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May 6, 2012 | 11:59am ET

The Zen of Sutter
  Though the players have responded, a large part of the Los Angeles Kings success is due to Darryl Sutter.

LOS ANGELES -- When the story of this Los Angeles Kings season is finally written, Dec. 20, 2011 is likely to be the defining moment.

The tipping point has nothing to do with a shot that was taken or a save that was made, but an organizational change that at the time looked like nothing more than a last resort.

To say the mood in the room was somber when GM Dean Lombardi announced Darryl Sutter agreed to pick up the baton that was collectively dropped by his team is a vast understatement. The gathering felt far more like a eulogy than a call to action.

Having covered Terry Murray through the duration of his tenure in Los Angeles, we felt the move wasn't warranted. The Kings had gone through a similar rocky season last year and rallied after the All-Star break to land the seven seed in the Western Conference. Their championship hopes were crushed on the night the San Jose Sharks rallied from a 4-0 Game 3 deficit at Staples Center in a comeback that still gives nightmares to many of the Kings faithful.

The bitter taste of a six-game elimination washed away through the summer through the aid of Lombardi's acquisition of Mike Richards backed by the signature of Simon Gagne on a two-year contract. Confidence was high that the Kings would be in the mix for both the Pacific title and a berth in the Stanley Cup finals. Their hopes were buoyed because Murray built a rock solid defensive foundation in combination with the return to health of Anze Kopitar (who missed the playoffs with a devastating ankle injury) and the continuing maturity of players like Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick.

The Kings started the season nicely, but after a few weeks they hit a dry spell offensively. Every team goes through offensive woes throughout an 82 game season, but the arid patch morphed into something the size of the nearby Mojave Desert.

They hit posts, just missed on even man rushes, had goals disallowed and the hockey luck that most say always balances out, never returned to the corner of 11th and Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles.

I covered Sutter numerous times during his days as the head man for the San Jose Sharks. It wasn't my first introduction to the esteemed hockey family; I spent part of the 2003-04 season in Chicago and got to know Brian Sutter, a good man with honest answers when asked tough questions. Darryl wasn't as easy of a nut to crack when the Teal visited Los Angeles, he was tough and his media scrums were short and curt although never adversarial. On more than one occasion I thought to myself, 'It would be rough to cover that dude all season.'

So when Darryl stepped to the microphone to disclose how he would rally the troops, my only thought was 'wrong guy, wrong place, and wrong time.'

The reality is that I never interviewed Sutter on that day, I had heard enough during his opening remarks and as Lombardi was revving up a quote machine that most writers only dream about, the GM's stream of consciousness took my attention that day.

And that's exactly why I'll never be a GM; my critique in that moment was a whiff, equal to a golden sombrero (baseball slang for four strikeouts for the uninitiated).

Sutter is exactly what this team needed; he is the reason this season was saved and is on the cusp of doing things haven't seen from a hockey perspective in Los Angeles since 1993.

Has he had help along the way? Of course, he has.

Jonathan Quick inarguably crafted the finest goaltending season in Kings history, Dustin Brown emerged as a captain, who leads by example, and while Jeff Carter has not put up the numbers Lombardi thought he would (he's played for weeks on a painful ankle), he's solidified the line combinations, a major and continuing fault during the Murray administration.

Sutter hasn't changed the x's and o's, virtually impossible to do when a coaching change is executed in season. He refused to change the rest of the staff though fans were screaming for it, but did bring in former Kings sniper Bernie Nichols to assist with the woeful powerplay that undermined the team's ability to win.

The Alberta rancher has created an atmosphere of accountability on this squad; from its highest paid stars to the rookie fourth liner. He injected an air of confidence as the season drew to a close that carried the team to a third straight playoff berth when it appeared all was lost.

When Sutter receives the effort he's asked for, he asked for even more and the team has responded. As the Kings were heading down the regular season stretch, he was unafraid to call out Kopitar and Brown to deliver better work. While the media was throwing roses at Quick, Sutter quickly and rightfully compared him to a goalie who took him to within a game of the Stanley Cup, Miikka Kiprusoff, and said Jonathan wasn't at that level yet.

He's been literally hands on; in his first days, game broadcasts caught the site of him hugging Doughty on the bench while giving him instructions. The critics were in non-stop full voice as Drew struggled all season while carrying the burden of expectations of a newly signed $6+ million per year, long term deal.

The London, Ontario native is now at the apex of his year, logging over 26 minutes of ice time in the post-season and the game three insurance goal that was the exclamation point on a likely trip to the NHL's Final Four. While some say that Willie Mitchell was Los Angeles' best defenseman this year, Doughty has saved his best for when it counts most.

Sutter's confidence in him has been a key to the still-kid backliner return to the level of play that makes will make him a future winner of the Norris Trophy, "Drew's a kid, I have kids older than him and I try to handle him as I would my children."

Doughty agrees, but admittedly sometimes the message is delivered with tough love, "Darryl's hard on you. He's big on preparation and it's scary. If you're not ready if he catches you off guard, you're going to be in trouble. He makes sure our total focus is on the next shift."

Sutter has formulated the right chemistry along the forward wall, as well. Brown had stretches playing on his off (left) wing, but eventually returned to the right side every time the team's production floundered prior to Darryl's arrival. The head man stuck with Dustin on the left flank and the captain's performance has been magical since the trade deadline. Brown and Kopitar's partnership on the penalty kill has been crucial in both series. The pair's video preparation tipped them to the use of drop passes by both the Blues and Canucks coming out of their own zone and the duo has laid in wait for the move, it's paid off in crushing shorthanded goals and another affirmation of the new more, aggressive and entertaining style the Kings now play.

Jarret Stoll, who needs to be recognized for his professionalism while being constantly bounced around the lineup by Murray in a contract year, was installed as the third line center and gives Los Angeles strength down the middle with Kopitar and Richards that is a major force in this run.

Rookie wingers Dwight King and Jordan Nolan, given the difficult task of being injected into a playoff chase due to injury and non-performance, have survived the baptism by fire and continue to develop into valuable role players.

As the Kings dwelled last in scoring, a suggestion was brought forward that rookie Andrei Loktionov plugged into the fourth line in an effort to put more skill in the lineup. Sutter explained that the skillset of this youngster was ill-suited for the role, shipped him back to the AHL and plugged in Colin Fraser (once thought to be excess baggage taken back in the elongated Ryan Smyth deal).

Many coaches shorten the bench in crunch time, choosing to keep the fourth line troops riveted to the bench to protect the usual Kings tenuous one goal lead on most nights.

Sutter steadfastly refuses to drop Fraser and his linemates from the rotation regardless of score or time situation nor does he refer to them as fourth liners, their just the next group up in the rotation.

Even Dustin Penner, infamous poster boy for a Kings season that was going down the tube, responded once the post-season arrived. Sutter tried him on the third line with Stoll and speedy Trevor Lewis for a stretch, but as the playoffs started, the script was flipped and the enigmatic winger became the third musketeer with Richards and Carter. Penner's timely playmaking can't be discounted in the Kings domination of both the Canucks and Blues in the first two rounds. Who knew?

So, with every bet paying off, the leader of the Kings is playing with house money as an eight seed. With bookies installing Los Angeles as the odds-on choice to win the Cup, the reality is with the increased notoriety Darryl Sutter has exposed himself as a pretty funny dude. For real.

He will press you when he thinks your question is wrong. He routinely gives answers to questions that have no connection to the original inquiry. He makes non sequiturs that makes us chuckle. But he respects the people who know the game and quiz him daily about the trivial and miniscule details of his team. He's told a reporter more than one time, "It's none of your business," but never comes off surly like John Tortorella; his tone makes it a light hearted joke.

After a strong effort by Penner one evening, Sutter likened him to Mark Messier which had us make a move to our Blackberry to advise the Twitter world of that beauty. Sutter spied me and chirped, "You had to sit down after that one, eh?"

Doughty agrees, "He definitely has a sense of humor and it comes out at different times. We're in a video session and he'll be sarcastic if one of us makes a mistake on ice. He likes to have fun at the right times."

The manner in which he communicates made it difficult to comprehend his Zen early on; writers would strain to hear him and the playback on their recorders was unintelligible in stretches. The Kings had to boost the level of the microphones in the interview room for broadcast because of the absence of volume in his voice.

His players finally admitted that for the first couple of weeks, they had trouble fully comprehending his instructions.

"I couldn't understand anything he said when he first came, so I made sure I was on the back of the line during drills," Doughty jokingly recalls.

I'm starting to think that we're all getting punked and at some point he'll come clean and admit it by using one of his Sutterisms, "It's all a part of the master plan."

The only problem is that Sutter takes little credit for the results of the plan.

"It's not always what the players bring to the ice, and it's what they bring to the locker room," he conveyed prior to Game Four. "The coaches that succeed in this league, not me, are the ones that can adapt to different kinds of players."

If you're an outsider, Sutter lets you know you're OK in ways that make you feel like part of the team. I've been slashed on the calf and been hit with kidney punches after practices by the former Blackhawks center.

After the Game 3 victory against St. Louis, and while waiting for the ever growing media throng to assemble, he plunked himself down in the first row of seats like one of us as to suggest that a media member to step up and be subjected to the same repetitive queries he does.

So while he may not show it, Darryl Sutter is having the time of his life after being away from the bench for five seasons as he admits, "How can you not enjoy this, it's the best time of year."

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.



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