
General manager Rob Blake has been concerned about his team’s lack of emotional investment and inability to play a faster style. With the Kings sinking fast at 4-8-1, Blake fired Stevens and assistant coach Don Nachbaur and named Willie Desjardins interim coach on Sunday, about 12 hours after a 4-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“It hasn’t gone the way we expect it to, and we haven’t played the way we expected to,” Blake said. “What Willie will bring — what we want to bring back — is we want to get the compete level up in our players. We’ve got to get the passion back in the game. We expect fully that he can right that and take us in the right direction.”
Blake said Desjardins’ interim tag means “the rest of the season.” Marco Sturm, who played briefly for the Kings, was hired as an assistant. Desjardins previously coached the Vancouver Canucks for three seasons and guided them to 48 wins in 2014-15 before he was fired. He’s won championships in junior hockey and the American Hockey League and most recently was head coach of Canada’s 2018 Olympic team.
Blake doesn’t have a close connection to Desjardins and chose him over several other candidates. One of those was believed to be Alain Vigneault, a former Canucks and New York Rangers coach. Blake has ties to former teammates-turned-coaches such as Tony Granato, but he is counting on Desjardins, 61, to breathe life into a roster that ranks among the oldest in the NHL with an average age of 29.
Asked about his level of concern that players won’t respond to Desjardins given their start, Blake said, “Well, we’re evaluating the players just as much as the staff. You’re correct in that. That evaluation continues from this point on, for sure.”
Stevens’ tenure as head coach lasted 99 games, including the playoffs. But his imprint on the organization stamps deeper. He mentored defensemen under Terry Murray and Darryl Sutter as an assistant, the latter during two Stanley Cup-winning runs, before he was promoted in April 2017 in a line of succession that was put in place during the Sutter era.
“Awful,” Blake said of having to fire Stevens. “Terrible. Very difficult. No bones about it.”
Stevens improved their offense from 2.43 goals per game to 2.89 last season. But the team reverted to its defensive posture too much in a four-game sweep by the Vegas Golden Knights, and it hasn’t shown cohesiveness and the aforementioned urgency.
Maybe more concerning was that players cited a lack of preparation. That was evident in a 5-2 loss to Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday that likely removed any lingering doubt about upcoming changes.
“We tip-toed into a game, and they take it to us,” Jake Muzzin said the next day. “I mean, we have chances to score, we have a five-on-three [power play]. You take advantages of those opportunities, it’s a different game, and we don’t.”
Stevens ran out of answers by late October and at one point addressed the possibility of his dismissal.
“I put all my effort into trying to help these players play their best and the team perform their best, but that comes with the territory,” he said. “If that happens — and it happens a lot — I knew that getting into the business.”
Desjardins will be informally introduced Monday. He takes over a team that ranks last in the NHL with 2.15 goals a game and 23rd with 3.46 goals allowed. Those numbers are after the win against Columbus, which represented just the fourth time this season the Kings scored the game’s first goal. They also ended a streak of 24 straight periods in which they allowed a goal.
Blake saw red flags before that.
“We need to be way more emotionally involved,” Blake said. “Part of that is the change here today and the evaluation going forward, like I said, continues. We’re going to create a desire for these players to play well here.”
Blake said Sturm brings a “new generational coach’s style” and is known for his player relationships. He has a commitment to the German national team until Nov.11.
Current assistant Dave Lowry and goaltending coach Bill Ranford remain on staff, Blake said.
Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this report.