John Stevens

Help not available: NHL staffs brimming with ex-head coaches

When Kevin Hayes got off to a slow start with the Philadelphia Flyers, coach Alain Vigneault didn’t need to talk to him.

Assistants Mike Yeo and Michel Therrien took care of that. Because each had been an NHL head coach before, Vigneault encourages that direct communication.

“There’s a confidence factor with AV knowing that if we’re going to talk to a player, what we’re saying would be the same message that he would be delivering to that player,” Yeo said. “He wanted people that were comfortable and confident to go up to players, whether it’s correcting, whether it’s reinforcing, whether it’s patting somebody on the back. He wants us to be proactive about that.”

It’s not just Yeo and Therrien. Anyone interested in firing a coach this season is in trouble without a successor lined up because almost every potential candidate already has a job.

Of 31 teams, 20 have a former NHL head coach as an assistant and six have more than one. Concerns about having too many cooks in the kitchen are no match for the benefit of having experience dealing with players, handling game situations and scouting opponents.

“There’s nothing but positives,” Vigneault said. “I’ve got guys that understand exactly what I’m going through and understand exactly what I mean as far as feedback. Nobody understands a head coach better than a former head coach.”

Philadelphia’s three-headed monster is bested only by the Dallas Stars having ex-head coaches John Stevens, Rick Bowness and Todd Nelson on Jim Montgomery’s staff. Unlike Vigneault, who carries with him the gravitas of taking two different teams to the Stanley Cup Final, Montgomery is a first-time head coach and isn’t at all bothered by having guys directly reporting to him who have done his job before.

“I’m a guy that wants information from other people,” said Montgomery, who’s in his second season as Stars coach. “As much information they can give me before I talk to the team, the better knowledge I’m imparting to the team so that we can have quicker points and get right to what we think’s going to help us win hockey games.”

Four of the NHL-tested assistants – Detroit’s Dan Bylsma, Chicago’s Marc Crawford, Anaheim adviser Darryl Sutter and St. Louis part-timer Larry Robinson – have won the Stanley Cup as a head coach, and Sutter did it twice. Many more have connections to championship teams or won in the minors.

“There’s a lot of little fires that coaches have to go through – head coaches – and I think when you have a staff with experience, they can put those fires out before they get to you,” said Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet, who has Phil Housley and John MacLean on his staff.

Often, a personal connection is enough to create instant chemistry on a staff. Montgomery and Stevens played together in the American Hockey League and won the Calder Cup in 1998, while Vigneault and Therrien have known each other for two decades.

Washington’s Todd Reirden in his first head NHL job wanted an assistant with similar experience and hired Scott Arniel without knowing him. After being on a Pittsburgh Penguins staff under Bylsma with former head coaches Tony Granato and Jacques Martin as fellow assistants, Reirden understands the importance of leaning on someone who’s been there before.

“I think I had had 10 or 11 years of assistant or associate coach (experience),” said Reirden, who was Barry Trotz’s top assistant when the Capitals won the Cup in 2018. “But not being a full-time head coach in this league, and I thought it was important to have someone like Scott that had gone through the same type of thing: Good things that worked for him, in the same breath things that he wished he could do over and positives and negatives we could work on together.”

Settling in to life as a lieutenant isn’t always easy for former head coaches.

Therrien hadn’t been an assistant since his first job in junior in the early 1990s, while Stevens is coming off being fired by the Los Angeles Kings less than a year ago.

“When you’re the head coach, you’re used to speaking all the time,” said Stevens, who has coached the Flyers and Kings and won the Cup twice as an assistant with Los Angeles. “As an assistant coach, you’ve got to listen and speak at the right time. … A coaching staff functions like a team. I think you put egos aside.”

Fired almost exactly a year ago as Blues coach – St. Louis went on to win the Cup with replacement Craig Berube – Yeo still sees the game as a head coach but changes his messaging from talking directly to players to whispering down the line to Therrien so Vigneault gets the gist.

It could be disconcerting for a young coach to look over his shoulder at one or more potential replacements. But some, like Montgomery, New York Rangers coach David Quinn with Lindy Ruff and new Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe with Dave Hakstol could do their jobs even better with some extra experience.

Vigneault felt that way during his first job in Montreal in the mid-1990s when he hired Dave King as an assistant. As the CEO behind the bench, he thinks it’s smart for coaches of all ages to take whatever experience they can get.

“As a young coach, it was real beneficial to me,” Vigneault said. “With my experience now, I can probably use them even better than I did when I started.”

Kings fire head coach John Stevens in effort to right ship

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Needing to turn their season around in a hurry, the Los Angeles Kings fired head coach John Stevens on Sunday.

Not even a convincing 4-1 victory on Saturday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets could help Stevens and assistant head coach Don Nachbaur keep their jobs.

Stevens is being replaced by former Vancouver Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins on an interim basis. Desjardins was let go by the Canucks two seasons ago after failing to make the playoffs two years running. He most recently coached Canada’s national men’s team at last year’s Olympics in South Korea.

The Kings also hired former NHLer Marco Sturm, who most recently coached the German National Team to a silver medal at those same Olympics, knocking out Desjardins’ team in the semifinals.

“This is a critical time in our season and our results to date have fallen well below our expectations. With that in mind, this was a difficult decision but one we feel was necessary,” said general manager Rob Blake. “We have a great deal of respect and appreciation for John’s time with our organization. He was a key part of our past success, and we have tremendous gratitude for his many contributions.”

This is hardly surprising, as Stevens seat had only grown warmer as the season has progressed.

Despite Saturday’s win, the Kings are dead last in the NHL with nine points (tied with Florida but have played two more games). A six-game losing streak was only halted this past week and Stevens just couldn’t extract enough out of an aging Kings teams.

Old and slow doesn’t win the race in hockey.

Whether Desjardins can do any better with the same roster is still up for debate.

The addition of Ilya Kovalchuk has done little to help the Kings score more goals, where they sit plumb last in that category, too, with 28 in 13 games — an average of just 2.15 goals per game. Anze Kopitar is a shell of himself compared to last season. Jonathan Quick can’t stay healthy.

A tough task then for Desjardins.

MORE: Marco Sturm on NHL coaching future, growing hockey in Germany 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Report: Tortorella to be named Canucks coach this week

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It might be the league’s worst kept secret, but it appears John Tortorella is set to become the next head coach of the Vancouver Canucks. CBC’s Elliotte Friedman reported on Hotstove last night that Tortorella would be announced sometime this week he’ll be the new Canucks coach.

Friedman also said the Canucks and GM Mike Gillis have done their due diligence in making sure he’s the right fit.

Assistant GM Laurence Gilman, who worked with Tortorella in Phoenix, was consulted as were former Rangers players Markus Naslund and Chris Higgins. The Canucks’ window for winning a Stanley Cup with this lineup is closing soon and, as Friedman notes, the feeling is that Tortorella will be the guy that will help make Vancouver’s dreams come true rather than someone like L.A. Kings assistant John Stevens.

Related: Report: Canucks offer head-coaching job to Tortorella

Canucks GM says Tortorella is a ‘very strong candidate’

Tortorella arrives in Vancouver, gets swamped by eager media

Add Jacques Martin to list of Canucks coaching candidates

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The list of candidates to be the next head coach of the Vancouver Canucks continues to grow.

Renaud Lavoie of RDS reports former Montreal Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin has interviewed for the job in Vancouver. Martin joins a list featuring John Tortorella, Kings assistant John Stevens, and up until he was hired by Edmonton, Dallas Eakins.

Martin last coached during the 2011-2012 season with the Montreal Canadiens when he was fired mid-season by then Habs GM Pierre Gauthier. Since 1995-1996, Martin has coached three teams: Montreal, Florida for three seasons, and Ottawa for eight-plus seasons.

Aside from Eakins, it appears Canucks GM Mike Gillis is gunning for someone with NHL experience to replace Alain Vigneault. Perhaps the talk of the Canucks’ Stanley Cup window closing has everything to do with that.

McKenzie: Canucks interested in Kings assistant Stevens for coaching job

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TSN’s Bob McKenzie shared, via Twitter, that one person the Vancouver Canucks are interested in to be their next head coach is current Kings assistant John Stevens. Jason Botchford of The Province says Stevens is a guy who could help out in a big way with the team’s defensemen.

Stevens is credited with helping develop Drew Doughty’s game to the level it’s at now as one of the best blue liners in the league. He’s also given credit for helping guys like Jacob Muzzin and Slava Voynov reaching new levels in their game. As Botchford notes, bringing Stevens in could provide a huge benefit for Alex Edler’s game in Vancouver.

The hang-up with desiring Stevens? The fact the Kings are still in the playoffs and could still be there deep into June. If Vancouver wants him to be their guy they’ll need to wait for the Kings to get knocked out to talk to him.

Stevens does have four seasons worth of head coaching experience after leading the Flyers from 2006-2007 through 2009-2010. He also served as the Kings’ interim head coach last year for four games after Terry Murray was fired and before Darryl Sutter took over.