Five years ago, when the Ducks brought the Kings to the verge of elimination in their second-round playoff series, Darryl Sutter seized the moment like only he can.
In a postgame news conference at Honda Center, Sutter sarcastically praised Ducks goalie John Gibson when he said, “He’s the best goalie I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe we got one by him.”
It was Sutter at his cutting best — tersely in command of a team on its way to its second Stanley Cup championship, at the expense of its rival.
To think that Sutter would one day be on the Ducks’ side seemed as plausible as an ice storm in July, but snow fell last week when Sutter was hired as an advisor to the Ducks’ coaching staff. The move reverberated locally and beyond, although Sutter didn’t think it registered high on the irony scale.
“Not a big deal,” Sutter said in a phone interview this week from his cattle ranch in Viking, Canada. “[They’re a] divisional rival. It’s not just the Ducks. I’ve [also] watched Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary the past couple of years.”
As awkward as it will be to see Sutter on the Ducks’ side — he said he will be at training camp in September and at some games — his hiring was logical given his longtime tie to former Chicago Blackhawks teammate and Ducks general manager Bob Murray, and his respect for first-year coach Dallas Eakins.
Sutter likened his role to that of Larry Robinson, the former Kings coach and player who is a senior consultant to hockey operations for the St. Louis Blues. And Sutter said it’s a necessary role in today’s NHL.
“It makes a big difference in the coaching staff,” Sutter said. “You look at every team, they have big development staffs. You know what? The head coaches have a lot on their shoulders. You need someone to help guide them. That’s why I wanted to do this. I think Dallas has a chance to be a star.”
Sutter said that Eakins has the “right attitude and the right frame of mind to take the next step.” He also pointed out that today’s salary cap often forces teams to play entry-level players more, and Eakins is the ideal coach to usher in that development. Above all, Sutter likes how Eakins worked his way up from the lower ranks, in the American Hockey League, and rebooted his career with the San Diego Gulls to get another shot at the NHL.
“That’s something that has to start happening [more],” Sutter said. “You bring players up from the minors, you should be bringing coaches up. So Dallas is classic.”
Sutter, who cites former Kings and Blackhawks coach Bob Pulford as his mentor, will fill that role for Eakins. His image is that of a gruff rancher with a tough-love approach, but Sutter made his mark as a shrewd game tactician with a knack for finding chemistry with line combinations. He also knew how to push the right buttons at the right times.
“Darryl’s attention to preparation was unbelievable, and his attention to the emotional preparation of a hockey team, I thought, was unbelievable,” said John Stevens, his former assistant coach and a former Kings coach. “He was relentless in the preparation and how important every game was and how much emphasis he put on the individual being prepared, and that certainly left an imprint on me.”
In a more recent conversation with The Times, Stevens said of Sutter that “you knew he couldn’t stay away” from the game. Sutter has largely spent his time in Viking, but he’s watched NHL games, including the team that he coached to Cup wins in 2012 and 2014. The Kings were still thought to be contenders upon Sutter’s firing in 2017, but they hit rock bottom last season and are sorting through the rubble.
“They took a big step back from being a top-ranked team in the regular season,” Sutter said. “I think everyone was quite surprised by it. Hopefully they’re ready to step back again.”
Sutter said that, yes, he was among those surprised by the steep-angle decline. The Kings unsuccessfully tried to keep their run going in the three years after they won their second Cup under Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi, and many of those pieces remain.
“A lot of star power on that team,” Sutter said. “They have a lot of players [well] respected in the league. I think they still have a lot of guys capable of having bounce-back years.”
Sutter is most qualified to give a detailed scouting report on those players for Ducks-Kings matchups. But he won’t be on the bench, and he said his time in the area will depend on scheduling. It so happened that he left Orange County days prior to the pair of earthquakes that shook Southern California on the Fourth of July weekend.
Sutter was back tending to the farm, and he was concerned for the region he used to call home.
“Hopefully that’s all over,” Sutter said of the tremors.