Only one win above .500 at the 33-game mark, the Kings enlisted Darryl Sutter to permanently supplant Terry Murray on December 22. A 25-13-11 run translated to a .622 winning percentage and a rampant recovery en route to the eighth and final seed in the playoff bracket.
Los Angeles has utilized its playoff passport to go on a historic 12-2 tear to the Campbell Bowl, a run to the finals not seen since the Anaheim Mighty Ducks posted an identical three-round record in 2003.
Since expansion began in 1967, three teams have won the cup with the help of a midseason coaching replacement.
Sutter’s Kings are the fifth to have reached the finals under such circumstances. And as recently as 2008-09, two others went directly from a playoff no-show to a conference finalist.
In chronological order, the six most impressive coaches who hit the ice sprinting with their new teams are as follows.
The first-year Montreal assistant inherited the club when higher-up Claude Ruel resigned at midseason. MacNeil would only stay with the Habs for the balance of the 1970-71 season, but that was long enough for him to attain a Stanley Cup.
Ironically, the next six years saw MacNeil coaching in the American League, where he led the Nova Scotia Voyageurs to three Calder Cup titles and four finals appearances.
Coming off back-to-back combinations of a first-place finish and first-round loss in the playoffs, New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello rolled the dice by firing Robbie Ftorek with only eight games left in the 1999-2000 season.
Robinson, Ftorek’s assistant and interim replacement, steered the Devils through a 12-5 run to the cup final against the reigning champion Dallas Stars. They set an emphatic tone with a 7-3 Game 1 victory on home ice before the road team took over the series.
By the end of Game 6, Jason Arnott’s double-overtime strike had clinched the title for New Jersey, who would return to the finals in Robinson’s first full year, falling one win short of a repeat.
The 2008-09 season was only four games old when the Chicago Blackhawks abruptly canned captain-turned-coach Denis Savard. In his place, they installed a veteran of 11 full or partial NHL coaching campaigns, in Quenneville, and went 45-22-11 en route to their first playoff spot in seven years.
The Blackhawks, fueled by sophomore scorers Patrick Kane and newly-anointed captain Jonathan Toews, would soon brook some growing pains in the 2009 Western Conference final. The defending champion Detroit Red Wings, a repeat playoff nemesis of Quenneville’s from his St. Louis and Colorado days, wiped them out in five games.
But the following year, Chicago rebounded and ended its 49-year Stanley Cup title drought.
As late as February, the defending Stanley Cup finalist Pittsburgh Penguins were below the playoff poverty line Eastern Conference. By the middle of that month, with 21 games remaining, Michel Therrien was ushered out and Bylsma was promoted from his post with the Penguins’ AHL affiliate.
With the new voice giving them their instructions, the Pens throttled their way to home ice for the opening round of the playoffs, going an otherworldly 18-3-0 in the homestretch. They then engaged the Red Wings in a championship rematch and overcame 2-0 and 3-2 series deficits to usurp the cup in Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena.
One year prior, Laviolette endured his second discharge from an NHL franchise as the Carolina Hurricanes got off to another unfavorable start after back-to-back non-playoff runs. Laviolette could only watch as successor Paul Maurice took Carolina back to the postseason and to the conference finals.
But in December of 2009, third-year Flyers coach John Stevens was coming off a first-round loss to Bylsma’s Penguins the previous spring and had a 13-12-1 record through 26 games.
After Laviolette took over, Philadelphia nabbed the last available playoff spot with a shootout victory over the equally desperate New York Rangers in the final game of the regular season.
A subsequent 12-5 run brought home the Prince of Wales Trophy, though the Flyers ultimately lost the cup to Quenneville’s Blackhawks.
In Laviolette’s two-plus seasons behind their bench, the Flyers are the only NHL team to have made it out of the first round each year. The Hurricanes, by the way, have not played a single postseason game since being zapped out of the 2009 tournament.
None of this year’s experiences are anything new to Sutter.
As it happens, in 2002-03, it was the aforementioned MacNeil who came out of retirement to serve as Greg Gilbert’s interim replacement in Calgary. After Gilbert and MacNeil went a combined 10-18-8, Sutter stepped in and at least posted an above-.500 record in the remaining 46 games, though the Flames missed the playoffs.
The next season, while wearing the two-billed hat of coach and general manager, Sutter steered an unlikely run to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals.
More than five years after relinquishing his Calgary coaching job and barely a year after resigning as GM, Sutter was brought back into the business when the Kings sought a permanent replacement for Murray.
The team had been egregiously underachieving to start the 2011-12 campaign, eating away at the promise that came from back-to-back playoff appearances.
Under Sutter, the Kings finished the regular season on a run that amounted to a .622 winning percentage. Theoretically, had they retained that success rate through the full 82-game schedule, it would have been good for fourth or fifth place in the conference and somewhere in the top 10 of the NHL.
As it happens, Los Angeles only needed to squeak into the playoff bracket. Once there, they abolished the conference’s three division champions from Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix in no fewer than five games apiece.
With that, the Kings are only the second eighth-seeded team to reach the cup final under the current playoff format. How they will follow through in June as well as next season remains to be seen, but there is little reason to think they will retract.