John Stevens is the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings this morning, waking up with that title after the club fired bench boss Terry Murray.
Of course, there's the major caveat there -- Stevens has the interim tag attached to his name, and there doesn't seem to be all that much talk about the chances he could keep the job.
But let's look at his credentials. Stevens, a long time AHL player, rose through the coaching ranks with the Philadelphia Flyers organization, first coaching their AHL affiliate before taking over for Ken Hitchcock in 2006. He led the Flyers for just two complete seasons there after, but in those two seasons the club advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals once and lost in the first round once.
His dismissal was ultimately forced for the same reason Murray was fired from the Kings -- a highly talented team failed to perform under his leadership, and it seemed as though that coaching change worked for the Flyers. They wound up advancing all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final without Stevens.
Now, Stevens finds himself on the other side of the coin. Can he possibly keep his gig?
Via Jewels From The Crown, I found this checklist put together by Kings general manager Dean Lombardi back when he hired Murray. It's a seven-point list that details what he looks for in a head coach. Let's run through and see how Stevens stacks up.
Knowledge of the game: Stevens is known as one of the best tactical minds in the business. He's an X's and O's type of guy, and that's one of the main reasons he was brought on by Murray to be an assistant coach on his staff. Nobody in Philadelphia ever questioned Stevens' knowledge of the game.
Work ethic: It's a tough thing to judge, obviously, but considering Stevens plied his trade on the buses of the American Hockey League for years, I'm going to go out on a limb and say work ethic isn't an issue.
A teacher: One of Stevens' best qualities in Philadelphia was his ability to mold young players. He guided the ship for guys like Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and turned them into the players they are today. Of course, Richards in now also an L.A. King.
Honest and direct: "He won't always tell them what they want to hear" was the exact quote from Lombardi on this one, and this might be where the questions arise. Is Stevens the personality to do such a thing? There were questions about such a thing during his tenure -- mostly towards the end of his tenure -- in Philadelphia. It's hard to know unless you're in the locker room, but important to know that the question was being asked.
"He is about structure:" Another tough thing to quantify from the outside, but its safe to say you don't get your organization to the Conference Finals without structure.
The ability to communicate: Stevens was known in Philly as a very good communicator. This wraps into the entire teaching thing. He knows how to get the message across to young players and old players alike, even if he's not always "honest and direct" in his approach. He's an analytic mind that knows the game how to explain the game. On the other side of this, as a career AHL player and former coach, he knows how to communicate with players and coaches up and down the organizational depth chart.
Understanding the meaning of culture: When you spend most of your hockey life in one organization, especially an organization with as much culture and identity as the Philadelphia Flyers, you embrace that culture. You learn how important it is. It's indoctrinated in you. The question for Stevens, who had literally spent 12 years in one place as both a player and a coach, is how well he understands the culture of another organization.
The issue of character and responding to adversity: In Stevens' first year as coach, after taking over for Hitchcock, the Flyers were already in a downward spiral. It was the worst season in franchise history and the team finished dead last in the East. The following year, Stevens helped turn it all around, and the Flyers won two playoff rounds as a result. It was a remarkably quick transition that needed a lot of help from the front office, but you can't sell Stevens short on that.
During that second season, the team lost 10 games in a row relatively late in the season and bounced back from it to make that postseason run. The year Stevens was ultimately fired, the team couldn't answer to the adversity under him and they wound up making the change at the top, so it's sort of a mixed track record here. But Stevens is familiar with adversity and he's helped turn situations around in the past.
Ultimately, maybe it's this quote from Lombardi when talking about his Murray hire three-and-a-half years ago that's the most telling: "And then he assisted in breaking in one of the top young coaches in the game in John Stevens. And that is character. It was all about the team and not himself."
Does John Stevens meet all of Lombardi's criteria? Who knows, really. It's tough to tell. But at the very least, he thinks Stevens is a very good young coach. Maybe not the best for the Los Angeles Kings head coaching gig long-term, but hey, crazier things have happened.
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