Kings ‘needed’ Coach Darryl Sutter, Tim Leiweke says

Ownership was “involved” in dismissing Terry Murray as the Kings’ coach, but the season-saving decision to hire Darryl Sutter was made solely by General Manager Dean Lombardi, Tim Leiweke, the chief executive of parent company AEG, said Tuesday.

Leiweke said Sutter is “exactly what we needed,” and credited the blunt-mannered coach for transforming an underachieving team into the mature, cohesive group that upset the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs. The NHL hasn’t released a schedule for the Kings’ second-round series against the St. Louis Blues.

With Leiweke’s approval, AEG spent $114.6 million last summer — $1.35 million more than it paid for the franchise in 1995 — to sign free agent Simon Gagne, re-sign Drew Doughty and acquire Mike Richards in hopes they were the last pieces needed for a Stanley Cup run. Instead, the Kings struggled to score and were 12th in the West when Murray was fired.

“I think Dean came to the realization that we were not getting the results. But Dean and I do talk a lot, and so he understood the expectations we had for this team, this year. He understood that we were not living up to those expectations,” Leiweke said in a phone interview.

“There was no lack of communication between Dean and I that we were disappointed with where we were at. The only thing that we communicated to Dean is that not making the playoffs was not an option.”

Under Sutter, the Kings briefly held the Pacific division lead. They finished eighth in the Western Conference before upending the league-leading Canucks.

“I think it was unfortunate because Terry is a good man. It’s never easy to go through those sorts of things. It certainly wasn’t for us,” Leiweke said. “We were trying to find a new philosophy of consistency, and change is not a good thing when you’re trying to become an organization like Detroit where you have consistency year after year.

“That said, I think it was the right decision. I think bringing Darryl in was 100% Dean’s decision, and I think he did a good job. Ownership was involved in the decision, as to a change, because we believed, like Dean did, that we were not living up to expectations.”

Leiweke described the team now as “mature” and said Sutter hasn’t allowed players to become complacent after achieving the first, expected step on a possible four-step journey.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of joy right now. I don’t think we feel like we’ve done what we had to do this year, now everything’s gravy,” Leiweke said.

Asked about season-ticket price increases that hit many fans hard, Leiweke accepted blame for not communicating that the Kings’ prices remain below the NHL average. A club spokesman said the renewal rate stands at 90% and verbal commitments are projected to produce the team’s best renewal rate.

“We have been trying to maintain a reasonable ticket price here. I also believe you have to be accountable for your results on the ice. There were many years we didn’t deserve a raise and many years we didn’t ask for one,” Leiweke said.

“We don’t run this team to make a profit and the good news is, we haven’t. This is a team that, ultimately, we are passionate about because it helped build AEG. This is not about, ‘How much money can we make on the Kings?’ We’ve never made a penny on the Kings. This is about getting to a point where they can be a stand-alone, break-even proposition, and trying to get ticket prices back to the middle of where the league is.”

AEG-owned Staples Center will be busy with the Kings, Lakers and Clippers in postseason play. Leiweke often watches the Kings from his season seats in one corner of the rink and mingles with fans.

“It’s as good a run as we’ve ever had in the building. For me, personally, I’m excited and happy for all of the fans, just as much as you want to do well for the Kings fans,” he said. “They deserve it. They’ve earned it. They have put in a lot of time and energy, and we have served up probably more disappointment than overachieving, and we understand that. So it’s great that we’re finally giving them the run that they’ve always hoped for…

“This is a great time to be a sports fan in L.A. and I’m glad that the Kings are in the mix now. Normally, they wouldn’t have been part of the conversation in May. It’s nice to be playing hockey in May.”