2011-12 Year-In Review: Coaching Change, Three Rookies, Big Trade Help LA Kings Reach For The Stars

2011-12 YEAR-IN-REVIEW: The Los Angeles Kings were struggling mightily, even after Darryl Sutter took over as head coach just before Christmas. Although things improved marginally, it took the recall of three rookies from the minor leagues, and a big trade, to allow the Kings to play the brand of hockey that would allow them to reach for the stars.

Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter (left), shown here with
center Anze Kopitar (center) and forward Jeff Carter (right)
during a practice session on May 9, 2012.
(click to view larger image)
Photo: David Sheehan/FrozenRoyalty.net
LOS ANGELES — After starting the 2011-12 season with sky high expectations, the Los Angeles Kings were in disarray. They were not anywhere near as successful as they should have been heading into the holiday season, just barely keeping their heads above water with a 13-12-4 mark on December 10, 2011, 29 games into the season.

Although they were not that far off the division lead, or even from first place in the Western Conference yet, that record left the Kings much closer to the cellar of both their division and conference than to the top floor. The reason? A pathetic, pop gun offense that was already at the bottom of the National Hockey League’s statistics.

As reported in the previous installment in this series, the Kings were certainly not even close to meeting those lofty expectations mentioned earlier. That got head coach Terry Murray fired on December 12, at the start of a five-game road trip.

Assistant coach John Stevens filled in as interim head coach, earning a 2-3-0 record during that five-game road swing, and on December 20, Darryl Sutter was introduced to the local media.

“As a coach, he’s seen each end of the spectrum,” Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi said. “When he took over the [Chicago] 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 Final,” 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.”

The Kings would become a team that was extremely aggressive on the forecheck late in the regular season and in the playoffs, which was a key to their success.

“We’re going to try to be a more high pressure team, without being a risky team,” Sutter said during that December press conference. “We have the personnel to do that, putting more pressure on pucks.”

The Kings would indeed become a more aggressive team, but they would not sacrifice their system, which had its foundation in playing solid, often smothering defense, something Murray put firmly into place.

“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.”

As it turned out, although some tweaks were made to the system late in the season that allowed the Kings to be much more aggressive on the puck, much of the change was in their heads.

“As Darryl said to us, everything’s going to be the same in terms of our system and our personnel,” forward and team captain Dustin Brown said on December 20, 2011. “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.”

“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,” Brown added. “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. That’s happened too much around here.”

But that aggressiveness on the puck did not come instantly. In fact, the Kings were pretty much the same team, by and large, for weeks after Sutter took over.

That said, they did show some signs of life in the offensive zone, including a decisive, 4-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks at Staples Center on New Year’s Eve, a game that ended a career-high 17-game goal scoring slump for center Anze Kopitar.

But that tremendous offensive outburst was an anomaly for the Kings at that point in the season—they were still ranked dead last in the NHL on offense in January. To illustrate, though January 11, the Kings had scored three or more goals in regulation play just twelve times in 43 games.

A common refrain heard in the Kings dressing room at that time was that they got their chances, but just could not score, for whatever reason.

“I thought we out-chanced them, but we didn’t finish [our] opportunities,” Sutter said following his team’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Calgary Flames on January 19. “We had three empty nets in overtime, and when you’ve got [such golden] opportunities, it’s about second and third, bear down opportunities. We had the opportunities.”

That refrain was heard far too often, and as a result, on February 10, in what had all the makings of a desperation move, the Kings recalled forwards Dwight King and Jordan Nolan from the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, their primary minor league affiliate.

Neither player was known to be a skilled forward with the offensive ability needed to help the team improve in the attacking zone. Moreover, King looked completely lost on NHL ice during a six-game stint with the big club in the 2010-11 season, and Nolan was but a lowly seventh round draft pick in 2009.

In other words, if anyone said they expected King and Nolan to spark the Kings’ offense, they were lying through their teeth.

Nevertheless, both were a bit of a surprise, showing some skating ability for their size, and that they were strong, physical players, especially on the forecheck, which would become a factor for the Kings soon enough.

Despite the addition of King and Nolan, the Kings’ scoring woes continued through mid-February. In fact, from the time Sutter took over on December 20 through February 18, the Kings averaged 1.93 goals per game, worse than what they did before Murray was fired (2.21 goals per game).

Even the power play was on the decline, clicking at a 12.3 percent clip under Sutter, compared to 15.5 percent before Murray’s firing.

The Kings’ futility in the offensive zone finally forced Lombardi’s hand, and he pulled the trigger on February 23, a blockbuster trade that sent skilled defenseman Jack Johnson and a conditional first round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets, in exchange for forward Jeff Carter.

Lombardi knew he had to do something to spark his team’s offense.

“Even in the summer, I always felt we were still a top forward away,” said Lombardi. “That said, I didn’t think we were 30th in the league in scoring. Part of the thing that broke down is our secondary scoring. Not having a guy like [forward Scott] Parse all year, losing [left wing] Simon Gagne and, essentially, not getting much out of [left wing] Dustin Penner. So our secondary scoring kind of broke down, and our top-end scoring wasn’t able to carry it.”

“Even in our plan in July, in terms of being that contender-type team, we felt we were still a top player, ideally a winger, away,” added Lombardi. “So that’s always there. You’d like to make this deal from where you projected you were. You thought you were short in this area, but you didn’t think you were 30th in the league. I think that’s the frustrating part for all of us, how this has snowballed to, whoa!”

“If we’re 15th or 20th in the league, where I kind of projected offensively, I’m still looking for this deal. But I don’t like the fact that the projection is off, on where we should be starting this deal from. Part of that, again, I think is the way our secondary scoring dried up, which would take the heat off our top guys, who need to be better. That’s the only troubling thing.”

Carter did not melt NHL ice upon joining the Kings, scoring six goals and adding three assists for nine points in 16 regular season games. But his arrival, combined with the addition of King, Nolan, and puck-moving defenseman Slava Voynov taking Johnson’s place, the Kings now had two legitimate scoring lines, upgrades on their third and fourth lines, and a skilled, right-hand shot defenseman filling the right defenseman spot on the team’s second defensive pairing.

With the addition of Carter, along with King, Nolan and Voyvov, team speed was also improved.

“We’re a faster team with Nolan, King and Voynov all in the lineup,” said Sutter.

“They skate very well,” said San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, after his team was outplayed by a rather wide margin in a 5-2 decision to the Kings at Staples Center on March 20. “They’re deep up front. With Carter being here now, I think they’re deep. They have a bunch of good forwards.”

In other words, the Kings now had balance throughout their lineup, something they have not had in years, and they used that balance to their advantage, scoring 3.00 goals per game after Carter’s arrival.

But even with that balance throughout their lineup, the Kings began March with a 29-23-12 record, good for 70 points in the standings (.547 winning percentage). But many, including Frozen Royalty, projected that it would take 93 or 94 points to make the playoffs in the Western Conference (Frozen Royalty’s projection was 93 points).

93 points was a staggering number at the beginning of March, one that appeared to be unattainable. But the Kings went on a tear in the final six weeks of the season, earning an 11-4-3 record, good for 25 points (.694 winning percentage). That gave them 95 points to end the season, putting them into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

As an aside, even though it would take 91 points to qualify for the playoffs in the Western Conference, on the day the Kings clinched a playoff berth, they had 93 points, exactly what so many had projected it would take.

To be sure, the addition of Carter not only forced teams to change their defensive coverage, as they could no longer focus on the top line, centered by Kopitar, but it allowed Sutter to tweak the Kings’ system, allowing them to be far more aggressive on the puck, and especially on the forecheck, something that was added to the mix shortly after Carter’s arrival.

“All he’s talking about is being more aggressive, and having more pursuit of the puck,” said Kopitar. “Therefore, we’re getting the puck back a lot quicker, so we’re playing [with] the puck, and creating [scoring] chances, and that’s what you want. If you have the puck, it’s a lot more fun than chasing it, and waiting for the other team to come at you.”

“We’re more aggressive, and that’s all there is to it,” added Kopitar. “We’re skating more, and we’re pursuing the puck a lot more than we did before. We were a little more passive [before the coaching change]. Now, we’re reading and reacting a lot more, and getting in on the forecheck, even when it might be a time to pull back, we’re still going, and we manage to get the puck back. It’s a good thing. We’ve been playing pretty good hockey.”

That aggressiveness not only caught some teams by surprise, but they were often overwhelmed.

“I think, not that we were slow before, but we’re playing the game at a higher pace, tempo-wise, and speed-wise,” said center Jarret Stoll. “Some teams just can’t withstand that for a full game. We’ve learned to play that way, and we’ve been pretty consistent of late, so, hopefully, we can keep that rolling.”

“Keep it rolling” would be an understatement. In fact, when it comes to the Kings in the playoffs, it conjures up visions of a steam roller. Indeed, they picked up their aggressive play even more in the playoffs, steam rolling over their opponents, setting new NHL post-season records by becoming the first eighth seed to advance past the first, second and third seeds in their conference, and they were the first team to hold a 3-0 in each of their playoff series in one playoff season.

The Kings accomplished all that on their way to a 16-4 record in the playoffs, earning them the first Stanley Cup Championship in the 45-year history of the franchise.

As this Year-In-Review series continues, Frozen Royalty will take a close look at the players, evaluating their performances throughout the regular season and in the playoffs. First up will be the forwards, in the next installment.

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