SN Magazine: L.A. Kings, The Expendables

Eight years on, some of the circumstances surrounding Darryl Sutter’s ploy are fuzzy, but the pertinent points are burned in Mike Commodore’s memory. Commodore can’t remember if it was during the Calgary Flames’ unlikely playoff run to the 2004 Stanley Cup final or right before that Sutter — now coach of the L.A. Kings, then Calgary’s bench boss — decided to provoke one of the Flames’ best and most volatile players, banking on the idea that if Craig Conroy blew his stack, everybody’s emotions would bubble over.

“He was pushing and pushing on Conroy,” says Commodore, a veteran NHL defenceman who was on that Flames squad. “I had never really seen anything like that before — I don’t want to say egging him on — but it was pushing his buttons. He was looking for a reaction because we weren’t playing well and Conroy lost his mind; I mean basically told Darryl to (expletive) off, but was all fired up and ran out the door to the ice. It got everybody fired up, and off we went.”

Nearly a decade later, Sutter is employing his old trusted tactics to elicit the most out of an L.A. roster dotted with prominent players who — like their coach, in some ways — were at one point either overlooked or given up on entirely. The Kings’ upset of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks headlined a frenetic first round that also saw the defending Cup-champion Boston Bruins bounced, only one team with home-ice advantage in the East — the Rangers — advance, a record 16 overtime games (including two Game 7s) and a slew of suspensions that set tongues wagging.

Sutter’s success was wonderful news for Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi, because had his befuddling choice of bench boss — or the decision to go all in with two guys on contracts that run through the decade and cost nearly $100,000,000 — completely backfired, his position with the team would have been in peril after six years on the job. The guys on mega-deals are Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. They were supposed to be the face of Philadelphia for years to come, but the Flyers opted last summer to pull a 180 and trade both in the peak of their prime. Kings captain Dustin Brown was heavily rumoured, just months ago, to be on his way out of L.A. to help address the team’s need for scoring. For several years it was assumed goalie Jonathan Quick would eventually be dealt to clear room for hard-charging backup Jonathan Bernier, until Quick just kept ascending to the point of being nominated for the Vezina Trophy this year and leading the league with 10 shutouts. And Sutter’s ability to extract gold from grinders has validated Lombardi’s decision in December to replace deposed coach Terry Murray with a man whose methods were thought by some too antiquated to be effective.

And to be fair, Sutter’s arrival on the left coast didn’t bring about an immediate sea change. The Kings were scoring just 2.21 times per game under Murray through 29 outings. In 49 contests with Sutter calling the shots, L.A. improved to 2.41, but still finished the season ranked 29th in goals per game.

Former L.A. sniper Luc Robitaille is now the team’s president of business operations. He said the alterations under Sutter were subtle, but Sutter was able to speed up the forecheck enough to squeeze out a bit more offence without compromising a strong defensive system that had a symbiotic relationship with Quick’s tremendous play. Former King and current analyst Marty McSorley lives in L.A. and still sees a lot of the team. He said players were getting a bit frustrated by Murray’s ultra-defensive mindset and, under Sutter, they know they have a little more rope to make plays with the puck, provided their feet are always moving. “Darryl is willing to accept some mistakes on the ice,” McSorley says. “He just wants them to play really hard and that’s not a problem for the cast of characters they have.”

McSorley also noted that the under-the-radar addition of former scoring whiz Bernie Nicholls, who has a long history of working with Sutter, has made a big impact. The former King came aboard as a coaching consultant after Sutter was hired and has injected some mobility to the power play and fostered offensive creativity in general. “I don’t think you can talk about L.A. without bringing up the fact they brought in an offensive guy who played and it made a difference,” McSorley says.

All that helped the Kings nab the final playoff berth in the West with a strong finish, losing just four regulation-time games in their final 19 contests and averaging three goals per game over that stretch.

Because he’d last coached during the 2005-06 season; because, in his role as GM of the Flames, Sutter had overseen a consistent decline in Calgary; because his last name is as inexorably linked to old-school hockey as black eyes and bloody noses; and because it wasn’t known for sure that he even wanted back in the game, Sutter initially seemed like an odd choice to guide a scuffling club in an era where more layered communication with players is viewed as paramount for success. But one can safely assume Lombardi wasn’t looking for the most loquacious candidate to coach his team. What he absolutely had to have was somebody who could jolt the club forward because, as the Los Angeles Times reported this spring, Lombardi was, at the time, informed by Kings governor Tim Leiweke that “not making the playoffs was not an option.” Faced with those frank terms, Lombardi hired a man who’d been his coach before when both were in San Jose and who he knew could make the mercury in the dressing room rise. “He was pretty quiet, until he had something to say,” Commodore says of Sutter. “Then you would definitely hear it. He was a good motivator.”

Kings winger Dustin Penner confirmed that: “He comes in before the game and he’s more jacked up than us some times.”

Sutter’s ferocity hasn’t always endeared him to players in previous stops. McSorley played for Sutter in San Jose toward the end of his career, where he said Sutter often ostracized players he didn’t believe fit into his long-term plan. According to McSorley, playing favourites isn’t an option for Sutter now because of the top-to-bottom urgency within the organization. “When Darryl came in, he knew he had to be successful now,” McSorley says. “Everybody in there right now, he needs. If he needs them right now, he’s probably going to treat them better than he might in other situations.”

Sutter’s interaction with his charges is about more than infectious intensity. According to Robitaille, players have taken to Sutter’s direct approach and appreciate the fact that, good or bad, they’re going to get stark commentary on their performance. “The preparation Darryl wants out of us is pretty specific and it’s black and white,” says Kings centre Jarret Stoll, who clinched the team’s first-round series victory over Vancouver with an overtime winner in Game 5. That’s especially true for guys who play beneath the top-six forward slots. Scoring was at a premium in the Kings’ first-round victory over the Canucks, and the major difference was that L.A. got production out of not just secondary scorers like Stoll (two goals) and Penner (one), but pluggers like Trevor Lewis and Brad Richardson, who each ground out a vital goal in the opening series. Stoll, who went to Game 7 of the Cup final in ’06 with Edmonton, said Sutter’s ability to make fourth-liners feel as valued as skill players contributes to the crucial bottom-end kick the Kings get. “I haven’t seen it too many years in the past where you can have one line or a couple players or one goaltender win you the championship,” Stoll says. “You’ve got to have guys who have roles and are proud of their roles.”

Naturally, that applies to the high-end players, too. That’s what the Kings were after when they acquired Richards just prior to the 2011 draft last Jun. 23 in a transaction that sent younger forwards Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn to Philly — and shockwaves around the NHL and through Richards. The former Flyers captain was a winner at every level and was just one season removed from helping Philadelphia reach the Cup final. Now this Northern Ontario native, who cut his NHL teeth playing in front of a rabid fan base who loved his hard-nosed approach, was heading west to skate for a team whose supporters are often noted for their profile, not their passion. That took some getting used to, but Robitaille says Richards has been pleasantly surprised by hockey life in L.A., where he’s also driven by the opportunity to do something legends like Wayne Gretzky, Marcel Dionne and Robitaille himself never could. “I said, ‘You know Mike, you win a Stanley Cup in L.A., you’ll be the first one to win it here,’” Robitaille says of a pre-season conversation.

The Kings acquired Richards because they knew that to become a championship contender they required another premier centre to play behind No. 1 pivot Anže Kopitar. Though a thorny, two-way game is more Richards’ calling card than prolific offensive production, his 18 goals in 74 contests were probably still less than L.A. was hoping for. As such, when February rolled around and found the anemic Kings in a death slog for a post-season spot, Lombardi became one of the most motivated buyers on the trade market. That gave rise to rampant speculation that the 27-year-old Brown — a voracious hitter with scoring touch who’d been with L.A. since the team drafted him 13th overall in 2003 — might be sacrificed for elite-level scoring. Robitaille understood the logic, but — in retrospect, anyway — doesn’t believe Brown was going to be ushered out the door. “A lot of people assumed, to find great scorer, you’re going to have to give up something,” the Hall of Famer says. “I don’t think in Dean’s world he was ever going to move Dustin Brown.”

Then again, maybe circumstances would have been different had the Columbus Blue Jackets not been asking for the moon in exchange for Rick Nash, whom the Kings coveted as much as any team in the NHL. When that pursuit proved fruitless, Lombardi found a star from a consolation constellation and acquired Carter from Columbus, where the big forward had toiled since being dealt by Philly the same day the Flyers sent Richards to California. Lombardi was banking on the fact that Carter would stop sulking over his Ohio exile and start scoring at a pace worthy of his 45-goal hands, a notion other GMs were very hesitant to roll the dice on.

“It’s a risk a lot of other teams weren’t willing to take because of the salary,” says McSorley of Carter’s 11-year, $58-million pact. Carter, slowed by a late-season ankle injury, found the net a decent six times in 16 regular-season games with the Kings, but was held without a goal in Round 1 (and scored only one in Round 2). Good thing, then, that L.A. still has its captain in the mix, because Brown spurred the attack with four goals against the Canucks. Having had a major hand in the Kings winning just their second playoff series since Gretzky took them to the final in 1993 and the franchise’s first series win since 2001, Brown, still sweating after the decisive game in Vancouver, identified something that was as true of himself as the club he leads. “We’re definitely designed better for playoff hockey than the regular season,” he said.

Because of that, Sutter was still talking hockey with a group of reporters late April and into early May. It was the kind of scene Commodore often gets a kick out of watching because of how curt his old coach can be when microphones are around. “You get some coaches who can’t wait to get in front of the media and will air anything out there,” he says. “It’s refreshing to have a guy who keeps everything in house.”

When the Kings began their preparations for the St. Louis Blues, Sutter was being asked about his Round 2 coaching counterpart, Ken Hitchcock. Like Sutter, Hitchcock is an Alberta native who wasn’t coaching at the beginning of the season, but was called upon during the year. Unlike Sutter, Hitchcock is viewed as a former hard-liner who has, to a degree, reinvented himself by smoothing out some of his rougher edges. Naturally, Sutter went the other way when assessing why Hitchcock was able to mould the Blues into a contender, suggesting that some of the younger St. Louis players likely suffered from a lack of focus prior to Hitchcock’s arrival. “Hitch can establish that in a hurry,” Sutter said.

One of the scribes then asked Sutter to elaborate on his wry smile. “That’s what good coaches do.”

The Los Angeles Kings completed a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues on Sunday, earning a berth in the Western Conference final where they will face the winner of the Phoenix Coyotes-Nashville Predators series.