EL SEGUNDO — Drew Doughty sat at his locker inside Toyota Sports Center, where he and the Kings train. Teammates joked with one another after a tough practice. They seemed at ease.
It is, perhaps, a different atmosphere under first-year head coach John Stevens.
The former Kings assistant and associate head coach was promoted in late April, replacing the ousted Darryl Sutter, who led the Kings to their only Stanley Cup titles in 2012 and 2014, but whose teams missed the playoffs two of his last three seasons.
With Stevens at the helm, hard work and fun appear able to co-exist.
As Doughty took off his skates, he spoke his mind.
“John’s more of a players’ coach, whereas Darryl kind of wasn’t a players’ coach,” he said. “He (Sutter) was a motivator and a guy who, you know, at times you were literally scared to approach him because he had that intimidation factor.
“Not that John doesn’t have that intimidation factor and can’t lose it on the group; he can. But you feel like you can go to him and ask him a question and you’re not going to get a smart-ass remark back, or whatever it may be.”
Alec Martinez started a conversation as well by praising Sutter, who became Kings head coach in December 2011 after the team fired Terry Murray midseason.
“Darryl was very good for us at the beginning when he first came in,” Martinez said.
“But Johnny is … I think he recognizes how things were and the environment that we were playing in the past couple of years. And I think he’s approached and brought in assistants who have the same mentality of, you know, I think Johnny talks about it all the time where he says that people think you can either have fun or you’re working hard. But he believes we can do both.”
It has translated into winning. The Kings, currently on their mandated five-day break, are 24-13-5 through 42 games. Their 53 points puts them in second place in the Pacific Division and firmly in playoff position.
COACHING PATH BEGINS IN MINORS
Stevens, 51, had a lengthy minor-league playing career but played only 53 games as an NHL defenseman for the Philadelphia Flyers and Hartford Whalers. He began a six-year stint as head coach of the Philadelphia Phantoms of the AHL in 2000, then became head man of the Philadelphia Flyers in October 2006, eight games into the ’06-’07 campaign.
The Flyers managed only 56 points that season – 53 under Stevens – but he guided them to the Eastern Conference finals the following spring. The Flyers made it to the playoffs in 2008-09 as well, losing in the quarterfinals. But Stevens was fired after a 13-11-1 start to the 2009-10 campaign.
Along the way, he developed a philosophy he said he also had as a player.
“I always took great pride in trying to be one of the leaders of the hockey team; I was captain of most teams I played on and I was always very honest,” Stevens said. “I didn’t expect anything from anybody else that I wasn’t willing to do myself as a player, and I think I have a lot of respect for the players and what they have to do to be good players.”
To Stevens, being up front with his players is the only way to fly.
“When I have something to say, I just make sure that the player knows about it right away,” he said. “Even back to my days in Philadelphia as a young coach, I told the players then that if I have something to say, I’m going to tell you right away, try and give you lots of feedback.
“It might not be good always, to tell you that message you don’t want to hear, but I can guarantee you that it will be an honest message.”
Left wing Tanner Pearson loves that about him.
“Yeah, I think everyone’s enjoying coming to the rink, and he’s an honest coach,” the 25-year-old Pearson said. “He’ll tell you straight up, so I think guys appreciate that.”
It’s also a two-way street with Stevens, who has no problem with players offering their two cents.
“I’m not saying I’m always right, and I don’t have a problem if they want to confront me about something or disagree with what I’m saying,” Stevens said. “I’d rather us have that conversation and have the dialogue than try to work it through the media or other avenues to get the message across.”
KUDOS FROM THE GM
Vice president and general manager Rob Blake, also in his first year in this position with the team, can’t say enough about Stevens’ way with players.
“What he’s really good at is building relationships and that started from Day 1 when he was announced as the head coach and he did his calls and he traveled around,” Blake said. “He met with the players to establish and to build a relationship with them. He’s very, very diligent about doing that.”
Blake was asked to grade Stevens’ work through the season’s first half.
“He’s been good,” Blake said. “We’ve got things we need to work on and build on, but I think we’ve established a way that we want to play and we’ve established a style and, you know, we need to be a little more consistent in that.”
One key improvement is that the Kings are averaging 2.95 goals this season after averaging 2.43 a season ago.
Unquestionably, players in the Kings’ locker room are happier these days. It shows on the ice.
“We’re having a lot of fun here, we’re playing well,” Doughty said. “Darryl did a great job for us, too, but eventually when you have that type of coach, I think it just wears on you and that’s kind of why we went downhill.”
Martinez took it further.
“I think he is far more approachable on anything – in a game, on the bench, about a particular play, about a situation, about anything – life,” Martinez said, lauding Stevens. “All the guys here know they can go to Johnny for that and they know that they’re going to get a thoughtful response back.
“Not that Darryl didn’t care; I know he cared a lot. But it’s just two different personalities and I think it’s no secret that guys are having fun and it’s kind of brought a new energy about the room.”
Thanks to “Honest” John Stevens, who is having his own fun.
“I think in the beginning I was really excited and nervous,” he said, “but the further I got into it, the less nervous and more excited I got.”
JOHN STEVENS AT A GLANCE
Hometown: Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada
NHL coaching records: Kings (26-15-5, includes four games in 2011 as interim coach), Philadelphia Flyers (120-109-34)
Overall NHL coaching record: 146-124-39
Powered by RFPRADIO.COM