Follow @frozenroyaltyEL SEGUNDO, CA — With the Los Angeles Kings set to face their Pacific Division rival, the Phoenix Coyotes, in the 2012 Western Conference Finals—just the second time in the Kings’ 44-year history that they have reached the conference finals—many are still shaking their heads, blown away at the dominance the Kings have displayed in dispatching the Vancouver Canucks in five games, followed by a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues in the second round.
The Kings have accomplished all that by getting solid contributions from throughout their lineup, as 15 players have scored goals in the post-season, and their top players have outplayed their counterparts by a wide margin.
As much as the focus has been on the stellar performances of right wing Dustin Brown, center Anze Kopitar, and goaltender Jonathan Quick, Darryl Sutter has had a tremendous impact since he was hired as head coach on December 20, 2011.
In fact, the Kings are now a dramatically different team, with one exception: how they play in their own end.
To be sure, the Kings’ commitment to defense first has not changed from what former head coach Terry Murray instilled in them during his tenure. In fact, Sutter recently credited Murray for his role in the Kings’ recent playoff success.
“Terry Murray is just as important to winning this series [first round against Vancouver] as anybody,” Sutter said to assistant coach John Stevens, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. “…he was a good coach. [Getting fired is] always what happens. The coach takes responsibility when players don’t perform. He put a lot in place the last two or three years.”
Most notably, Murray put into place the way the Kings play defense, turning a team that had little idea how to play in their own zone and gave up goals in large bunches just a few seasons ago, into one of the premier defensive teams in the National Hockey League.
Where Murray went wrong was, even though he wanted his team to be more aggressive offensively, he apparently didn’t trust his players enough to be able to do that while still playing well defensively, not to mention the fact that his more reserved, laid back style was no longer what his still young, but maturing team needed.
This appears to be how he lost the players so quickly after the first month of the season, ending in his firing on December 12.
Recent comments by Sutter point to the dysfunctional way the Kings were playing prior to his arrival.
“The change that we tried to make was not to spend as much time in our zone,” said Sutter. “It was defending to the point of—that’s all you did was defend. Especially with a young team, it has to be firm and clear. They have to be allowed to use their ability. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve found here.”
“When you break it down, [adding aggressive play on the puck to a solid defensive system is] how the best teams play,” added Sutter. “You have to be good defenders, but you have to be able to play that transition.”
The way the Kings have played through two playoff rounds has showcased the aggressive play on the puck that has been added to their game by Sutter.
“Their initiation made us react early in the game,” Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said after Game 3 of their Western Conference Semifinal series against the Kings. “They’re on top of their game, and have been for a little while.”
That aggressive wrinkle added to their game has resulted in the Kings averaging 3.00 goals per game in the post-season, while allowing just 1.56 goals per game, the best defense in the playoffs (through games played on May 7).
“[Sutter] has changed our system, allowing for a lot more creativity for our forwards,” said veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell. “You can see that in their game, [through] scoring more goals. He’s allowed them to trust their hockey instincts.”
“It’s just a little bit different, and that’s no knock on Terry before, but he’s allowing them to trust themselves, and create plays,” added Mitchell. “He makes you responsible if you do it, but he says, ‘if you want to criss-cross here, cut here, support here, go ahead. But if you’re doing that, the other guy has to [make this] read.’ He allows them a little bit more freedom within our game, but still have structure.”
Murray’s laid back style was rooted in his belief that, especially with young players, a more hands-off, trusting, less confrontational, teaching approach was the way to go. Initially, he was right, and the team responded—they learned what they needed to learn from him, especially valuable lessons on how to play defense.
In other words, Murray is responsible for the building the foundation that the Kings’ current system is built upon, and that cannot be taken away from him or diminished. Nevertheless, not trusting his players to be able to be more aggressive offensively while still playing solid defense, not to mention his insistence on trusting his players to figure out how to prepare themselves for games, proved to be his downfall.
Instead, what the Kings needed was someone to give them a swift kick in the pants once in awhile.
Enter Darryl Sutter, an intense coach who does not mince words.
“He’s hard on you,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “He’s huge on preparation, he makes sure we’re all ready for the game, whether it’s the day before the game, or right before we step out onto the ice. He has ways of doing it, that it just works. He’s so hard on you, it’s almost scary to not be ready, if he catches you off guard, you’re going to be in trouble.”
“He does a great job with that, and that’s a huge part of our success,” added Doughty. “He makes sure our total focus is on our next shift.”
That lack of preparation might explain the fact that the Kings too often came out flat to start games, something rarely seen since Sutter took over.
“I don’t think our preparation was where it needed to be, and you don’t lack preparation with Darryl Sutter,” Mitchell noted. “He has you mentally ready and focused. His preparation, and his focus on preparation for us has been a huge part of that.”
Sutter has also brought the emotional commitment to the Kings, something Murray was never able to achieve.
“He pushes the right buttons,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “One problem we had, as a team, before he got here, was getting emotionally attached to games. He brought that emotional level up.”
That lack of emotion may also be a factor in the Kings’ frequent slow starts in games prior to Sutter’s arrival.
“You can do all the X’s and O’s right, but if you’re not emotionally attached, it’s really hard to win in this league,” Brown emphasized. “He’s brought attention to that, and that comes from pushing guys, and patting them on the back at the right times.”
“I think it’s a big part of the game, the emotional part,” said Sutter. “They’re not machines. There’s a way to draw that out, and a lot of that comes from the leadership group, more than anything. If they can find that within themselves, then they pull guys along with them.”
“When teams have success, that’s the biggest reason,” added Sutter. “Top players [are supposed to have the emotional commitment], and when a team doesn’t have success, it’s because their top players don’t. That’s always evident, [and] it doesn’t matter if its regular season or playoffs.”
Sutter’s tremendous intensity has much to do with his team’s newly-found emotional investment.
“His demeanor, his excitement, and passion for the game—if you see him walking around on game day, he’s excited,” Mitchell explained. “He’s passionate. He wants to win. That’s what you want, right? You want to look across the dressing room, and see your teammate like that, too.”
“That’s why you play,” Mitchell elaborated. “Game days are the best time in hockey. Game days are what its all about. Competing against someone at such a high level is what makes [games] special.”
In the end, the Kings were at a point where they needed the firm hand, the more in-your-face coaching that was not Murray’s style.
“Darryl brings a different style of coaching, definitely more intensity, a more in-your-face attitude,” said veteran defenseman Matt Greene. “That’s what a lot of guys needed, somebody to be on them, to ride them a little harder than Terry did. He’s gotten results.”
“Terry held guys accountable,” added Greene. “It’s just a different way of getting it across. They’re pretty much polar opposites, where Terry would let you go about your business, and let you figure it out for yourself, while Darryl lets you know exactly what he’s thinking, and what you’re not doing right.”
Sutter came in with a reputation of being an in-your-face, confrontational head coach. But that was just the tip of the iceberg, as he has also been described as a turning-red-in-the-face screamer.
But there has been no sign of that since his arrival in Southern California, and even he says that screaming at players is not his style.
“The only time you yell or holler is because the crowd is loud,” said Sutter. “How can anyone get a point across by yelling or hollering?”
Evidently, that is exactly what Sutter has not done with the Kings.
“That’s a dinosaur,” he noted. “The best coaches I played for, and the best coaches that I worked with, weren’t. They were straight up, straight shooters. They’d look at you, and tell you the truth. A lot of times, what’s best for the individual is not what’s best for the team, and you have to be able to manage that.”
“It’s especially difficult because of the age difference on your team, and the backgrounds they come from, so there’s always a group that’s right with the staff, there’s a handful that’s not sure, and there’s a handful who are sure.”
Based on recent results, the Kings appear to have a great deal more than a handful who are.
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