Darryl Sutter on the shortened NHL season
The only current NHL head coach with experience at guiding a team through a lockout-shortened, 48-game season has a good idea of what to expect if all goes as anticipated and teams open training camps Sunday in advance of a Jan. 19 return from lockout limbo.
“We’re all going to come up with ideas but you really don’t have time to work on a lot of things,” said Kings Coach Darryl Sutter, who coached the Chicago Blackhawks during the truncated 1994-95 season.
“We’re lucky we have our team returning, other than banged-up guys. Camp can be mostly about reinforcement instead of about something new. To me it’s not really training camp. It’s more trying to get five good practices in.”
That’s about all the preparation most NHL teams are likely to get.
The Kings are set to raise their Stanley Cup banner and receive their rings before a noon matchup against the Blackhawks at Staples Center a week from Saturday. Most teams will start that day with games against geographic rivals but a few won’t open until the next day.
It’s a tight timetable. With the NHL’s Board of Governors having met Wednesday to unanimously ratify the tentative labor agreement they reached with the players’ union on Sunday, it’s now the players’ turn to vote. That should be wrapped up on Saturday, followed by each side signing the document and the league announcing its schedule.
Camps are on track to start Sunday but the extensive fitness tests that players usually undergo on the first day might be condensed in order to get players onto the ice as soon as possible.
Although parts of this scenario will seem familiar to Sutter, he noted some key differences compared to his first experience.
The collective bargaining agreement that preceded the 1994-95 lockout expired on Oct. 1, after players went through a full training camp. The most recent labor deal expired on Sept. 15, before players reported to camp. Sutter hasn’t seen this group on the ice since June 11, the day the Kings clinched the Cup.
“You had everybody and you pretty much knew what your team was and you knew where everyone was conditioning-wise and you were only away from them for 2 1/2 months when it was all said and done,” Sutter said of the 1994-95 scenario.
“Everybody’s talking about the importance of a good start, but the one thing that I take out of the 48-game schedule that year was how you needed lots of players. I bet if you look back at Chicago that year we probably used 16 or 17 forwards.”
According to the website https://www.hockey-reference.com, the Blackhawks used 21 forwards that season, along with nine defensemen and three goaltenders.
The performance by that team seems to contradict the theory that even a short slump can be ruinous in an abbreviated season. Those Blackhawks endured a 13-game winless streak and were 24-19-5 but still advanced to the conference finals, where they lost to Detroit.
Sutter drew up many plans for the Kings’ training camp, some before the lockout was imposed and others when a settlement seemed near. His latest plan calls for a relatively small group of five lines, four defense pairs and two goaltenders.
“It’s not about guys making our team. It’s about getting good practices in and getting a good feel again,” said Sutter, who planned to leave his family farm in Alberta, Canada, and travel back to Los Angeles on Wednesday. “I’m not interested in having a bunch of extra guys and having guys not quite sharp enough because they didn’t get enough reps, or something like that.
“We know our team. There weren’t any big changes made during the summer or anything like that. I don’t know how many teams can actually say that.”
Sutter said he’s working on the assumption that center Anze Kopitar, who sustained an apparent Grade 2 sprain of his right medial collateral ligament last Saturday, “should be close and maybe not ready” and could be the first of many injuries teams will face while playing a condensed schedule.
If Kopitar isn’t ready, Sutter said he might move Jeff Carter, who mostly played the wing after the Kings acquired him from Columbus, back to center and return Dustin Brown to the right side after playing the left side most of the season. Sutter also said if Simon Gagne is 100% after missing much of last season because of a concussion and Dustin Penner is in shape, the Kings will have a good deal of flexibility.
That will be as valuable as Sutter’s first lockout experience.
“You’re going to have an unbalanced schedule and there’s so many things we don’t know,” he said. “You just have to take care of business and not really be so concerned about your opponents. It’s more about looking forward to your next game.”
At least now there are games to look forward to.
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