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John Stevens Era near end, Mike Richards nearing return for Kings

December 19, 2011 | 11:04 am

Greetings from The Center of the Hockey Universe, also known as Toronto.

As always in Canadian cities, there was a huge media crowd at the Kings’ game-day skate at the Air Canada Centre on Monday, and the assembled throng got to witness John Stevens’ final morning skate as the Kings’ interim coach.

The timetable for Darryl Sutter’s succession now figures to be an announcement of his hiring on Tuesday, his first practice on Wednesday morning followed by a news conference, and his first game behind the bench on Thursday against the Ducks at Staples Center.

Stevens is 1-2 since temporarily taking over for Terry Murray, unable to halt a skid that has reached six losses in seven games. In addition, the Kings have been held to two goals or fewer in 11 straight games and are the league’s lowest-scoring team on a per-game average. Their power play is scoreless in 18 chances over the last six games.

Stevens will be part of Sutter’s staff, though it’s unclear whether Sutter will want to bring in an assistant of his own. He said he enjoyed the experience as interim coach, though it was taxing in many ways.

“I love coaching whether it’s an assistant or head position. Obviously this week has been very difficult with what’s transpired with Terry,” said Stevens, who tried to lighten the mood Sunday by taking the team to Dairy Queen after practice.

“Terry’s a good friend of mine and a man I have an enormous amount of respect for. It’s been difficult emotionally just dealing with that, but from a coaching perspective it’s a big change going from just running the [defense] to running the bench. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s something I love to do, just working with the players.

“Clearly there’s a lot more preparation that goes in from the head coaching position when you don’t just give your opinion on the play and you try and come up with the plan. Obviously the big highlight is you get to talk to the media every day.”

No doubt.

Stevens planned a few lineup changes Monday against the Maple Leafs. Defenseman Willie Mitchell, who has missed six of the last seven games because of a groin injury, will return and will be paired with Jack Johnson. Also, center Andrei Loktionov was to return after spending one game as a spectator, and he was to center for Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis.

“Willie’s good to go so we’ll certainly welcome him back in, especially in consideration of Toronto’s power play and how dangerous they’ve been all year,” Stevens said, referring to the Maple Leafs’ 22.3%  success rate, second in the NHL. “We think he’s an elite penalty killer and we’ll welcome him back tonight.

“We want to get Loktionov back in. It was good for him to get out of a game and watch for a game and take to heart some of the things we asked him to do and give us a good performance here tonight.”

Center Mike Richards, who suffered a head injury Dec. 1, skated again with the team and picked up his activity level. He said his return is approaching. “I’m hoping any time now, I guess,” he said.

“It’s just a matter more or less of getting myself back in shape and feeling comfortable on the ice. Obviously I don’t want to come back too soon. You want to be sure about yourself.

“It’s a tough thing because you’re always thinking about it, so you never know. You want to be ready and when you do come back you don’t want to be cautious when you step in there feeling confident…. I’m starting to feeling comfortable in skates and workouts and I hope to be back soon.”

Richards praised the way Stevens has handled matters as the interim coach. “Everyone’s got trust in John. I’ve had him as a coach and he’s a great coach,” said Richards, who played for Stevens in Philadelphia. “Everybody respects him. I think Dean [Lombardi, the Kings’ general manager] might have handled it right not going behind Terry’s back and try to look for a head coach if things aren’t the right time. He’s a smart guy and we trust his instincts and trust what he’s doing with the team. We have full faith in John.

“When Darryl comes in it’s going to be new people, new faces. So it’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment, but we’re a close group in here and we can kind of battle through it and work through it.”

[For the record: An earlier version of this post omitted the word "not" from Richards' quote.]

Defenseman Drew Doughty said the coaching situation “maybe was a distraction earlier in the road trip but by now we’ve got to be used to it.” He said it’s up to players to do their jobs whether the coach is Stevens or Sutter or anyone else.

“We’re fine with it. We’re excited to get a new coach now,” he said. “John’s doing a great job as head coach right now. We’re all liking his system in place and how he’s leading our team. It’s up to us. We’ve got to go out there and do everything we can to win this game and finally get on a roll. Right now we’re just down emotionally and we need to figure it out and we’ll be fine.

“I don’t really know much about [Sutter]. I heard he’s a bit of a yeller, and I think that’s a good thing. We need someone that’s going to push us to get the best out of us every night. I think he’s going to be a great fit for our team and I’m real excited for him to come along.”

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Anger pours over for Kings

Kings are outmatched in a big way

Darryl Sutter agrees to coach the Kings

-- Helene Elliott in Toronto, Canada 

Photo: John Stevens. Credit: Elise Amendola / Associated Press