Golden Knights assistant coach John Stevens knows what it takes to win in the NHL. As an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings, Stevens was the architect of one of the best defensive units in the league leading the Kings to a pair of Stanley Cup titles in 2012 and 2014. When he came to Las Vegas, he stood behind the Golden Knights bench and oversaw a defensive unit that dominated night in and night out on their way to the promised land again.
Stevens recently sat down with hockey author, podcaster, and skills coach Anthony Donskov to chat about Vegas’ run to the Cup. The brother of former Golden Knights assistant Misha Donskov dove deep into many of Stevens’ philosophies in an excellent interview well worth a listen from start to finish.
Donskov asked Stevens what are the tangible assets a team must have to win. Stevens gave him a three-pronged answer.
You have to start with personnel. The teams that I’ve won with both in the American League and the National League it seems that the consistent thing with those teams is being really good down the middle of the ice with centermen and really good on the back end. –John Stevens on The HPH Podcast with Anthony Donskov
Jack Eichel, William Karlsson, Chandler Stevenson, and Nic Roy. Yeah, the Golden Knights were pretty darn good down the center. On the back end, they had the best unit in the NHL. Check and Check.
This may come as a shock to the readers of this site, but I’m going to say it anyway. Pete DeBoer used to be the coach of the Golden Knights and now he’s on the other bench coaching VGK’s opponent in the Western Conference Final.
I know, bet you didn’t even realize it until just right now.
But seriously, all joking aside, the familiarity of DeBoer and the majority of the current Golden Knights roster will play a significant role in this series.
I think it’ll help them a lot because he does know certain tendencies of the players and he can point out things that they may be able to do. I was in Boston six years, if we play them tomorrow I certainly know some of what you don’t see on film about the individuals. He’ll help their defensemen against or forwards or their forwards forechecking our D. -Bruce Cassidy
The familiarity goes both ways though as DeBoer is not the only one who has spent time coaching the other side. Golden Knights’ assistant coach, John Stevens, who runs the defense for Vegas, spent each of the last three seasons behind the bench in Dallas running their D.
Five of the seven regular defensemen played under Stevens including the most important trio of Miro Heiskanen, Ryan Suter, and Esa Lindell.
In addition to Stevens’, Cassidy believes the other two holdover assistants will be of help to the Golden Knights as well. Both Ryan Craig and Misha Donskov were assistant coaches running DeBoer’s system in Vegas.
We had our meeting this morning and I just put up my feet up relaxing because they have all the information and it’s just up to me to decide what to do with it in a couple days. -Cassidy
From systems to individuals, the awareness of what’s happening on the other bench is going to be at an all time high. Vegas’ players keenly understand exactly what the Stars are trying to do in all three zones and should have good enough memories about what is necessary to cause tactical problems. Meanwhile, DeBoer knows the strengths and weaknesses of every significant player on the roster and should be able to help guide his current team into exploiting them.
There will be more information available early in this series. There’s a little more knowledge this series, internal knowledge, and we’ll see how that plays out. -Cassidy
On top of information and knowledge, the familiarity also brings a bit more motivation.
There’s no doubt it means a little more obviously to me and that would be for anybody in this situation. I think the important thing for me here is the hockey and the focus on the players though. -Pete DeBoer
Meanwhile after DeBoer’s dismissal, there were some murmurs from players that the DeBoer system had become too regimented and there needed to be more freedom to make plays. Vegas will want to prove to themselves and to their former coach that they were right by finding holes in the system they were chained to the last two and a half seasons.
One side will win, one side will lose, and oddly enough, each probably already know exactly how it’s going to happen.
One of the few sore spots for the Golden Knights to this point in the season has been their penalty kill. Operating at just 75% efficiency, the Vegas kill has allowed 10 goals and some important ones.
Similar to the defensive structure, a system overhaul was put in place this season on the penalty kill with assistant coach John Stevens taking the reins.
The Golden Knights play a much more passive system than they had been deploying under Pete DeBoer. It’s also multiple, meaning it doesn’t look the same against every single opponent.
In DeBoer’s highly aggressive system, the Golden Knights would take away the pass across the blue line in an effort to contain the puck to one side of the ice. Then, they’d use angles and stick position to find numbers advantages in order to take away the puck. In the new system, there’s a set plan in place, but it can change from game to game. Head coach Bruce Cassidy gave a pair of examples from recent games.
When there’s a true elbow shooter like (Tage) Thompson in Buffalo we would rather avoid that one. They ended up getting the shot they wanted and scored. When Toronto was here with (Auston) Matthews and (Mitch) Marner on the elbows, we would rather give (Morgan) Rielly the shot from the middle and deal with the screen and tip in front. -Cassidy
When they identify a particular strength of the team, they look to alter the system slightly in order to take away that option. Regularly though, the plan is to make sure the shots come from outside of the faceoff dots.
The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in both 2012 and 2014. They did it with a very specific style of play that led to a countless number of teams attempting to copy their way to success. That style relied heavily on possession, shot suppression, and tactically sound defensive hockey in all three zones.
A suddenly familiar name was a huge reason why.
As an assistant coach, John Stevens has an unbelievable track record. The defensive numbers, the penalty kill numbers, all of the possession metrics point to him being a brilliant defensive hockey tactician. -Jesse Cohen, Producer/Host of All The Kings Men Podcast
Stevens stood behind the bench as an assistant coach for the Kings from 2010 to 2017. During that time, he ran LA’s defense which allowed the fewest goals and shots while winning 44 playoff games and two Cups.
There are people who accuse Jonathan Quick of being a “system goalie.” If that’s true, though I don’t subscribe to this theory, it’s John Stevens’ system that made him. -Cohen, Producer/Host of All The Kings Men Podcast
Stevens also was the mastermind behind a penalty kill that boasted an 87% penalty kill in the playoffs and finished above the league average in seven consecutive seasons.
Earlier this week, Stevens was announced as the new assistant coach for the Golden Knights.
We’re definitely looking for someone to run the D and PK. Hopefully look for someone with some experience and knows the West more than I do. –Cassidy to TSN 1200 on 6/20
The only real knock on Stevens is his pair of stints as a head coach in the NHL. In Philadelphia, he got off to a rough start seeing his team finish dead last in his first season. The Flyers turned it around under Stevens earning a playoff berth in his second season and winning multiple rounds before being bounced in the conference final. He was fired shortly into his third season after a 13-11-1 start. In LA, Stevens was promoted to “Associate Head Coach” in 2014 before assuming the job as real head coach in 2017. His Kings made the playoffs but were ultimately swept in the first round by the Golden Knights. 13 games into his second year, he and his 4-8-1 record were kicked to the curb.
I think he is an astute hockey mind and a tremendous human being, but I don’t think that anybody could have done the job he was asked to do with the Kings. -Cohen, Producer/Host of All The Kings Men Podcast
Hoping to have his name engraved in the Cup for the third time, Stevens appears to be the perfect fit to run the Golden Knights’ defense and penalty kill in 2022-23.
It’s rare that a top prospect goes undrafted in the amateur draft. There are seven rounds, 30 players selected (31 now) which is plenty to restock all of the NHL rosters and their AHL and ECHL affiliates. However, many college free agent players have become impactful NHL’ers over the past. Adam Oates, Ed Belfour, Dan Boyle, Tyler Bozak, Conor Sheary and Torey Krug were all NCAA free agents. You can call it great or poor scouting but either way there’s value with some NCAA’s nomads.
March 1st is the date teams can dive into the college free agent market and sign any player that has gone undrafted after three years of eligibility. Vegas will be able to join the party whenever that final payment clears, which appears now to be closer to the 6th than the 1st. It shouldn’t make a big difference in the case of college free agents because every one of the Original 30 have passed on these players at least once, probably two or three times.
The other way players can become free agents is if they fail to come to terms with a team that selected them. Jimmy Vesey and Kevin Hayes were both players that were drafted but couldn’t come to terms with their original teams. Both players signed with the Rangers and are a major part of their core. Can GM George McPhee sign a March prospect that others passed on? Here are this year’s top prospects who remain free agents.
TSN’s Bob McKenzie wrote about the Ohio State Buckeye a few weeks back that contained one of the coolest scouting reports.
Hits too hard for college hockey. His game will be better suited to pro. -NHL Scout