NEWARK -- When Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi hired Darryl Sutter in December, he was in search of an identity for a team that had lost its way. The Kings were 15-14-4, 10th in the Western Conference and way below the expectations many, including themselves, had set for the team entering the season.
Just more than five months later, Sutter has led them to a dramatic turnaround; one that featured a steamrolling of Western Conference top three seeds en route to the franchise's second trip to the Stanley Cup Final in its 45 year history.
Sutter's hiring wasn't universally received. It was obvious a change needed be made and Terry Murray's methods had worn thin on the players. Sutter entered the picture and the Kings quickly learned that they didn't need to continue to skate on eggshells.
"'[When he] came in, some of the younger guys started to relax, play a little bit," said Kings captain Dustin Brown.
And that relaxed, but still accountable, approach changed the mood of the team as they went 25-13-11 under Sutter, clinching a playoff berth in the final week of the regular season and coming within three points of winning the Pacific Division.
Turning around the fortunes of the Kings began with Sutter stressing a strong forecheck to help create offense for a club in dire need of goal scoring. Murray focused heavily on the defensive aspects of the game and LA was seventh in least goals allowed at the time of his dismissal, but also tied for last in goals scored with the New York Islanders averaging 2.18 goals per game.
With seven games, plus the Christmas break in his first two weeks, Sutter slowly integrated his system once the schedule allowed for decent practice time. His desire for a better forecheck forced more turnovers and more scoring chances. In 49 games after Murray's firing, LA averaged 3.69 goals per game.
His changes were aimed at getting the most out of his players while not overhauling everything along the way.
"[It was to] allow them freedom to maximize their skill set without getting in the way of the team structure," said Sutter. "I know that's hard to understand, but it was to allow them to use their ability a little bit more."
Early on, Sutter met with players in groups and individually. His messages to them then and throughout the regular season stuck, and more importantly, made an impact.
"There's games where I thought I didn't play my best," said Kings captain Dustin Brown. "He brought attention to it pretty quickly. That goes a long way, whether you're a young player or older player. When you have a guy that's pushing you to be better, not just you but everyone, it goes a long way. Maybe helping you look at yourself in the mirror."
Brown was going through a goal drought in early February and was rumored to have had his name floated in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline. Either Sutter's straight talk with his captain or the threat of being trade fired up Brown, who reeled off eight goals and 25 points in the final 21 games of the season.
As accountable Sutter wants his players to be, the same goes for the coach.
"He brings a passion, an intensity that I haven't seen before from a coach," said Dustin Penner. "I'm sure a lot of them have it intrinsically, but he wears his emotions and his heart on his sleeve. You can tell that he really cares about his players. He doesn't ask anything of his players that he doesn't ask of himself."
In December, Lombardi asked Sutter find the Kings an identity. Now in June, with identity in hand, the coach is now two wins away from making them champions.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy