Every now and then Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin still expects to hear former coach Darryl Sutter’s voice in his ear, snarling and scolding about something Muzzin or his teammates did wrong. “There’s times like that,” Muzzin said, “when you’re waiting for a tongue-lashing or something.”
Sutter, who led the Kings to the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014 but wore players out with his caustic criticism and unbendable focus on defense first, second and always, was fired last spring after the team’s second non-playoff finish in three seasons. His successor, John Stevens, was also his top lieutenant, so the transition was relatively smooth and the new offensive freedom he preached was agreeable to players who felt stifled by Sutter’s restrictions.
“Everybody is pretty familiar with Johnny, so it’s not that strange,” team captain Anze Kopitar said. “At the same time, it’s definitely refreshing hearing him back there instead of Darryl. I’m not saying that Darryl didn’t do anything good around here, obviously. It’s just a breath of fresh air that I think that this group needed.”
The Kings got their first lungful of the Stevens era Thursday, when they opened the season with a 2-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers at Staples Center. Technically it wasn’t Stevens’ Kings coaching debut, since he guided the team to a 2-2 record as the interim coach in December of 2011 after Terry Murray was fired and before Sutter arrived, but he considered it his first game as the Kings’ coach and was eager to share the credit for the victory.
“This group’s had a lot of success. They were a little bit anxious to get going after what’s happened in the last couple years and I think that, in and of itself, has created a lot of excitement around our hockey team,” he said. “I’d like to see that continue.”
Sutter is gone, his contributions to the Kings’ two championships never to be forgotten. But traces of his influence remain, even though there were eight players in the lineup Thursday who weren’t in Sutter’s season-opening lineup a year ago.
It was a low-scoring game, a replay of the script from the past few seasons. The defense — patched together after Alec Martinez was forced out of the lineup by a lower-body injury — was tested but held up, especially when the Flyers had a 17-5 edge in shots in the third period.
“I thought our top guys were really good tonight,” Stevens said, before adding that his team’s neutral-zone play must improve to shut down opponents and move the puck ahead more quickly.
Fourth-line forward Trevor Lewis, the ultimate Sutter foot soldier, scored the first goal off a nifty setup from Nick Shore on a play begun by grinder Kyle Clifford, and Tyler Toffoli provided insurance when he finished off a two-on-one with Jeff Carter with 2:21 left in the third period.
And like Sutter’s 10 a.m. game-day practices, their morning skate Thursday in El Segundo began well before 10. Stevens appreciates creativity but, like Sutter, won’t accept tardiness. “I was told a long time ago if you’re five minutes early, you’re 10 minutes late, so you should always be 15 minutes early,” Stevens said, smiling.
These are early days for Stevens, and the success of his relationship-based approach and the freedom he has given players won’t be apparent for a while. And not all went according to plan Thursday: In the first period the Kings probably hit each other more than they hit the Flyers — Muzzin and forward Adrian Kempe were involved in a SigAlert-worthy collision — and they failed to connect on five power plays.
But they came out ahead in many ways, including getting a solid debut performance from Alex Iafallo, the undrafted forward who was playing for the University of Minnesota Duluth a year ago. He displayed sound instincts in a top-line role and set up Kopitar for a dangerous scoring chance late in the first period that stayed out of the net only due to a fine save by Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
“There’s some new blood, new faces,” Kopitar said. “I think the team got a little quicker and we’re going to try to play a high-paced game and we’ll see what happens.”
The Kings also came out ahead when goalie Jonathan Quick came out unscathed. The groin injury he sustained in the first period of their opener last season doomed their playoff chances, and for him to be fit, sharp and on his game would be a huge asset for a team that will need every edge it can find or manufacture in order to get back into the playoffs.
Lewis was happy with the new coach and new beginning. “I think everyone’s excited,” he said. “We know the past couple years we haven’t been very good so I think everyone’s up for the challenge and so far Johnny’s been great and it’s been good.”