The many faces of Darryl Sutter are familiar to most hockey fans across Canada.
Those in Calgary have especially vivid memories of the man who arrived in 2003 as a saviour and departed nine years later on a cross, guilty of mismanaging the salary cap and leaving the Flames with an aging, overpriced roster.
Now, depending upon the day, you can run across Rustic Darryl, Charming Darryl or Sourpuss Darryl at the Los Angeles Kings training facility, where the NHL team is patiently awaiting the start of its second-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the St. Louis Blues.
Sometimes, you can find yourself face to face with Mumbling Darryl, Grumbling Darryl, or – during these past few days – Chatty Darryl or Gregarious Darryl. Engaging Darryl has made the occasional appearance.
Once play starts again in the Western Conference, you’re more apt to get Reticent Darryl or Confrontational Darryl or even Contrarian Darryl, depending upon the situation and message the head coach wants to impart.
The Kings players will tell you they’ve seen every face of Darryl Sutter, and then some, in his five-month tenure the team. Sutter replaced Terry Murray last December, when the Kings had faltered after a good start and were seemingly heading nowhere again. For a team expected to challenge for a playoff spot and maybe even home-ice advantage, it was close to a catastrophe.
So general manager Dean Lombardi reached into his San Jose Sharks past and plucked out Sutter, bringing him down to Southern California after almost exactly one year out of the NHL. The Kings, under Sutter, started well, stumbled for a while, but made the necessary push in March to get into the top eight in the West.
The Kings secured a playoff spot on the second-last day of the season, frittered away a chance at the third seed, then the seventh seed and landed at No. 8, with the unenviable task of facing the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round. But that worked out in the end, with the Kings knocking off the heavily favoured Canucks, in the same way that 2004 Flames took out first-place Vancouver in the opening round eight years ago.
What the Kings players have come to appreciate is how clearly defined everything is in the Sutter era (25-12-11 after replacing Murray). There are no grey areas, only black and white.
“You don’t want a guy that blows smoke, you want a guy who tells you how it is,” centre Jarrett Stoll said. “He doesn’t miss much – and if he sees something, he’ll let you know, no matter who you are, a role player who plays five or six minutes, or a guy who plays 22.
“Everybody’s the same on our team; that’s how he treats us. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The coaching matchup is intriguing because it matches Sutter against Blue bench boss Ken Hitchcock, both Alberta natives. Sutter joked this week that Hitchcock lived in the next town over – Viking as opposed to Sherwood Park – but in northern Alberta, that counts as the next town over.
Justin Williams played for both (Hitchcock with Philadelphia Flyers, and Sutter now). Both have reputations for a defence-first style, and the regular-season records bear that out. St. Louis finished first in the NHL in goals-against average, Los Angeles was second.
“I’m sure neither one of them likes the word ‘defence,’ ” Williams said. “They prefer ‘checking.’ Hitch is always saying, ‘Be a good checker; be a good worker; and your skill will prevail after that.’
“Darryl’s a lot more open and approachable. I don’t think a day goes by where he doesn’t say something to you. As a player, that lets you know what’s expected of you and what he wants more from you. I like the fact that when you do something well, he says, ‘Great job.’ When you’re not doing something, he also tells you that, so there’s no guessing.”
One of Sutter’s greater successes this season may be the improvement in the play of defenceman Drew Doughty, who had a strong opening round against the Canucks.
Doughty has mentioned frequently how scared he was of Sutter when the coach first arrived.
“You don’t want to be on his bad side,” Doughty said, “because it’s not fun. I was on his bad side for a few games and his sarcastic-ness, it’ll get to you. You can play a good game but if you make one mistake, he’s on you no matter what.
“Sometimes, it’s frustrating, but he’s making sure every little step is perfect. He’s adamant on every single thing. Without your top players being your best, you won’t win too many games.”
Sutter went out of his way this week to express how important the foundation that Murray put in place was in helping the Kings move forward.
According to Doughty, there are considerable differences between the former and the current L.A. coaches in terms of their personal styles.
“Terry expected the best out of us too,” he said, “but he wasn’t the type to come yell at you and scare you. Darryl has definitely pushed my buttons. He’s such a great motivator and gets so pumped up, I’m surprised he doesn’t lace up the skates and get out there himself. He gets what he wants. If not, you’re not going to play.”
To Stoll, the proof is in the results.
The Kings are in the second round for the first time in 11 years, and facing a team they defeated three out of four times in the regular season. Sutter was at the helm for two of those, both 1-0 results. One ended in a shootout. If not for that, Sutter joked this week: “We might still be playing.” (His nephew, visiting this week, predicted Kings-Blues could be the lowest-scoring series in NHL history.)
The fact the Kings are still playing, after languishing in 12th place in December, provides further evidence, that for whatever Sutter’s failings may have been as a GM, his coaching record is pretty good.
“We had a stretch there where things weren’t going well,” Stoll said. “In the second half of the year, we’ve come together and figured out how we have to play. We’re way more aggressive. We’re way more disciplined with our lines and our roles.
“Everybody seems to be on the same page, but we’ve got a long ways to go.”