Whether you like Darryl Sutter or not, the job he did as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings after he was hired to replace Terry Murray was stellar.
Obviously, the Kings got the results they dreamed about when they hired Sutter. But on the surface, it seemed to be a strange move. Murray and Sutter were both demanding head coaches who preached defense.
With Murray as head coach, the Kings were in 12th place in the Western Conference and languishing. But when Sutter took over, the team began a slow and steady rise.
They clearly got better as they worked their way towards the end of the regular season, but they didn't even know they would become a playoff team until the final week or so.
They qualified for the postseason as the eighth-place team in the Western Conference.
However, once the playoffs began, the Kings asserted themselves. Their defensive play was dominant and they had a team of opportunistic scorers that only got better in each passing round.
They defeated the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round, which got the attention of the National Hockey League. The Canucks were a Stanley Cup Finalist the year before and the current Presidents' Trophy winners. When the Kings eliminated them in five games, they served notice that they were one of the teams to beat.
They subsequently proved it in ensuing wins over the St. Louis Blues, the Phoenix Coyotes and the New Jersey Devils.
Since Murray's philosophy and Sutter's were quite similar, it wasn't a matter of the new coach bringing in a new system.
However, Sutter and Kings' general manager Dean Lombardi had a long history and they had worked together in the past. They had an excellent rapport, and that was good for Lombardi. He knew that when his coach said something to him, he could be trusted completely.
That's not saying that Murray was keeping the truth from him, but Sutter and Lombardi simply spoke the same language.
Sutter is known for his straight-forward approach. He doesn't sugarcoat anything and his assessments can be harsh. It turns out that was just what the Kings needed.
“I would just say he’s very honest,” center Jarrett Stoll told the Toronto Globe and Mail. “That’s all. He’s just very honest. But he doesn’t miss anything. So you can’t go out there and think you’re working hard, or think you’re doing the right thing, because if you’re not, or you’re out of position, or you make a bad read, he’ll tell you. But you respect a guy like that because he’s just telling it the way it is.”
Sutter comes across to the public as a hard and tough guy who is nearly humorless in his approach. But he shows the players a sensitivity that the public doesn't see. Stoll said Sutter demonstrated a personal interest in his players that have nothing to do with their performance on the ice.
"He’ll tap you on the arm and he’ll say, ‘How are you doing today? Everything okay? How’s your family?’ said Stoll. “He cares. He really cares.”
In the end, those two factors may have been the difference between the two coaches. Sutter saw everything on the ice and let players know immediately when they made mistakes. Problems were quickly corrected.
But then he surprised his players by actually showing that he cared about them. That small bit of humanity may have helped the Kings play hard every night and reach those championship aspirations.