(Note: Like all good retirees, I sometimes come out to consult in my old stomping grounds -- or in this case, indulge in the juicy topic that is Darryl Sutter to the Los Angeles Kings.)
Darryl Sutter knows how to make something out of nothing, and in the process, he will punch, kick, and scream his way to bring that something to life. But once he gets there, well, that's kind of the problem; he doesn't quite know what to do with it. Instead, he'll just make a bitter beer face.
This is a story of three teams, all tied together through the actions of one very stubborn Albertan farmer. The San Jose Sharks saw Darryl Sutter as the catalyst to respectability, but found him dumbfounded when he had actual talent on his hands. The Los Angeles Kings are his new project, though their roster has many more weapons than those Sharks teams. And while the Anaheim Ducks -- that is, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim -- aren't directly connected to Sutter, one gigantic trade between the Ducks and Sharks defined just where Sutter's inherent stubbornness hindered the team's chances.
After the brief euphoria of the KevinConstantine/Arturs Irbe years, the San Jose Sharks were a terrible mess, a hodge-podge roster bloated with poorly drafted young players and apathetic veterans. When Dean Lombardi began his rebuilding process, he was left with the smoldering remains of the Al Sims era. Everything needed fixing at the start of the 1997-98 season: the offense, the defense, the goaltending, the special teams. Most importantly, the culture of the team had to change, and that's where Darryl Sutter came in.
Sutter's grit-and-defense-first philosophy was a shocking 180 degrees from what the miserable Sharks wereHe instituted a system that emphasized attention to detail and rugged dump-and-chase play; Lombardi brought in veterans that could act as Sutter's lieutenants, from Stephane Matteau and Murray Craven to Bernie Nicholls and Tony Granato. Mike Ricci was acquired from the Colorado Avalanche to fit in the prototypical Sutter mold, and while Owen Nolan struggled statistically, Sutter trusted the power forward to be the team's emotional leader and planted the captain's C on him after Todd Gill's departure. Nolan, like Jarome Iginla in Calgary, epitomized what Sutter loves in a forward -- a guy who's equally happy to score, scrap, or hit.
What happened? The whole became greater than the sum of its parts. With Mike Vernon in net, the Sharks had a complete "team" for the first time since the glory run of Arturs Irbe and Igor Larionov -- they weren't "good" in the typical sense, but they worked and worked, wearing down the opposition through gritty systemic play.
This Sharks team was molded in the true Sutter mentality -- stubborn, abrassive, and totally willing to play ugly hockey to get the wins. And it worked; the Sharks' turnaround propelled them into the Stanley Cup playoffs. How well did the team take to Sutter's style? In the prior year, the Sharks scored 211 goals and gave up a whopping 278. In Sutter's first year, they scored one fewer goal (210) but shrunk the goals-against by a massive 62 to 216. That's giving up nearly one fewer goal per game.
It's safe to say that it worked, and the upward trend continued for a number of years. San Jose's goals-against leading up to Sutter's final season remained its strength; the goals-for, though, remained problematic, and in early 2001, Dean Lombardi pulled the trigger on what SHOULD have been the finishing touch on the team -- acquiring Teemu Selanne from Anaheim for Jeff Friesen, Steve Shields, and pocket change. However, the Selanne experiment in San Jose ultimately failed, and it put a big spotlight on Darryl Sutter's biggest shortcoming as a coach: handling skilled players. This trickled down to Sutter's other shortcoming, which was developing young talent.
The Darryl Sutter era for the Sharks epitomized veteran players and hard work. That usually only gets you to a certain point, and from there, raw talent is required to get you over the hump. To say that Selanne and Sutter clashed is a bit of an understatement. Similarly, highly talented younger players seemed to spin their wheels under Sutter (Patrick Marleau) while defensive-minded players (Scott Hannan and Niklas Sundstrom) settled into their natural roles. During the 2001-02 season, the trio of Selanne, Marleau, and Alex Korolyuk even earned the nickname "The Doghouse Line" since all three were constantly in Sutter's doghouse.
At the same time, Sutter's Sharks regularly rolled four lines regardless of situation. After all, the team was built in his image, and they would work-work-work regardless of the score. That mentality proved to be a blessing and a curse, and while it brought success to the Craven-Matteau days, it regressed a roster with greater talent. A perfect in-game example of this was Game 6 of the 2001's first-round series against St. Louis. Down by one goal and facing elimination, Sutter failed to stack his lineup with his scoring forwards. Instead, he had his fourth line out there during the critical moment, and while guys like Mark Smith and Todd Harvey were fine in their roles, it seemed completely nonsensical to have them on the ice when the entire season was on the line.
Stubborn, abbrassive, and gritty: those traits defined the Sutters as players and as a family. Darryl Sutter's teams played that way, and the results show that he lifts muckers and grinders and pushes down most skilled players. His structure and attention to detail are second-to-none as a coach (his actions as GM...well, let's leave that out for now), but his unwillingness to change when the context evolves is his fatal flaw. He may take his boat to the head of the pack, but when heavy winds knock down his sails, he'll go down with the ship rather than find a solution.
And that's why his move to LA seems so bizarre to me. When Bruce Boudreau got fired, I told former Jewels From The Crown managing editor Connie Kim that the Kings should hire him right then and there. With the potential for explosive speed and skill, Boudreau could have the Kings actually utilizing their depth instead of just handling it -- and they already had better goaltending than any of Boudreau's Washington Capitals teams. Instead, Dean Lombardi has gone in the complete opposite direction.
There's no doubt that Darryl Sutter will make the Kings better defensively, but it leaves the untapped potential of their skilled forward lines. Of course, there's a chance that Sutter has learned from his mistakes and will evolve to best use the weapons at his disposal. But there's a better chance that he'll stubbornly refuse to change; after all, change is not the Sutter way.