November 6, 2018 | 8:00pm ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
A WD-40 JOB IN LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES, CA -- While on my way back from the Global Series in Finland on Sunday, Los Angeles Kings GM Rob Blake made winners of the bettors who laid their money down on John Stevens being the first NHL coach fired this season. With his Kings taking a full stumble out of the starting gate and showing only intermittent signs of life, Blake looked for a solution and found it in his local hardware store.
You’ve got an NHL team who was supposed to be a contender but is stuck in first gear? Just reach for a can of WD-40.
You’re not familiar? It’s the product invented over 60 years ago in lovely San Diego, California that protects metal from rust and corrosion, penetrates stuck parts, displaces moisture and lubricates almost anything. It even removes grease, grime and more from most surfaces.
That sure sounds like these Kings after 13 unlucky games – rust and corrosion, stuck parts, grimy and in need of lubrication is an accurate classification of their play.
This shot of WD-40 is being applied in the form of Willie Desjardins, a former hot commodity in the coaching ranks who makes his debut in L.A. Tuesday against an equally struggling Anaheim Ducks team with another embattled coach in Randy Carlyle.
Desjardins steps behind the bench with a career .498 winning percentage in three seasons with the Vancouver Canucks between 2014 and 2017 and with only the smallest of connections to the Kings franchise.
Was this a shot out of the blue? The proof is in the texts I received at 30,000 feet Sunday that were uniform in their ask:
“What do you know about this guy?”
On balance, he did reverse course after succeeding John Tortorella in Vancouver, leading the Canucks to a second-place finish with an 18-point improvement in his first season that included a return to the post-season, albeit a brief one. The Canucks only post-season appearance under Desjardins was a six-game, first-round defeat at the hands of the Calgary Flames. From there the Canucks drifted to 75 and 69 points seasons, the cause for his ouster in April 2017.
He kept active by coaching in both the 2018 Winter Olympics and Spengler Cup for the gold-winning Canadian team, but that body of work did not have him at the front of hockey minds as a possible replacement for a deposed NHL coach as this season started.
But less than 20 percent into the regular-season Blake determined John Stevens could not and would not get this team back on the rails. Even though one good run will get them back into the pack in a Pacific Division that is clearly the worst of the league’s four, Blake sought out a new voice with new optics to run the bench in a season still in its infancy. And it leaves one to wonder about all the chatter about analytics ushered in by Stevens at the beginning of last season?
As I wrote last week, the players are the primary suspects for their last place standing and you can point directly at last Thursday’s game against Philadelphia as the tipping point. For those that make the argument that the poor pre-season was a precursor to the poor start, the Kings started the season 2-1-1 and I refuse to believe they were considering a coaching change after shutting out the Canadiens in Montreal. Had the pre-season been that much of a concern, Blake would have been using the back channels to see if a coach like Alain Vigneault would be interested. The proximity between the time Desjardins was contacted and he was hired doesn’t fit the timeline of a troubled team coming out of training camp.
Hopefully, Desjardins brings a fresh approach to the league’s worst offense (which should lose that designation with Dustin Brown’s return), but what they won’t get is a change in personality from Desjardins and his new assistant, Marco Sturm (watch him closely, he may be the next non-interim coach).
Some have called for a return to the disciplinarian style of Darryl Sutter; they long to be nostalgic to the grand days of 2012-2014 when one of the best ball busters the coaching ranks has known growled and needled this franchise to its zenith. They claim that Stevens was too nice a guy and now the pendulum must swing back to a bad guy.
Good luck, it’s 2018. The style that Sutter and those like him bring no longer resonates with this breed of player. Stevens, in fact, got the L.A. locker room back after Sutter had done so much damage that Kings chose to pay him not to coach their team and despite his two Cup Rings, no one was interested upon his departure.
If you don’t believe me, the words of Blake regarding the selection of Sturm should convince you:
“Part of the reason, you know, new generational coaching style, success at the international stage, success as a player, player relations, tremendous person.”
The Urban Dictionary definition of “new generational coaching style” does not include “screaming or ridiculing millionaire players constantly.” If you choose to be nostalgic about the task master, that’s your prerogative, it’s soon to be an extinct breed in professional sports.
Now imagine waking up less than 48 hours into your new gig and finding out the longest tenured coach in the NHL, Joel Quenneville, was relieved of his gig by the Blackhawks. While conspiracy theorists would like to put Desjardins interim tag in capital letters with Q’s dismissal, the math supporting a move, not the mention the alienation from the coaching community for such as quick about-face is unrealistic:
Only one comment on Q > LA.— Dennis Bernstein (@DennisTFP) November 6, 2018
Kings coaches presently on payroll:
It’s uncertain what level of potential interest exists from either side just hours from the second coaching change of this season, but like it or not, it opens up Blake for a huge second guess if Desjardins does not revive his team. Some will question if Blake had exercised a bit more patience and waited until the customary 20-game mark to assess his team and coach, he would have had a great additional option to consider and one that will not likely be around this summer. Things could get really intriguing if the Ducks decide to cut bait on Randy Carlyle and replace him with Quenneville, but those are the risks that come with the corner office role.
So, what’s next? Is one application of WD40 alone going to improve things? And why WD40?
If it took Blake 13 games to assess that Stevens was no longer the man for the job, it should take no more than 40 games to determine if Desjardins is the rightful and longer-term successor. Game 53 falls on Feb. 5, 2019, 20 days from the NHL trade deadline, approximately the time GMs decide if they are in sell or buy mode.
Desjardins is not a first-timer; his sense of urgency can’t be any higher given his shot at redemption and admittedly doubted he would get another opportunity in the big show after Vancouver.
For those who choose to be optimistic, when Desjardins was installed in Vancouver his strategy was to combine speed with a balanced four-line approach. When he had the horses, it worked well, but as the roster aged and a move towards youth was made, the talent wasn’t there to maintain that approach in a winning manner.
The clock starts immediately for Desjardins, he does so without the benefit of a training camp with an unknown quantity as his top assistant and climbing on a last place horse before the reaching the first turn but that’s the price you pay to get back into the game. If Desjardins can’t get this team ready for a stretch run for the playoffs in half a season, then flip the script and make major changes. That’s his charge, but his new boss has further work to do.
Blake can’t afford to wait until 40 games into Desjardins Days to make a roster move. Yes, he is dealing from weakness and it may cost him a premium on the acquisition cost, but there is nothing in Tanner Pearson or Adrian Kempe’s nightly efforts that point to them being a significant contributor this season. They were counted on to either reestablish or elevate themselves into a top-six forward role, but have significantly regressed. Moving either player alone would not get a player of significance, so either Jake Muzzin or Alec Martinez need to be into the bargain, but it’s a necessary premium because replacing John Stevens is a half-measure. A trade of significance must be made – Blake got the entire room’s attention with WD40, he needs to make them uncomfortable with at least one major roster flip.
The primary culprits for the Kings’ start are the players – they’ve owned it publicly and privately and have compassion that their collective cost a good man his job. But the time for hurt feelings and apologies are over. Despite the atrocious start, the Pacific Division continues to cooperate nightly by not putting significant distance between the half dozen teams and the cellar-dwelling Kings. The biggest thing Desjardins has going for him is the still-friendly home schedule (seven of next 10 at home, two of the three road games are against Chicago and St. Louis) and seven “four-point” Pacific Division games before November ends.
A fool would deem this season over after 13 games. The “Lose for Hughes” suggestions are humorous. There is plenty of racetrack left, but the time to make up furlongs is now.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE POND
Our trip to Helsinki for the NHL Global Series was enjoyable, productive and surprisingly newsworthy. Helsinki is a lovely town – it’s a small but stylish city with no traffic issues where everyone speaks English and late October/early November did not present brutal weather in a city whose airport is titled Santa’s Official Gateway.
The hockey fans are passionate, if not reserved, as they packed the Hartwall Arena for both contests between the Florida Panthers and the Winnipeg Jets. Over 26,000 fans snapped up tickets in just five minutes as the NHL’s popularity across Europe continues to grow; this round buoyed by the performance of the local heroes, Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Florida’s Alexsander Barkov.
What I didn’t know at the start of my 10,000+ mile sojourn is that it would produce significant news on two fronts in Los Angeles. At the end of the opening press conference with Gary Bettman and Bill Daly, this happened:
BREAKING - Slava Voynov has applied for NHL reinstatement per Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly— Dennis Bernstein (@DennisTFP) November 1, 2018
"We’re in process of an intense factual investigation. I’m not in a position to give timeline. When investigation is done, Commissioner will deal with his application for reinstatement."
As things go in the world of Twitter, this news went viral quickly to the tune of 200,000 views and started the clock on the final determination of Voynov’s eligibility to return to the NHL.
It’s no surprise the overwhelming negativity and profanity in responses to the tweet, but from a Kings perspective, though the organization remains without comment until a final determination is made, Blake and ownership now must deal with the possibility of a reinstated Slava Voynov and what to do with the rights they still own by placing him on the voluntary retired list.
The process is in its early days and that is helpful from a public relations standpoint because if Voynov was deemed eligible today given the Kings’ start, would the possibility of a top-four NHL defenseman being added to a floundering team enhance a return to Los Angeles?
It’s my understanding Voynov has already played his last game in a Kings uniform, but I do not believe he has played his last NHL game. I don’t see a scenario where a lifetime ban would be handed down by the NHL – I’m not sure they can even go that route – but it’s certain a significant suspension would be attached to reinstatement. As for specifics, I can’t venture a guess as to which team would be willing to take on the public relations disaster and the distraction that Voynov would bring, but the mere fact he is applying for reinstatement tells me there is a level of interest. Blake also confirmed that teams had checked in on his status since he’s been in the GM’s chair.
To close on a far more positive note, Kings fans will have the opportunity to enjoy their own European vacation next season.
With intel first supplied by The Mayor John Hoven, Los Angeles will open next season overseas as part of the 2019 NHL Global Series.
Daly confirmed one team will conclude its 2019-20 pre-season in Switzerland and another in Germany, upon which they’ll meet in Prague, Czech Republic for at least one regular-season game to open the season in October, just like the Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils did this season. Two additional teams will play two games in Stockholm, Sweden, in Nov. 2019.
While the teams participating overseas next season haven’t been announced yet, we’ve been able to confirm the Kings will wrap up their pre-season in Berlin and then open the 2019-20 campaign in Prague. It’s unclear who their NHL opponent will be.
Having attended NHL games in Europe four times since 2007, I can say it’s truly a memorable experience to see the game played overseas. Is it expensive? Without question, but if you can swing the finances, I assure you it will be worth the time and expense.
Maybe we’ll meet in Berlin for Bratwurst or a Pilsner in Prague.