EL SEGUNDO AND LOS ANGELES, CA — On this Christmas Day 2011, families around the world are celebrating the holiday season, while young children, who have been dreaming for weeks about what Santa Claus might bring them, are, hopefully, waking to find that their dreams have come true.
For the Los Angeles Kings, they are hoping that Santa will bring them the extra goal or two per game that they have sorely missed all season long. They are also hoping that they have found their savior in new head coach Darryl Sutter, the 53-year-old native of Viking, Alberta, who was hired on December 20, replacing Terry Murray, who was fired on December 12, after the Kings slipped and slid their way through the last few weeks.
The 24th head coach of the Kings, Sutter has earned a 409-320-131 record in 860 regular season games. He is tied for 27th among all-time National Hockey League head coaches in games, and is ranked seventh among active coaches). He is also tied for 24th all-time among NHL head coaches in wins, seventh among active coaches.
Sutter is also one of only nine head coaches in NHL history to lead three different teams to 100 wins. Only Scotty Bowman and Ron Wilson have coached four different teams to 100 wins.
Despite having a losing record (47-54) in 101 post-season games, Sutter’s teams have qualified for the playoffs in ten out of eleven seasons, and he led the Calgary Flames to the seventh game of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals.
“We’re the same age, but we grew up in different environments, one, the son of a factory rat, the other, the son of a farmer,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. “But the values are the same. You work hard, you’ll be rewarded. You have an identity, you stand for something, and, as long as you work hard, and you’re a good teammate, we’ll have all the time in the world for you.”
As reported above, Sutter has some pretty lofty credentials.
“As a coach, he’s seen each end of the spectrum,” Lombardi noted. “When he took over the Blackhawks, it was a good team, and he led them to their second highest point total in their history. When we were in San Jose together, we took over a bad team, and improved it six years in a row, while getting younger every year.”
“In his last tour, at Calgary, he took over what was probably not a very good team, and willed them to the Stanley Cup Finals,” Lombardi added. “With this type of background, what I’m really excited about is, I think this guy is in his prime, and I really think the best is yet to come.”
“As far as what Darryl has accomplished, and what type of man he is, you just have to look at his background. Coming out of junior hockey with the Chicago Blackhawks, an 11th-round draft pick. They didn’t want to sign him out of junior, so he went to Japan to play. He had a scholarship to Princeton University, [but] turned it down to pursue his dream as a player. After the Blackhawks signed him, where did he end up? A forty-goal scorer in this league, a captain of one of the most storied franchises in the National Hockey League.”
Lombardi had three potential candidates for the job, but quickly narrowed his list.
“I had a very small list, and it went down in a hurry,” he said. “There were three guys I had in the back of my mind.”
“I was looking for a certain [mode of operation], and they kind of fit,” he added. “I really believe that he’s in his prime. Being familiar with him, and believing the same things, in the end, it made the most sense.”
Sutter, who was introduced at a press conference on December 21, was hoping for an opportunity to return to coaching in the NHL. But he was more than a bit surprised when the Kings called.
“I always told my family if I had a great opportunity, that I was going to go back and coach—stay in the game in that capacity,” he said. “I wanted to go with people I was familiar with, and think the same as you do, and it’s a good hockey club.”
“I’m not the kind of guy who was sitting there, hoping there would be a [coaching] change somewhere,” he added. “I certainly didn’t expect the Los Angeles Kings to be looking for a head coach, that’s for sure, because of the team that they have.”
“I think we have, it goes without being said, five or six of the best young players in the game, and a good, solid core of veterans, a lot of guys who have won championships, and that’s important—a lot of guys I can identify with, I think. I know it’s been a tough couple weeks for them, but at the same time, I know we’ve got lots of ground to cover, and I know they’re capable of doing that.”
What Ails The Kings?
The bottom line is the Kings are not meeting some very high expectations, sitting in fourth place in the Pacific Division through games played on December 24, and 11th in the Western Conference, even though they have managed to keep their heads above water, remaining just four points out of the division lead, and from third place in the conference.
One thing is stands out like the proverbial sore thumb is that they are dead last in the NHL in scoring, averaging an anemic 2.09 goals-per game (GPG).
To put things into perspective, the Boston Bruins lead the league in scoring with 3.52 GPG, 1.43 GPG more than the Kings.
Despite that glaring problem, no one should expect Sutter to toss out the Kings current system like the proverbial bath water, replacing it with fire wagon hockey, or anything even approaching that.
“I think, number one is you don’t want to over-emphasize that,” said Sutter. “There are players who have had trouble scoring this year, but they aren’t guys who are going to have trouble scoring over their careers. There are small things involved in the game…little areas of the game we can be a lot better at.”
“We’re going to try to be a more high pressure team, without being a risky team,” added Sutter. “We have the personnel to do that, putting more pressure on pucks.”
Sutter took note of how the game is being played these days.
“A big part of it is that this is a 3-2 league,” added Sutter. “It’s not a 5-2 or 5-4 league, so there’s a tremendous impact by being good defenders, not spending as much time in your own zone, and spending more time in the offensive zone, controlling the neutral zone. There’s lot of parts to it. It’s not just because we haven’t scored enough goals.”
“If you [look at] all the goals for and against in the league, [games often end in 3-2 scores]. That’s basically what it is. You might win, 4-1, one night, and then lose 2-1, or 2-0. But the fact of the matter is, it is a 3-2 league. We have some ground to cover to get to that.”
Fortunately for Sutter, he has inherited a solid defensive team from Murray, one that is ranked sixth in the NHL defensively, allowing just 2.34 GPG.
“In terms of what Murray put in place, stabilizing this franchise, is immeasurable, and I don’t want to lose the things he taught,” said Lombardi. “It’s about adding to our game. What he put in place, as far as defensively top [six] in the league, that has to stay. We have to add to our game. Part of that is we’re going to make it more difficult on you. That’s going to be a transition.”
If Sutter is not going to make wholesale changes to the system, what will get the Kings heading back in the right direction?
More heart, attitude, emotion, and accountability.
“[I will be] really honest, firm, [and I will work] to get the most out of them,” Sutter emphasized. “You hear about overachievers and underachievers. Really, overachieving is getting the most out of yourself, and I think that’s what I can help a lot of guys with. There’s a lot of young guys, who’ve got a lot of growth [ahead of them], and there’s a veteran group we have to push to help our young players to get better.”
“We met with the team prior to going onto the ice [on December 21] for quite awhile,” Sutter added. “We reviewed their season—where they’ve been, what’s going on, where we’ve got to go, what we have to do, sort of the ‘seize the moment’ type of thing, how we have to approach it, all while being really straightforward, and understanding their input.”
Emotion just might be the biggest thing the Kings need more of.
“Players need to be pushed and pulled,” Sutter noted. “Sometimes, they need to be pushed. Other times, they need to be pulled, and they want it. They want success, and they know they’re good.”
“I think, X’s and O’s, this team is as good as there is in the game,” Sutter added. “The one thing that hasn’t changed is that this is men playing a boy’s game. There is some emotion involved in it, and I think that’s what I have to get out of them.”
Right wing and team captain Dustin Brown addressed that very same issue.
“As Darryl said to us, everything’s going to be the same in terms of our system and our personnel,” he said. “It’s our attitude that’s going to have to be the difference-maker. Our approach, in terms of the X’s and O’s, is going to be very similar. It’s more about the attitude, and having it every night. We have players in here who kind of wear their heart on their sleeve. I think he wants more of that.”
“It’s different for every player,” he added. “Some need a kick in the [rear end] to get going. Other guys can do it on their own, pushing themselves. One thing he preached was that this is a group. When you’re going through tough times, you’ve got to lean on each other.”
“If you look at our [most recent] road trip, we had three games with forty shots [or more]. I don’t know if we had a game prior to that with forty shots. We didn’t change our system. We didn’t change our forecheck. We didn’t change our neutral zone [play]. We changed our attitude. Yeah, in Detroit, we got [blown out]. But, in the other three games, nothing had changed, except our attitude.”
Sutter also emphasized the concept of team.
“We had a meeting in here today, where he laid out his thoughts, and where we need to go,” said Brown. “One thing that came across to me was that we’re all in this together, so we’ve got to pull together here.”
“We’ve got to be together, as a team,” said center Jarret Stoll. “We need complete buy-in from everyone on the team, whether they’re playing, or sitting out. That was the major message. The one thing I took out of it was complete buy-in, 100 percent, on and off the ice, intensity, work ethic—everything the Sutter [family is] all about.”
“He’s going to bring intensity, he’s going to bring a work ethic, game in, and game out,” added Stoll. “[He wants us to] be a tough team to play against.”
Sutter needs to find a way to get his new team to display that attitude on a consistent basis.
“If we can find a way to have that attitude every night—we haven’t scored three goals in a game [in a long time], and everyone’s aware of that,” said Brown. “But at the same time, if you can continue to shoot more than forty pucks on the net, you’re going to score more than two goals in a game.”
“I don’t think there’s going to games where you see players take nights off,” added Brown. “That’s happened too much around here.”
Sutter also pointed to the need for consistency.
“I don’t think it’s a lack of emotion,” he noted. [Rather], you’re trying to get a consistent level in. You’re looking for a consistent pattern, and that’s where I think I can help. I know I can. From a technical standpoint, they’re a very good hockey club, so I think there’s something else there that I have to pull out of them.”
Sutter is also expected to give the Kings a greater sense of identity.
“I think the one thing he immediately gives your team is an identity,” said Lombardi. “You know he stands for something, and usually, when you have an identity, and you stand for something, some people are going to like it and some people aren’t. But you’re going to stand for something. That was the experience I had with him in San Jose, [and] I think he clearly did that in Calgary.”
“As soon as he comes in, your team starts getting an identity,” added Lombardi. “So, if you ask me for that intangible, that you can’t define or you can’t put into numbers, and I think that’s critical, I really do think that we’ve struggled with that a bit this year, and I think if we’re ever going to get to the level that we want to get to, I don’t care how good your players are, you have to establish an identity and stand for something. ‘This is the way we’re going to play,’ and away you go.”
Sutter is known to have a fiery, in-your-face side. But he downplayed his emotional tendencies.
“I don’t think it comes into play at all,” he said. “As long as we’re all on the same page, it’s not that big of a deal. I know a lot of the veteran guys, and some of the kids, though national programs. So that’s a side issue, and will always be a side issue. That’s not what we’re thinking about at all.”
“I think the biggest problem I had with players was that they couldn’t hear me,” he added. “I wasn’t loud enough. ‘You’ve got to talk louder, because we can’t hear what you’re saying.’”
Lombardi indicated that Sutter knows when to turn it on and off.
“[Sutter] isn’t a raving lunatic,” Lombardi noted. “Actually, a lot of [a head coach’s] best moments are just calling you in and looking you in the eye. That’s more powerful than screaming at them. He’ll have his moments, but you’re talking about a guy who could’ve gone to Princeton here, and he’s smart enough to know it’s not all about [ranting and raving]. He knows when to take the pedal off the metal.”
“It’s more about holding players accountable, and I totally agree with him,” Lombardi added. “I get it that [players] have changed on the outside. But deep down? I’m not buying it. They want to be pushed. You have to get the athlete to do want he doesn’t want to do so he can become what he wants to become. It’s just harder to get there today.”
“At times, they’re not going to like [being pushed]. But if you ask the guys who played for him, to a man, whether it was the hard-nosed [Jeremy] Roenick, or guys who, maybe, are a little on the softer side, [they all say that]. ‘The guy made me better, and I’d play for him in a second.’”
Sutter will use different methods to motivate his players, both loud and not so loud. But no matter what, they had better straighten up and fly right, or they will likely run afoul of their general manager.
“After I let [Sutter] go in San Jose, we played in Phoenix,” Lombardi explained. “The team won that night. Our players, equipment managers and trainers got off our plane and sought him out. So this is not a popularity contest. This guy instills the belief, and I think these players want that. They might not like the process, but, in the end, they want that.”
“Quite frankly, if they don’t [like the process], they’re just entertainers. They’re not amateurs, [so] I’m not going to buy that.”
Pre-Season Expectations Too High?
Heading into the 2011-12 season, the Kings were expected to contend for the Pacific Division and Western Conference leads, and to at least reach the second round of the playoffs, if not the conference finals.
But were those expectations too high?
“I think what happened this year, when you bring in Mike [Richards], whether they learned enough last year, now the bar gets raised even higher,” said Lombardi. “But, it’s like I told them in Columbus [on December 15, this is where you wanted to be. You don’t want to be a Cinderella team.”
“A big part of it is that everything is so close,” added Lombardi. “Certainly, the expectations have risen here, and rightfully so. But even then, the ability to get that separation, like when the New York Islanders were so much better, or, like before the lockout, Detroit and Dallas—they had no holes. Just look at you guys [the media]. When you were doing your beginning of the year predictions, would you have picked Minnesota to be where they are? No.”
“The expectations [and the Kings not meeting them at the moment] certainly exasperates [a lot of people]. They want that immediacy [snapping his fingers rapidly]. But that’s the way it is in life now, anyway.”
Lombardi admitted that his team has not yet made the adjustment to the higher expectations.
“We’ve still got a ways to go to go where we want, which is to be a favorite, a contender,” Lombardi noted. “There’s still some process involved. Let’s face it. The core of this team is still, by far, the youngest in the league, and that’s going to be a process.”
“As we see in the playoffs, it’s still about competing, and yes, we still have to make some adjustments,” Lombardi added.
Indeed, perhaps the expectations were too high.
“There’s not much difference in everybody’s expectations [across the league], and there’s no difference in the teams, so there’s a fine line, and you have to be able to manage them,” said Sutter. “When you have a bunch of young guys, who are still on the way up, when expectations get a little bit higher than, maybe, they should be, maybe they lose their focus a bit.”
“When you look at the changes in the team from last year to this year, the only changes were made at forward,” added Sutter. “The big trade to bring Mike Richards in. [Simon] Gagne replaces Ryan Smyth. You know what? Maybe that hasn’t come together for them yet.”
Blame Aimed At Murray Misguided
Popular belief among many is that Murray was to blame for what ailed the Kings, resulting in him being dismissed as head coach. But if you ask the Kings, to a man, they say that was not the case at all.
Brown indicated that he believed in Murray’s methods.
“I can only speak for myself, [but] was I happy with the way I played, was I happy with how everything went for me? No. I could’ve been a better player under Terry,” he said. “I believed in the way he approached things.”
@LAKingsDru I would package sone D depth for offense, look at a team like WAS or TB.—
Dennis Bernstein (@DennisTFP) December 12, 2011
Frozen Royalty (@frozenroyalty) December 12, 2011
Frozen Royalty (@frozenroyalty) December 12, 2011
“He did a lot for this team, helping us grow,” he added. “From an individual standpoint, I probably had more contact with Terry than most guys, since I’m the captain. All I can say now, is that it’s done. It’s over. There’s probably some renewed excitement among the guys.”
Yes, but only because of Voynov. RT @Ninerboy14 also because JJ has favorable contract, Doughty doesn't, Amart not enough to get anything—
Frozen Royalty (@frozenroyalty) December 12, 2011
“The one thing about this group, and I think it’s critical, there’s no question they care,” Lombardi noted. “If you don’t care, then you can’t push and you’re never going to get to where you want to go. [Last] Monday was hard on all of us. Then, meeting with them again on Wednesday, I don’t doubt that they [felt] accountable.”
“I think they all respected Murph, as we all do,” Lombardi added. “There was no question, to a man, they thought he was a good man. In the end, I think I like the way they handled it. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t an easy meeting on Wednesday either. But, there were no punches pulled. Sometimes the ones you get maddest at the most are the ones you love the most.”
In the end, it was all about results.
“In the end, we’re at the point that when you have expectations, it comes down to wins and losses,” said Lombardi. “It’s easy to pinpoint the coaches, but yes, it’s the players, too. Throw in [the fact that] Doughty was hurt, Richards was hurt, but the bottom line is that it wasn’t getting done up to expectations.
Coaching Change Probably Not Enough
Although Sutter is expected to give the Kings a jump start, chances are that more than a coaching change is needed to help the team generate more offense, which means a roster shake-up may be forthcoming.
As reported here on Frozen Royalty on December 13, and as I posted on Twitter on December 11, if the Kings are going after any of the top snipers in the league, they will need to give up a roster player with high trade value, and the only player they can afford to give up who fits that bill is defenseman Jack Johnson, or, perhaps even younger defenseman Slava Voynov.
Although there is no indication that a trade is in the works, no one should be surprised to see a move made at any time, even right after the holiday movement freeze lifts on December 27.
Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming home contests against the Phoenix Coyotes (December 26, 7:00 PM PST), the Vancouver Canucks (December 31, 7:00 PM), the Colorado Avalanche (January 2, 2012, 7:30 PM), and for other games on their schedule, are available from Barry’s Tickets, an official partner of the Los Angeles Kings. Use the code, “Royalty010” to get a 10 percent discount on their “Best Value” tickets.
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