Thanks to their shootout win on Thursday night versus the Washington Capitals, the Los Angeles Kings snapped their three-game losing streak while picking up their 39th victory of the season. En route to win, there were two milestones set. First, Jonathan Quick tied Rogie Vachon for first on the franchise’s all-time wins list with 171 while head coach Darryl Sutter became just the 18th man in NHL history to reach the 500 coaching wins plateau. But getting to the half-thousand mark was no easy feat.
When the Los Angeles Kings fired Terry Murray in December 2011, it was something many fans had eagerly awaited. Despite notching 46-win seasons en route to the playoffs in the previous two years, it appeared even to the most casual of hockey fans that Murray simply didn’t care. If you tuned into a Kings game, you would most likely the veteran coach would be leaning against the glass behind him wishing he was someplace else. Whether this is fair or not, general manager Dean Lombardi handed Murray his walking papers. But finding a replacement for a team on the precipice of championship success would be no easy feat. Murray’s replacement? Darryl Sutter.
Dean Lombardi had worked with Sutter before in San Jose and while they weren’t able to bring a Stanley Cup to Silicon Valley, they did enjoy decent success, taking a down-in-the-dumps expansion franchise and guiding them to improved records in six-straight seasons. But when times got tough, the pressure was on Lombardi to fire Sutter. He didn’t and as a result, both were let go in 2002-03. While Lombardi moved onto Philadelphia to join the Flyers’ scouting staff, Sutter went north to Calgary, hoping to reverse the fortunes of a Flames team who had missed the playoffs the previous six seasons.
While they missed the playoffs for a seventh-consecutive year, there was no denying that Darryl Sutter, who had taken on the role on GM as well, was pointing this team in the right direction. In his first full season behind the Flames bench (2003-04), Sutter’s stern, defensive style led Calgary not only to the playoffs but their first playoff series win since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989. Better, they went all the way to the Cup Final. While the Flames were led by Jarome Iginla, netminder Miikka Kiprusoff and an unsung workhorse defenseman by the name of Robyn Regehr, it was Sutter’s tough but effective coaching style that turned the Flames into an overnight success.
While they did fall one game short of realizing their championship dreams, the Calgary Flames were better for Sutter’s impact. After stepping down behind the bench in 2006, Sutter remained with the club as the general manager. But he eventually did return to coaching – with the Los Angeles Kings.
While Sutter and Lombardi had had success in San Jose, that was years ago. Plus, they never won a Cup. Naturally, I was skeptical. I even once referred to Sutter’s hiring as simply “putting a band-aid” on a bigger problem. But when the Kings started playing under their new coach, there was an immediate change. Before, fans were frustrated, yelling either down the steps of Staples Center or through their televisions at a lethargic Terry Murray. Now, they were seeing the newly-installed Darryl Sutter take players by the shoulders giving them pep talks and telling them exactly what he wanted out of them. The results showed. While the Kings weren’t lighting up the scoreboard every night, they were winning games playing textbook defensive hockey. As for the games they didn’t win, they were at least taking their opponents to the distance, earning regulation points along the way.
Even with his new success in Los Angeles, Darryl Sutter was never quite out of the woods as the Kings literally fought until the very last weekend of the season to get into the playoffs. They did as the No. 8 seed and, unbeknownst to all the so-called experts out there, were about to make hockey history.
Entering the 2012 playoffs, no No. 8 had ever won the Stanley Cup, especially not when having to upend the top three seeds in their conference. But the Los Angeles Kings did exactly that and after taking six games to knock off the New Jersey Devils were crowned Stanley Cup champions for the first time in their 45-year history.
Now, for those who know me well, are aware that I am usually (not always, but usually) willing to admit when I am wrong. The hiring of Darryl Sutter is one of those instances.
Referring to Sutter’s hiring as “putting a band-aid on a puncture wound,” I was not fair in my immediate assessment of the veteran coach. I believed the Kings should have went younger while hiring someone who had, unlike Sutter, coached the prior couple of years. But Dean Lombardi was in charge of the call and while some may have questioned the moved, he proved to be right as not only did Sutter help bring a Cup to Los Angeles but he guided the Kings to a Western Final appearance the next season – a feat accomplished by very few defending champions over the last quarter-century.
While I still question his knack for continuously shuffling lines, Darryl Sutter has proven to be the remedy the Los Angeles Kings needed to guide the on-ice talent the correct way.
While he only won a handful of his 500 games with the Kings, Darryl Sutter’s accomplishments in Los Angeles are no less significant than what he did in Calgary, San Jose and before that in Chicago. Fans of the silver-and-black will forever be grateful to Sutter for 2012’s Stanley Cup win while continuing to be excited not only for the present but for the future of the Los Angeles Kings. After all, no one misses the days where the Kings were a laughing stock defensively. Thanks in large part to Darryl Sutter’s influence, it’s hard to imagine the Kings ever did struggle on the back end.
With his 500th win on Thursday, Darryl Sutter moved into a tie with the late, great Montreal legend Toe Blake and just one behind another late, great coach, Mr. Pat Burns.
He may not be as glorified as the aforementioned Blake, Al Arbour or Scotty Bowman or as seriously taken as Joel Quenneville, Ken Hitchcock or Mike Babcock, but Darryl Sutter is one of the premier coaches in the National Hockey League today anyway. The so-called experts may take too much stock in what he brings to the table but Darryl Sutter isn’t deterred from doing what he does he best, and for that, the Los Angeles Kings and their fans are forever grateful.