NHL

NHL Mixed Bag: Shake up with Kings, while Coyotes, Islanders turn some heads

Shake up in L.A.

You can say the timing was odd for Rob Blake to dismiss John Stevens as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings, but really, the timing was just unfortunate.

The day after temporarily climbing out of their early-season doldrums with a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Kings fired Stevens and replaced him on an interim basis with Willie Desjardins. The decision reportedly was made after the Kings’ loss to Philadelphia on Thursday, and it was merely a matter of getting Desjardins and new assistant coach Marco Sturm locked in before making the move.

And now, the dynamics in Los Angeles changed drastically.

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Desjardins was brought in from the outside, having most recently coached Team Canada in international tournaments, including the 2018 Winter Olympics. He was the Canucks’ coach for three seasons before being fired at the end of 2016-17.

The real interesting angle here, though, is Sturm.

The 40-year-old former Kings forward is considered a rising star in the coaching ranks and could well be Blake’s top long-term candidate – even though he’s being brought in as an assistant. Desjardins is conceivably in that mix, as well, but it’s hard to believe Sturm would leave his post with Germany’s national team for an NHL assistant gig mid-season if he didn’t think he had a legitimate chance at the full-time job.

In the present, the Kings are 4-8-1, have lost seven of their last nine games and sit eight points back of a wild card spot already in the Western Conference. If they’re going to get going, now’s the time.

As baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra used to say, “It gets late early.”

Charging Coyotes

The Arizona Coyotes weren’t off to the best start a few weeks ago, winning two of their first seven without injured star offseason acquisition Alex Galchenyuk in the lineup.

Since his return, the Coyotes have reeled off five consecutive victories. Arizona can secure their first six-game winning streak in nearly six years if they beat the Flyers at home Monday tonight.

The Coyotes allow the fewest goals per game in the NHL (1.98) and have the league’s top penalty kill, allowing only three goals in 38 times shorthanded. Goaltender Antti Raanta is among the league leaders with a 2.10 GAA and .929 save percentage.

After a terrible start last year, the Coyotes came on when Raanta shook off early-season injuries and carried the team down the stretch – though the club still finished last in the West with only 70 points.

Yet, solid goaltending and improved defensive play are again at the heart of Arizona’s recent success. Their +11 goal differential is second-best in the Western Conference.

The Coyotes are still five points out of the division lead and three back of a playoff position, but they are warming much earlier than a year ago and seem to have the pieces to make this work.

They will be a fascinating team to watch the rest of the way, in a division that’s turning into one of the league’s toughest in 2018-19.

Surprise in the Metro

The Metropolitan Division is home to the last three Stanley Cup champions. Led by the Capitals and Penguins, the Metro is one of the toughest divisions in all of hockey year-in and year-out.

The Rangers and Blue Jackets helped make this a hellish division, too, and last year the Devils made a major leap forward by reaching the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

So, here we are one month into a new season and who is sitting atop the Metro? The New York Islanders?

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Yes, the team that lost the biggest free agent in recent memory, has a patchwork defense and a by-committee approach is one point ahead of the Penguins atop the division as we break into November, following consecutive wins over Pittsburgh last week.

The Islanders and new head coach Barry Trotz (can we get Lou to lift the “no facial hair” rule, just for Barry?) have a different look to them, without question, but it’s largely familiar faces leading the way.

Anders Lee, who assumed the Islanders’ captaincy after John Tavares’ departure, has 13 points (five goals and eight assists) in 13 games. Josh Bailey is at more than a point-per-game pace and while Mat Barzal has only one goal so far, he’s contributed 11 assists.

But without their goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, the Islanders are in a different spot. Greiss’ numbers are gaudy – 1.85 goals against and .944 save percentage – in one less start (6) than Lehner (7). Lehner’s been right there with Greiss, holding a .928 save percentage which is more than enough to give his team a chance to win.

Can they maintain this pace, which includes a five-game winning streak heading into Monday? Considering it’s only a matter of time before the Capitals, Penguins, Blue Jackets and others kick into gear, the odds are against the Islanders.

But it would be foolish to count them out with their new Cup-winning coach, improved defensive structure and goaltending and a core group of returnees hell-bent on making the first year of the Post-Tavares Era a successful one.

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