We interrupt the Kings’ tense playoff chase and thoughts about their game against the Calgary Flames on Monday night for a moment of justifiable fatherly pride.
Coach John Stevens couldn’t conceal his delight Monday after his youngest son, Nolan, signed a two-year entry level contract with the St. Louis Blues, who had chosen Nolan in the fifth round of the 2016 entry draft. Nolan’s season and college career ended when Northeastern lost to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA hockey tournament last weekend.
Nolan, 21, played for the Junior Kings while his father was an assistant to then-coach Darryl Sutter. Nolan then went on to play in the U.S. National Team Development Program and on the under-17 and under-18 U.S. national teams. He was born in Sea Isle City, N.J., while John Stevens coached the Philadelphia Flyers.
Nolan didn’t even ask his dad’s advice before he signed with the Blues. He’s expected to join them for practices later this week.
“Pretty exciting,” John Stevens said, smiling. “His mind was made up. He’s an interesting story because he went through two drafts. He was in the national program and got tons of exposure and never got drafted. Played a bottom-six role and went to Northeastern and really flourished and got drafted in his last year of eligibility. Keith Tkachuk [a Blues scout] developed a relationship with him and Tim Taylor, their player development guy, developed a good relationship with him, so as long as they had interest I don’t think he had any idea of going anywhere else just because of the commitment they made to him as a player. He was excited that they wanted to sign him.
“It’s kind of a sad day when your college career comes to an end but really exciting opportunity for him to move on and play at the next level.”
The Kings don’t play the Blues again during the regular season. “I’m kind of glad about that,” John Stevens said. “It’s great. He’s actually done well in school. He’s taking a couple of classes, one’s on line, so he should be able to finish up and graduate on time. He’s going to fly into St. Louis [on Tuesday] and start practicing with them so it’s pretty exciting for him.
“It’s every kid’s dream. I know how excited Nolan was when he got drafted. I think it meant the world to him just because somebody showed confidence in him and now the fact that he’s had three really good years in college — four, really — he had an injury last year and bounced back strong this year. So he’s really, really excited they’ve shown confidence in him and wanted to give him a contract. They think he can become a player and he really has a strong desire to become a player and I think he’s really excited about the opportunity to go and see the game at that level this time of year, get to know some of the players, get involved with the game at the highest level. I think it will be just an awesome experience for him.”
Several college standouts have already made their NHL debuts recently. Ryan Donato (Harvard) has already had a big impact with the Boston Bruins, collecting two goals and four points in four games. Asked if college players can bring energy to teams that are pushing toward the finish of a long NHL season, Stevens applied the question to his son’s opportunity.
“This is dad talking now,” he said. “He’s a great kid. He loves the game. He grew up around the game. He’s grown up around watching teams win and he’s been on a lot of winning teams his whole life. If you know Nolan, he’s an emotional leader on his hockey team. So I think his personality, he’ll be very respectful but his personality will be welcomed in the locker room for sure.”
Stevens’ older son, also named John, is 23 and is playing for the New York Islanders’ top farm team in Bridgeport, Conn. His coach is Brent Thompson, a former teammate of the Kings’ coach. Like his brother, he’s a center — and unlike their father, who was a defenseman.
“I think he’s really improved throughout the year. Whether that warrants a call-up I don’t know,” the Kings’ John Stevens said.
Getting back to regular business: The Kings have alternated wins and losses for the past 12 games and haven’t earned two consecutive wins since they had a three-game winning streak on Feb. 26, Feb. 27, and March 1. On Monday they were to face what’s left of the Flames, who have been ravaged by injuries and had lost their previous five games. The Flames issued a statement that leading scorer Johnny Gaudreau won’t play because he was given leave to travel East to be with his father, who had a “cardiac” event and is undergoing treatment. Sean Monahan (hip and wrist) and Matthew Tkachuk (upper body) also won’t play. But the Kings, who began the day out of a playoff spot, can’t afford to take any opponent lightly. Stevens said he wants to be sure players understand that little things can become big game-changers when so much is at stake.