In the beginning, when Darryl Sutter first arrived to coach the Los Angeles Kings, defenceman Drew Doughty flat-out admitted he was afraid of Sutter – of his withering look and his sharp tongue.
There is less fear now. Sutter is into his third playoff behind the L.A. bench and the Kings have won 35 postseason games in that span. And going into Monday night's fourth game of the NHL's Western Conference finals, they held a 2-1 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks.
In an era of NHL parity, L.A.'s playoff record is an extraordinary accomplishment: The Kings have elevated their collective game in the postseason after consistent but not exactly breathtaking regular-season results.
Thse days, traditional approaches are sometimes dismissed in the pursuit of the newest and the most innovative, but Sutter doesn't mind characterizing himself as an old-school coach.
"Experience matters," says Sutter. "When you're a young coach, you think you can change the world. I went through it. I learned the two most important things are managing your bench and managing your dressing room. You just try to be fair and honest to the group … It's always what's best for the group. As long as everybody understands that, there's no problem."
Sutter is 55 and the other three coaches still left in the Stanley Cup semi-finals are the Blackhawks' Joel Quenneville, also 55; the New York Rangers' Alain Vigneault, 53, and the Montreal Canadiens' Michel Therrien, 50. Collectively, they have accumulated 1,967 NHL regular-season wins, and this year, Quenneville became only the third coach in NHL history to get to 700 victories – a quiet achievement for an understated coach.
Sutter, 16th on the all-time wins list, believes in a few basic truths: discipline, running four lines and trusting his players to get the job done.
"Darryl, since he's been here, he's not that kind of a tight, tight matchup guy," says Kings' centre Jarret Stoll. "There have been a lot of games where our four lines have been around 15-17 minutes. Your pace of play has to be high. It should be. That's how we want to play. We don't want to have dips in our play. Once that third period comes, we've still got some gas, some jump to play the way we want to play."
Sutter says his decision not to match lines vigorously dates back to the 2005-06 lockout, when the rules changed and made it more difficult for coaches to change lines on the fly.
"It's tough to change on the fly, really tough when they took the red line out and the hooking and holding," said Sutter. "If you're trying to get guys off, you're getting caught in odd-man situations a lot."
Besides. he added, "I believe our fourth line should be able to take three or four shifts against that [Jonathan Toews] line," said Sutter. "If they can't, they shouldn't be in the lineup."
Willie Mitchell, at 37, is the Kings' most experienced player and has seen all manner of NHL coaches.
"Anyone who knows the Sutters and knows Darryl, knows he's all about preparation," says Mitchell. "I always say he kind of keeps us comfortably uncomfortable before games, and game day is game day. There's no game we're not prepared for."
Mitchell smiled and went on to say of Sutter: "He played a few years and he has his own tactful way of getting the message across."
Mitchell, of course, meant the opposite, that Sutter is not tactful at all, but clear and direct about what he wants from his players.
"I think the first time you go through it, you're wondering what's going on," continued Mitchell. "Then you try to see it through his eyes, and see what he's trying to accomplish. He's a guy who tries to get the best out of his players. He'll do whatever is possible to get it. He reads the tea leaves really well as far as when to push the buttons and when not to. I think that's probably his No. 1 attribute as a coach – master motivator."
Motivating, and keeping his team on an even keel. Earlier this spring, the Kings became just the fourth team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a series to win, against the San Jose Sharks. In the next round, the Kings had a three-game losing streak in the middle of the series with the Anaheim Ducks, but advanced by winning the last two.
According to Sutter, success is all about attitude – never getting too high, never getting too low, just staying on an even keel.
"We talk a lot about our attitude," said Sutter, "having a good attitude, and not one that's a negative one or a losing one. Always trying to stay in the right place is a mainstay of our team. It's not just in the playoffs. It's all the time."