John Stevens’s first gig as a head coach in the NHL began, and ended, abruptly. He took over the reins of the Philadelphia Flyers less than three weeks into the 2006-07 season, after Ken Hitchcock was fired, and three years later, Stevens, too, was fired after leading the team to a middling 13-11-1 record at the start of the 2009-10 season.
When Stevens took the Philadelphia job, he oversaw the worst season in Flyers history. The next year they went to the Eastern Conference final. The last game he coached in Philly was a 3-0 loss to the visiting Vancouver Canucks.
The defensive-minded 47-year-old, who for the past three seasons has been an assistant in Los Angeles, is the perceived front-runner for the vacant head coaching job in Vancouver and is expected to be interviewed by the end of this week.
There was a brief explosion of interest this week when deposed New York Rangers bench boss John Tortorella was interviewed in Vancouver on Tuesday but the ornery coach is a much more likely candidate in Dallas, where he is set to be interviewed next week.
What makes Stevens the Canucks’ front runner is his glove-like fit with the team’s needs, which are essentially twofold. First, there is a veteran core – led by the Sedins – which will likely remain unchanged despite president and general manager Mike Gillis’s talk of a “reset.” Stevens has NHL experience and the ability to manage a team that considers itself close to Stanley Cup contention.
Second, Vancouver will rely much more heavily on younger players next year. This is where fired Alain Vigneault was less strong, specifically because he unforgiving of mistakes – see: Zack Kassian.
Stevens won the AHL championship, the Calder Cup, in 2005. It is a trophy he lifted three times as a player, in 1988, 1991, and 1998 – and in 2011 was inducted into the AHL hall of fame.
“Whoever our next coach is will have to be able to work with young players,” Gillis said last week on Canucks broadcaster Team 1040, echoing comments he made after he fired Vigneault last month. “We are committed to getting younger players into our lineup and being patient enough to allow them to develop and play.”
And, finally, Stevens is also something of a blend of the first two points. He has, with some stern force, helped develop young talent in the NHL, specifically defenceman Drew Doughty in Los Angeles. In Vancouver, the likes of the promising but erratic Alex Edler could use such tutelage. Stevens can, in addition, shepherd young defencemen Chris Tanev, and rookie Frank Corrado.
Stevens is one of a field of candidates, perhaps as many as eight, to be assessed as Gillis decides who will lead a hockey team that has been ejected from the first round of the playoffs in two successive seasons.
One name who could spark a battle among Vancouver, New York and Dallas is the currently unavailable Dave Tippett in Phoenix.
Dallas Eakins, the Toronto minor-league coach, scored double interest from Vancouver, sitting down twice, and perhaps that is why Edmonton GM Craig MacTavish – who spent 2011-12 coaching Vancouvers’ AHL affiliate in Chicago – rushed to hand Eakins the Oilers coaching job last Saturday.
Beyond Eakins, and Tortorella, Vancouver has interviewed fired Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan, who probably won’t secure any of the three NHL current openings. Scott Arniel, who had coached in Columbus and led Vancouver’s former AHL affiliate in Chicago, was interviewed. (On Thursday, Vancouver’s new AHL team was approved to base itself in Utica, N.Y.)
Stevens and Vigneault are not entirely dissimilar but there are differences. One is that Stevens might be a bit more of a hard-charger, not exactly a Tortorella but more knuckling than Vigneault, who during some stressed in-game moments would not even join the team in the locker room and leave it to the Sedins, Ryan Kesler, and Kevin Bieksa. Stevens’s boss in Los Angeles, Darryl Sutter, helped bring cohesion to a loose squad last year.
Then there’s the young players. Vigneault was not fond of watching inexperienced NHLers flail on his watch. Now, there is no choice, Gillis has said explicitly several times. Vancouver will have to lean much more heavily on unproved young players next year, largely because the team is in a tremendous salary-cap crunch and names such as their first-round draft choice last year, Brendan Gaunce, a 6-foot-2, 207-pound, 19-year-old centre who captained the OHL’s Belleville Bulls last season, is a definite candidate to make the team.