Darryl Sutter: The King of Hockey

Last December, when Darryl Sutter was hired to replace Terry Murray as head coach of the L.A. Kings, I predicted that the Kings had the potential to be spoilers in the Stanley Cup playoffs (provided that they made it), but who could have predicted that it would eventually come to this?

In some ways the Kings triumphal coronation was a surprise but in other ways it was not. When you look at Sutter’s history as a coach; when you look at Sutter the man; then what transpired Monday night at Los Angeles should not be considered an unforeseen event but the logical culmination of a long quest by a truly great hockey coach to reach the pinnacle of his profession.

What Sutter did with the Kings is not new. All he did was to take a young, raw team with tons of untapped potential; a team that had been underachieving in the Lotus Land that is Los Angeles, California (where the winters sparkle with sunshine, palm trees, swimming pools, and movie stars); a team that had no sense of identity; and make them play like world champions and eventually become world champions. It is a tale as old as blood sports itself.

All he did was make the Kings believers and sometimes that is all the coaching you need to do. What’s fascinating while watching the Kings playoff run was that Sutter showed nothing new in his tactical repertoire. What hockey fans saw was the same familiar gambits that made Sutter a great hockey coach in the past: magnificent goal-tending; an iron-fisted blue-line corps; an aggressive checking game that placed constant pressure on their opponents. The L.A. Kings used a four “P” system: pressure, possession, passing, and penalty-killing, all executed with a crispness and coolness that was marvelous to behold. What was interesting was that when the Kings suffered losses in games four and five, Kings Captain Dustin Brown later told the press that Sutter got the team to calm down and play more coolly; and that they did in game six.

What’s amazing is that Sutter’s tactics were so predictable and yet there was nothing his opponents could do to counteract them. The Kings won through execution. Indeed one should show films of the Kings’ playoff games to young hockey players as a singular lesson about how execution, commitment, and dedication can overcome tactical weaknesses.

On paper Sutter’s three Western Conference opponents outmatched the Kings in almost every conceivable way and yet they fell.

The Vancouver Canucks won the President’s Trophy for the second year in a row and were the defending Western Conference champions and yet they fell.

Trivia Question: since the President’s Trophy was first awarded in 1986 only two NHL coaches have defeated three President’s Trophy winners in Stanley Cup playoff competition, who are they?

Answer: Scotty Bowman and………………Darryl Sutter.

The St. Louis Blues had the best defense in the NHL during the 2011/12 season. Their new coach Ken Hitchcock was a Jack Adams Award candidate. The team was the second best team in the Western Conference and had made one of the greatest comebacks in their history. Indeed Ken Hitchcock had faced Sutter twice before in Stanley Cup competition and had beaten him twice. If anyone knew how to solve the Kings’ style it had to be Hitchcock.

And yet they fell.

(In my opinion Hitchcock’s loss is the most stunning of the four coaches who faced Sutter in the playoffs. None of the other three had ever faced Sutter in the playoffs before but Hitchcock did. He had to have known what the Kings were going to throw at him and yet the Blues utterly failed to counteract the Kings’ tactics. Hitchcock’s failure to motivate the Blues to overcome L.A.’s tactics is inexcusable and damning).

The Phoenix Coyotes had withstood the Kings during the final weeks of the regular season and denied them the Pacific Division title. They, too, had shown great strength on offense and defense during the playoffs.

And yet they, too, fell.

It is brutally ironic that the team that gave the Kings the most trouble was the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils, a team that epitomized defensive hockey since 1994.

And yet they too allowed the Kings to break their home-ice advantage and out the Devils into a 3-0 hole. Commendably they fought back and, indeed, discovered the Kings’ Achilles Heel: their inability to play effective catch-up hockey because of the overall weakness of their offense. But when Devils Winger Steve Bernier laid out Rob Scuderi and drew blood in the first period of game six it cost the Devils dearly. It gave the Kings a five minute major power-play opportunity and it aroused the Kings to a controlled anger (much like Aaron Rome hit against Nathan Horton did during the 2011 Stanley Cup finals).

The penalty opened a door and the Kings responded in regal fashion, the royal salute of three goals within those five minutes sealed the Devils fate and cast them into the nadir of defeat.

Trivia Question: Since 1917, only four interim coaches have coached Stanley Cup winners. Who are they?

Answer: Al MacNeil, Montreal Canadiens in 1971; Larry Robinson, New Jersey Devils in 2000 (Robinson was present Monday night as Devils assistant coach to Peter DeBoer); Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins, 2009; and……………..Darryl Sutter, Los Angeles Kings, 2012.

If I could ask Sutter a question right now, I would like to ask him this: is your soul rested now that you’ve won the Stanley Cup?

Considering his intense competitiveness (a classic trait of the Sutter Family); considering his passion; his commitment to the game, the Kings Franchise, and his players; considering the man himself the answer would undoubtedly be: no.

For true competitors; for true champions; for true athletes: their souls are never rested. There is always the next season, the next challenge, the need to prove it all over again.

The journey is not over for Sutter.

Instead, Sutter stands where he has long deserved to stand throughout his hockey life: at the summit, with the Stanley Cup at his side and his name engraved forever more in the annals of hockey history.

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