If the Los Angeles Kings hadn’t won two Stanley Cups over the last five years, some level of change this offseason would seem inevitable.
The Kings will miss the playoffs for the second time in three years. Their 2.42 goals-per-game rank is 25th in the NHL, and it negated the advantage of their 2.43 goals allowed per-game, which is fifth in the league.
They’ve seen drop-offs from several star players like Anze Kopitar from 74 points in 81 games a year ago to 52 points in 75 games this season and Tyler Toffoli from 31 goals in 82 games last season to 16 tallies in 62 this year.
Despite those disappointing numbers, it’s just hard to see a major move being made in some respects. It wasn’t too long ago when Dustin Brown raised the Stanley Cup over his head in 2014.
But there’s a sense that someone needs to take the fall and there have been some rumblings that coach Darryl Sutter is the guy who won’t return next year. On Saturday, Sportsnet’s Kelly Hrudey reported that Sutter could be on his way out.
The Hockey News also mentioned the possibility of a coaching change with the Kings.
On the surface it may seem shocking that a coach with two Cups to his name with the Kings and a contract extension he received last summer could be let go, but it actually may not be too surprising if it happens.
In a recent Los Angeles Times story, Kings CEO Dan Beckerman recently noted he thought that Kings’ roster could have made a Cup run this year. While it’s hard to know exactly Beckerman’s tone or tenor in how he answered the question, generally such words are an indictment on the coach and not management that built the team.
“Obviously we are disappointed and this season’s end result is not acceptable,” Beckerman said. “With what we have built and the roster that we have, we should be preparing for another run at the Stanley Cup.”
That article referred to the Kings as “a rumbling dinosaur in a league that favors speed and skill over pure brawn.”
Though the Kings are not considered a speed team, it’s tough to gauge whether that’s Sutter’s fault because of the style he favors as a coach or because of the way the group was built. The Kings won their two Cups by bulling their way through the rest of the league and during that time, teams tried to make themselves bigger and brawnier to match LA’s puck possession game.
But last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins changed the way teams were constructed by winning the Cup with speed and a lot of organizations quickly tried to adjust their rosters in the offseason. The Kings, however, stayed the course.
Part of this had to do with the fact that they were in a salary cap straightjacket because of the combined $10.75 million long-term hits towards forwards Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik. But the Kings continued with their heavy hockey because of the success they had in the past and didn’t see speed as the reason why they lost in the first-round of the 2016 postseason.
“Our problem I don’t think – this wasn’t nothing that surprised us per se in the playoffs and even at the stretch that we were vulnerable and we knew it and so it had nothing to do with speed and our identity,” general manager Dean Lombardi said during a teleconference last June when asked about the speed of his team.
Team construction is one issue, but getting players to buy into a system is another and over the last few years there have been some public signs of discord at points between the hard-nosed Sutter and his players.
There was an incident in 2015 when Sutter was reportedly locked out of the locker room by the Kings players after a game at the Tampa Bay Lighting.
Last season, Sutter was critical of the play of then captain Dustin Brown and praised the leadership of others. Recently, Sutter ripped forward Jordan Nolan because of Nolan’s inability to play through an injury. Though it’s hard to know what exactly goes on behind the Kings’ closed doors, in the past it was probably easier to tolerate Sutter because the team was winning. But with losses mounting, such a powerful voice could be difficult on a player.
Sutter is also known as a coach who is more veteran friendly and Los Angeles will likely move to a more youthful lineup in the future as the team focuses on building through the draft. In some respects that started this season with defensemen Paul LaDue and Kevin Gravel along with forwards Adrian Kempe and Jonny Brodzinski all being called up to Los Angeles from the AHL and seeing playing time. Sutter has come a long way from his past rep as a coach who struggled with youthful NHLers but ultimately is not seen as a developmental coach.
Still, there are reasons why the Kings’ season can’t all be blamed on Sutter. Los Angeles lost starting goaltender Jonathan Quick until late February because of a groin injury sustained in the first game of the season. If Quick – a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner and two time Vezina Trophy finalist – was healthy, there’s a chance the Kings could have made a playoff push.
Los Angeles ranks second in the league in adjusted 5-on-5 CF% at 53.69, which could have meant their lack of goal scoring was more a luck issue than anything.
Gaborik suffered an injury in the World Cup and it’s unclear how much this hampered him throughout the season. Kopitar played in Olympic qualifiers for Slovenia and in the World Cup for Team Europe and it’s possible all that hockey caught up to him.
Also, Sutter has made three Stanley Cup Final appearances and came close to winning another with the Calgary Flames in 2004. Only Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has won more Cups amongst current bench bosses than Sutter’s two.
The argument for Sutter to return certainly exists and also makes a lot of sense, but the Kings drop-off likely calls for change. If it’s not Sutter, it’s hard to expect the organization will look entirely the same next year.
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