Thursday, Dec. 20 marked exactly one year since Darryl Sutter was summoned to fill the coaching vacancy left by Terry Murray and interim coach John Stevens. Friday marks one year since Sutter started drawing up the drills in practice, and Saturday will be the 366th day (this being a leap year) since his debut behind the bench.
The move L.A. management made in late 2011 soon amounted to the NHL’s top on-ice story of 2012.
For those who have been on an Antarctic expedition for the last 12 months, Sutter proceeded to brew a variety pack of historic milestones.
He went 25-13-11 in the regular season and 16-4 in the playoffs for a cumulative 69-game record of 41-17-11. The initially struggling Kings barely earned the last available Stanley Cup tournament passport but proved they belonged by becoming the first eighth-seeded squad to win the title, the franchise’s first in its 45 years of existence.
As indebted as the Kings are to goaltender Jonathan Quick, a Vezina finalist and no-duh choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy, Sutter’s pivotal influence can be pinpointed further in the improved support from the strike force.
The Kings finished last year’s 82-game slate second-to-last on the NHL’s offensive leaderboard with 2.29 goals per game. The first 33 of those contests were conducted in the dusk of the pre-Sutter era, in which time L.A. amassed 72 goals for a nightly median of 2.18.
By spring, Sutter’s inherited pupils were third among the 16 playoff participants with 2.85 goals per night.
That output helped them take a 3-0 lead in every series despite lacking home-ice advantage in all four rounds. The longest it took them to attain the requisite fourth victory was in the final round, when they abolished the New Jersey Devils in Game 6.
Naturally, the subsequent NHL lockout has induced some restlessness as Los Angeles must continue to wait to begin its title defense. It will also be no earlier than next autumn before Sutter has a chance to make an impression in a normal, full-length season as the Kings’ coach.
Even so, with more than half of Sutter’s first 366 days on the job containing involuntary inactivity, the amazing nature of his instant impact is all the more magnified. His club clinched the Cup on June 11, a mere 164 days after he was formally introduced by general manager Dean Lombardi.
As slim as that time span might be to gauge anybody’s performance, one cannot make a much better impression than Sutter did with the data and the hardware his tutelage has yielded.
Furthermore, the prospect of another shortened season inevitably works in L.A.’s favor as it strives to become the first repeat champion in 15 years, the longest string without back-to-back playoff victors in any major sports leagues.
With barely half a season now the best hope for a 2012-13 NHL campaign, the circumstances could not be much more favorable to the Kings’ endeavor to build on last year's foundation.
Without a single tweak to their championship roster, they would have had a virtually unavoidable championship hangover if things resumed as normal in September and October. Instead, barring any additional cancellations to a mid-January start, it will have been seven months since this club played a competitive game together, while other teams will have ranged between seven and nine months off.
That ought to be enough of a break all around—from a physical, mental, psychological and emotional standpoint.
Since the respite is bound to drag on a little longer, Sutter’s sound first impression remains frozen in time. In turn, the Kings’ possession and defense of the silver trophy lends a silver lining to the lockout, as their fanbase has more freedom to reflect on year one of the Sutter era.