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Coach Darryl Sutter helps keep the Kings on level ground

Los Angeles KingsNHLDarryl SutterMike RichardsDustin Brown (ice hockey)Dean Lombardi

Change or end up in a culvert: NHL style.

Kings Coach Darryl Sutter was talking recently about the challenges of his profession, the changing nature of hockey, and put as fine a point on it as possible.

He has coached 1,039 regular-season games, been in the playoffs 13 times and won the Stanley Cup two years ago with the Kings. From the start — coaching in Chicago to San Jose to Calgary and finally, Los Angeles — Sutter has evolved with the times and the players.

"Anybody that has had success over a long time, it's not just the game that's changed," Sutter said. "People have changed. It's no different than anything we do in our life. The only way to be successful is to adapt.

"If we didn't change from 30 years ago, we'd probably be in a culvert somewhere. Think about it."

Thankfully, no one landed in a ditch in El Segundo this season.

The Kings — who will play the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs, with Game 1 on Thursday — and Sutter have had their share of drama this season. It was nothing quite like the zig-zag campaign of two seasons ago when Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi fired coach Terry Murray in December, pulled Sutter off his farm in Alberta, Canada, and hung on tight as the Kings qualified for the playoffs in the second-to-last game of the season.

This season, Sutter has had to cope with a 1-8-1 stretch, his No. 1 goalie Jonathan Quick being sidelined for nearly eight weeks because of a serious groin injury, captain Dustin Brown losing his mojo and not getting it back until after representing Team USA at the Olympics, and another leader, center Mike Richards, producing his worst numbers since the 2006-07 season.

Yet, the Kings still finished with 100 points and led the league with the most shutouts (13) and fewest goals allowed. Defenseman Willie Mitchell didn't even know the team was close to tying a franchise record for wins (46), citing Sutter's focus and adding that, "he never lets us breathe for a second."

Interestingly enough, the first team Sutter coached — the Chicago Blackhawks in 1992-93 — led the league in shutouts and goals allowed too.

"Every team goes through injuries and the [1-8-1 skid] was certainly a test," Lombardi said. "But we felt the foundation was in place to get through that. What I liked about the way they handled it, from the coaches and players on down, nobody was pointing fingers at each other."

Sutter had to make tough calls. He dropped Brown to the third line and put the struggling Richards on the fourth line late in the season. Richards, however, has been moved up again to play with his usual linemate, Jeff Carter, of late.

"It's definitely a benefit for this team to have four lines that can play when it's put on the ice," Richards said. "He realizes the importance of playing well too. He's hard on us sometimes but sometimes he can take a step back. He's a very smart coach in that sense.

"He knows when to push and when to pull back. He's obviously going to push us all the time which is a good thing. He plays who is playing well at the time. There's no guy that is going to get put out there because of who you are. If you're playing well, you're going to get put on the ice. I think everybody respects that coaching mind-set."

Even sentiment was benched in favor of pragmatism. When the Kings came through Toronto in December, Sutter could have played two Kings, forward Matt Frattin and goalie Ben Scrivens (both since traded) against their former team, the Maple Leafs. Neither played.

Ray Ferraro, a television analyst for the Canadian network TSN, has insights that go well beyond his days as an NHL player, which included a stint with the Kings in the '90s. He volunteered that he initially thought the hiring of Sutter in Los Angeles was a mistake and then went on to say why he was proven wrong.

"I think Darryl has evolved," Ferraro said. "He's got a better connection to the players than he's ever had and I also think that Darryl plays up the country-bumpkin in L.A. thing to as high a level as you can because Darryl's into the analytics stuff, but he would never let anybody know.

"Darryl's eye for the game and the in-game adjustments, to me, are of somebody that is built to coach. There's nothing fancy about anything Darryl does. He's more accepting and more advanced along the technical path than people give him credit for and he's also smart enough to know he's got these two assistant coaches [John Stevens and Davis Payne] that were head coaches. Darryl doesn't have to send a message all the time."

Sutter has a 72-67 record in the playoffs and only missed the postseason once in the 14 seasons he has coached. It's all about getting ready for April, May … and perhaps, June.

"You learn that there are peaks and valleys but you just don't let it get to you," Sutter said. "All your experiences in the coaching are part of it. If you handle it all right and use it all right, it can only add value. Then all your Aprils, Mays and Junes only adds value.

"If you think about it, there's so many players and coaches and management in the game that haven't had April, May and June, ever."

lisa.dillman@latimes.com

Twitter.com/reallisa

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Los Angeles KingsNHLDarryl SutterMike RichardsDustin Brown (ice hockey)Dean Lombardi
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