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

Unlikely teams ruling the roost in Pacific Division

Associated Press
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If you’re a fan of Canadian hockey, then when you woke up on Sunday morning, checked the Pacific Division standings and were met with a sight for sore eyes.

Three western Canadian teams — Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers — in that order, 1-2-3 in the Pacific Division standings.

After scratching your head and rubbing your eyes to check if you had truly woken up, you sipped your coffee and wondered, simply, how?

Let’s take a look, shall we?

Calgary Flames

Calgary has found a way to get it done in the third period like no other team in the NHL thus far this season.

Few teams that trail after two periods of play ended up winning after three, yet here are the Flames with a 5-5-1 record when trailing after 40 minutes. That’s right, in 11 of their 15 games this season, the Flames have trailed after two periods of play. While most teams in the NHL might have a win or two in such a scenario, Calgary has five and managed a point out of another to stand atop the Pacific with a 9-5-1 record.

No other team has scored 28 goals in the final frame, either. The next closest is Colorado and Winnipeg, who each have 20.

Calgary has simply made it a point to come out in the third period and take it to other teams, evidenced by their five-goal outburst after trailing the Avalanche 4-1 entering the third on Thursday, and then their three unanswered against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.

The Flames have won four straight now and have a real chance to put an early stranglehold on the division as they embark on a three-game road trip against Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose.

Calgary isn’t getting the best goaltending at the moment, but they’ve been able to mask it by controlling possession and scoring a pile of goals — they are tied for first with Colorado with 52 goals scored and are tied for second with 32 of those coming at five-on-five.

Vancouver Canucks

Elias Pettersson is shooting at 40 percent.

That’s an incredible number (and one that’s likely to fall) but the Canucks are certainly enjoying it at the moment.

But he’s proved to be an incredible player thus far, highlighted most recently by his five-point night against the Avalanche on Friday.

Like Calgary, goaltending hasn’t been a specialty but scoring goals has. Vancouver is tied for the third most goals in the NHL at 47, so they, too, are outscoring some of their issues in their own end of the ice.

Vancouver’s possession numbers rank them near the bottom of the league but they’re sixth in the league in overall shooting percentage and 10th in five-on-five shooting percentage. If that well dries up at some point, so too will the wins.

But they are also a team decimated by injury. So who knows. The last thing Vancouver wants is to be in the hunt for a playoff spot, miss it, and get a mid-round pick in the middle of a rebuild.

And man, are the Canucks ever exciting to watch.

Edmonton Oilers

Connor McDavid has 21 points this season. Edmonton has 40 goals.

Where would the Oilers be without McDavid? It’s an intriguing question to explore yet one that doesn’t really matter unless he gets injured. The fact of the matter is they do have McDavid and McJesus is carrying the team.

And while drop off is expected for nearly every other player in the NHL that’s had a great start to the season, McDavid is the exception.

He gets defenseman-type minutes and he cannot be contained.

The good news in Edmonton is that other players have woken up.

Leon Draisaitl is producing, as is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and they’ve buckled down defensively, giving up the fifth-fewest high-danger scoring chances. Edmonton’s overall team save percentage isn’t great, but their combined five-on-five save percentage is seventh in the league operating at .935.

What does this all mean? 

In one sense, it doesn’t mean much at all, even if we’re nearing 20 percent completion of the regular season.

That said, the Pacific Division as a whole is quite poor this season. That makes it difficult to predict. And by extension, it also means that every team appears to be in the thick of it (save for Los Angeles at this point).

It also means that there will likely only be three Pacific Division spots up for grabs come April. The Central Division is very good and will likely take the available crossover spot should things stay on the same course.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Predators, Rinne sign two-year, $10 million extension

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It appears that Pekka Rinne will finish his career in the place it started.

The Nashville Predators locked up the 36-year-old netminder on a two-year extension, a lead that will pay him $10 million over its course ($6 million in 2019-20, $4 million in 2020-21). Rinne was drafted by the Preds in the eighth round in 2004. Since then, he’s become the club’s franchise leader in too many records to count.

Not a bad birthday present, again.

Essentially, Rinne takes a hometown discount here. His annual average value will drop from $7 million to $5 million beginning next year, dropping him outside the top 10 highest paid goalies. This is important and we will get to it in a second.

“Pekka Rinne has been the most impactful player our franchise has ever had, both on the ice as one of the NHL’s best goaltenders, and off the ice as a leader in the community,” Nashville general manager David Poile said. “Both the organization and Pekka want him to play his entire career with the Predators, and this helps accomplish that objective, while also stabilizing our goaltending for at least the next two seasons beyond 2018-19. We feel the tandem of Pekka and Juuse Saros is among the best in the League.”

The move might seem quizzical at first glance. The Preds have been grooming Saros as Rinne’s heir-apparent for a while now, so why give Rinne another big-money extension while limiting Saros’ role over the next couple of seasons?

Saros was impressive in his stint as a starter this season with Rinne out with an injury. In eight games (five of which he started in Rinne’s absence) Saros has posted a 6-2-0 record with a .917 save percentage.

The thing is, you can’t just let Rinne go while he’s still on top of his game. He won the Vezina for the first time in his career last season and despite his injury, has the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the league at .961 and owns a 4-1-0 record.

Skeptics will point to his playoff performance last season, including his Game 7 debacle in the second round against Winnipeg, and that’s fair game. Rinne was disastrous, falling from his .927 regular season save percentage mark to .904 in the postseason, including a dreadful .848 in home games.

Perhaps the playoffs were just a blip on the radar. Rinne hasn’t shown any ill-effects stemming from it. It seems Nashville is comfortable with how Rinne has rebounded after putting all the blame on his own shoulders following their playoff exit.

What Poile has engineered here, then, is quite clever. Rinne and Saros (whose cap hit is $1.5 million for the next three seasons) will make a combined $6.5 million, $500,000 less than Rinne is making this year.

Given that the Preds are already counting $69 million toward the cap next year, it’s pretty brilliant that they can keep arguably the best one-two punch between the pipes for a while more.

There’s little risk here. There’s no lengthy term, the money is right and there’s more time to ease Saros into the starter’s role, which is ultimately good for the future of the franchise.

Nashville’s attention now needs to turn to defenseman Roman Josi, who will be looking for a big money extension. The Preds will also have Kevin Fiala, Ryan Hartman and Colton Sissons as restricted-free agents at the end of this season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Hartman’s brace keeps Predators atop NHL summit

The Vegas Golden Knights recent resurgence hit a bump in the road on Tuesday night in Nashville.

Coming into Tuesday’s game on NBCSN, Vegas had cobbled together a 4-1-1 record in the previous six outings to turn around a shaky start to the season.

But few teams have bested the Predators this season and Vegas wasn’t going to be one of them in a 4-1 Nashville win.

Predators goalie Juuse Saros was thrown into a starting role earlier this month after Pekka Rinne went down with injury and had performed admirably entering Tuesday.

Saros helped Nashville weather the first-period storm, turning aside 12-of-13 shots while the Predators could only muster five.

With an intermission to right the ship, Nashville reappeared as a different team in the second — a more normal version of themselves.

Ryan Hartman led the way, scoring twice in 57 seconds to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead. Hartman’s two goals were his first multi-goal game for the Predators since joining them from Chicago last season. Hartman had six points in 21 games with the Predators to finish off the regular season last year.

In 12 games this year, he’s already equaled that mark with three goals and three assists.

The Golden Knights came into Tuesday tied for 29th in the league in goals-for per game, a goal-and-a-half off their torrid pace to start the season last year. Luck hasn’t been on their side so far this season, and that low scoring number didn’t receive a boost in their loss to Nashville.

Vegas came out of the starting gates with purpose and the feverish start was rewarded when Reilly Smith notched his third of the season on the power play.

But the Golden Knights’ side of the jumbotron didn’t see any further action for the rest of the night as Nashville would respond with four unanswered goals.

The Predators continue to rule the roost with a 9-3-0 record.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

NHL on NBCSN: Predators, Sharks aim to extend winning streaks

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and the Nashville Predators at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

No team has gotten off to a better start than the Nashville Predators.

Eight games, seven wins, 14 points (tied with Colorado, who has played an extra game) and a five-game winning streak have the Preds sitting pretty atop of the NHL standings early on.

It’s one of those, ‘Nothing to see here’ type of deals. The Predators paced the NHL with 117 points last season and are well on their way to doing so again, led by Filip Forsberg who has five goals and eight points thus far. It’s not really all the surprising.

What’s impressive is the Preds have been chugging along without Pekka Rinne in goal. He’s on the injured reserve at the moment, giving Nashville’s secret (but not so secret anymore) weapon a chance to shine.

Juuse Saros might have the most team-friendly contract given how good he is. Saros took over for Rinne on Saturday after the latter suffered a lower-body injury and hasn’t conceded a goal since, posting a 31-save shutout against the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday.

Despite their dominance so far, Nashville isn’t taking the 4-3-1 Sharks lightly.

“For me, right now, they’re one of the top teams in the League,” Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette told the team’s website. “Their record is probably not where it should be based on how they’ve played. They’re just a really high-powered team, they have the puck a lot, they’re in your end a lot and they’re capable of exploding… Looking at the opponent coming in here, it’s going to be tough.”

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

San Jose, like Nashville, has found its winning touch recently with two straight wins, including a 5-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres and their most recent ‘W’ in a 4-1 triumph over the New York Islanders.

The Sharks have outscored their opponents 9-2 during that time, led by Logan Couture, who has four goals and five points in his past two games and is riding a three-game point streak.

San Jose feels things are starting to click after some changes over the summer.

“We’re comfortable,” forward Joe Pavelski told NHL.com. “Training camp was quick, felt quick. We were getting up to speed for sure. Things are falling into place. Guys are getting used to the League. We have a couple of young guys filling in some important roles. Every year is a little different.”

The Sharks continue to be without Joe Thornton, who is on IR with a knee injury. Despite the loss of Jumbo Joe, the Sharks seem to be doing fine without him. He is on the road trip, although it’s not certain when he will get back into the lineup yet.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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