The keys to their Kingdom

The Kings were five points out of a playoff spot and stood a wobbly 11th in the Western Conference on Dec. 22, the day Darryl Sutter made his debut as their coach.

The team he took over was flailing. General Manager Dean Lombardi thought he had acquired the final pieces for a contender six months earlier when he traded for center Mike Richards and signed free-agent winger Simon Gagne, but the offense was sputtering. Coach Terry Murray’s defense-oriented foundation had become the team’s ceiling, leaving no room for skill or creativity. Player confidence sagged.

Worst of all, there was a huge disconnect between expectations and results. With a high payroll and high hopes generated by the maturation of core players, they looked to Sutter to salvage a season that was going sour.

“I didn’t expect the Los Angeles Kings to be looking for a head coach, that’s for sure, just because of the type of team they have,” Sutter said that day. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

His arrival began the Kings’ drive from turmoil to triumph, a transformation they capped Tuesday by winning the Western Conference title and reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in club history. His hiring was one of several key moves that led to this moment and the anticipation of facing the New York Rangers or New Jersey Devils for the Cup starting Wednesday at the home of the East champion.

“I think everybody came into the season thinking we could be the good team that, I guess, hypothetically we are now,” winger Dustin Penner said. “I think we all, especially the older guys, saw the pieces of the puzzle there. We just weren’t putting it onto paper.

“We got hot toward the end of the year, snuck into the playoffs by most critics’ standards. We knew, once we were in, that it was anybody’s game.”

Here are the ways they made it their game …

The Jolly Rancher returns

Lombardi’s choice of Sutter raised eyebrows. Sutter was living on his farm in Canada, hadn’t coached in several years and had a reputation of being critical and dour, not an obvious choice for a team whose best players are among its youngest.

But Sutter patted backs instead of kicking rear ends, and his passion and detailed preparation rekindled players’ fire. He gave them freedom offensively, urging them to move the puck quickly but without compromising defensively.

They responded quickly, losing only once in regulation in his first 15 games. A 9-2 stretch from mid-February through mid-March kept them solidly in the playoff mix, though Sutter said he didn’t see that — or any other single event — as a turning point.

“It was about changing the style a little bit, and when you do that you don’t see the team, you see it as individuals,” he said. “Some guys grasp it right away and really want it. Then other guys, it’s a tougher adjustment.

“I’ve never really looked at it from a team standpoint. I looked at it from an individual standpoint, because everybody has a different skill set. So I don’t think there was a specific time. I think there were a lot of different times, where you see real progress or they need help, or they take a step back or whatever it is.”

From there, they took a giant leap forward. “Terry demanded the best out of every player, but Darryl was able to get that, for whatever reason,” Penner said. “Everything kind of lined up. The stars lined up and it came together at the right time.”

Rookies ride to the rescue

It didn’t seem all that significant when Lombardi promoted forwards Dwight King and Jordan Nolan from Manchester (N.H.) of the American Hockey League on Feb. 10. King had played six games for the Kings the previous season without recording a point. Nolan had never played an NHL game.

It took some experimentation to find the right fit for each, but no less an expert than Wayne Gretzky said he considered promoting King and Nolan a crucial event in the team’s makeover.

“Bringing in the young kids like Nolan and King gave them sort of an identity and some enthusiasm and some size,” Gretzky said. “They’ve developed a very, very strong hockey club with a goaltender that’s as good as anybody in the National Hockey League.”

Nolan, slotted on the fourth line, scored the first goal of the series-clinching victory over St. Louis in the second round and has been credited with 25 hits. King, who replaced Penner on the third line with Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis, had five goals in a five-game stretch against St. Louis and the Phoenix Coyotes. He has put his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame into 29 hits, tops among rookies in postseason play.

Gamble on Carter pays off

The Kings had won only one of seven games and two of 10 when Lombardi, saying the situation was “snowballing,” traded defenseman Jack Johnson and a conditional first-round draft pick to Columbus on Feb. 23 for forward Jeff Carter. It required an avalanche-sized snowball for Lombardi to take on a contract that runs through 2021-22 season with an annual cap hit of $5.27 million and hope Carter wasn’t the party animal he had been portrayed as in Philadelphia.

The results weren’t spectacular at first, as Carter contributed only six goals and nine points in 16 games. But the deal has had a ripple effect: Trading Johnson created a permanent spot for rookie Slava Voynov, who balanced the defense corps when paired with Willie Mitchell. Each duo has a steady, stay-at-home defender and a puck-moving offensive catalyst and any of the three defense pairs can play during crunch time.

Gretzky said the trade also benefited center Anze Kopitar.

“They needed a natural goal scorer to take the pressure off their first line because they play so hard every night, and Carter’s done that,” Gretzky said. “Richards is taking a lot of pressure off Kopitar. Now other teams can’t match lines and play one defensive unit against Kopitar’s unit because Richards can be an offensive threat.”

As an unexpected bonus, Penner shook off his funk when Sutter put him with Richards and Carter after the Kings’ first-round elimination of Vancouver. Penner scored the West-clinching overtime goal against the Coyotes on the rebound of a shot by Carter.

“We have an opportunity here to do something special, monumental and historical and I think everybody wants to be a part of that,” Penner said, “so they’re going to put in every amount of intensity and passion and focus and concentration that they’ve got into this, because who knows when you will be back. There’s guys that have played their whole career, 20-year careers, that don’t get this shot.”

Because of a few key moves, the Kings now have that shot.