It’s a counterintuitive notion, given the sterling record the head coach has produced since joining the Kings in 2011-12. The franchise’s only Stanley Cup was followed by a Western Conference Final appearance in 2013, which represents the most successful stretch in club history.
Nevertheless, he’s put his players in every position to fail in their second-round clash against the Anaheim Ducks.
After seizing a 2-0 series lead, Sutter senselessly broke from a winning formula and has seen his squad drop three straight contests to sit on the brink of elimination as a result.
Here’s how Sutter has put his team’s season in peril.
They weren’t perfect, but they appeared to be working.
From Game 3 of the first round to Game 3 of the second, the Kings more or less stuck with the same forward units, dropping only two out of eight outings in that span.
On Saturday, with a 2-1 edge in the Anaheim series, Sutter inexplicably reunited Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, disrupting the chemistry developed on a pair of lines (second and fourth) in one fell swoop.
The former Philadelphia Flyers haven’t clicked in about a year and were once again ineffective together—the only chances generated came from Richards and Tanner Pearson buzzing around the puck.
Carter was utterly irrelevant as a winger.
More importantly, the duo simply doesn’t jell on defense. Icing two natural centers together is asking for trouble, as one will be forced into the uncomfortable role of winning puck battles along the boards to either clear the defensive zone or extend possessions on attack.
Also, defensive reads differ from center to wing, causing hesitation for a split second over whom to cover. A split second is all it takes to get burnt in the NHL.
The proof is plain to see, as Richards and Carter—who played a fair deal of the regular season on the second line—were on the ice for the most even-strength goals against of any Kings forwards in 2013-14.
As seen below, they were on the wrong end of a Devante Smith-Pelly marker in Game 4 as well.
It’s no coincidence that Richards’ defensive numbers have taken a nosedive in the past two games, scrapping any rhythm he had cultivated alongside Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford on the fourth line.
Prior to Saturday’s tilt, he had arguably been the stoutest defensive forward on the team in the playoffs.
San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan looked to match up Joe Thornton against him at every turn due to the discrepancy in size and puck possession, but Richards simply contained the big man, limiting him to a whopping one even-strength point in seven games.
In the Anaheim series, Richards started well, registering two points and a plus-one rating in the first three games. In the past two, he’s gone pointless and put up an ugly minus-three rating.
Game 5 was especially rough, as the two-way center saw a mere 9:50 of action alongside Dwight King and Jordan Nolan—two big wingers lacking the speed and board work to retrieve pucks and give Richards the touches he requires.
LA Kings Insider’s Jon Rosen noted that Richards’ ice time on Monday was the second lowest of his three-year Kings tenure.
Why Sutter chose to yank him out of his newly established comfort zone only to try two futile line configurations is baffling and has sent him reeling in the past two contests.
Elsewhere, Sutter broke up the top line for Game 4, demoting Dustin Brown and promoting Justin Williams. Both had put forth stronger performances in their previous slots, and the revised lines fell flat on Saturday, with Williams appearing out of sync with Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik.
It was the worst showing of the series by L.A.’s most dynamic stars, who had grown accustomed to Brown’s straight-line approach.
Williams’ snaky, jerky, possession-oriented game takes some getting used to, and there’s just no time for that in the pressure cooker of the postseason.
Bumping Richards up also put Lewis at center on the fourth line, where he isn’t quite as useful. He’s a speedy, tenacious player who thrives with simple tasks. When he’s asked to make defensive reads in the middle of the ice, he struggles.
The pieces no longer fit.
Recognizing the error of his ways, Sutter returned Brown to the top line and Richards to the fourth on Monday, but the damage was already done.
Below is a look at some horrendous Kings defense in Game 5, with the loose gaps, turnovers and mix-ups in coverage feeling eerily reminiscent of L.A.'s early-series debacle against San Jose:
Are those really the Kings we know? The top defense in the world?
The players were tentative throughout Games 4 and 5 because their surroundings had changed once more. The strengths, weaknesses and tendencies they’d adapted to had been wiped clean in favor of a different look that slowed their play in all three zones.
In the first three games of the series, the Kings scored eight goals and allowed six. In the past two, they’ve managed three while conceding six.
In terms of goal differential per game, the Kings have gone from plus-0.67 to minus-1.50 since the roster shuffle.
That's a stark contrast initiated by Sutter’s needless tinkering with the forward lines.
Another key area where Sutter has failed is in his line matchups. Early in the series, Anze Kopitar and Ryan Getzlaf went at each other in a best-on-best battle featuring two of the very finest pivots in hockey.
It worked in L.A.’s favor, as Kopitar and Gaborik produced well while Getzlaf and linemate Corey Perry didn’t leave quite the same impact.
The Kings stepped out to a 2-0 lead.
Starting in Game 3, the big centers weren’t seeing as much of each other. After registering 18.6 minutes (11.2 and 7.4) of even-strength time against Getzlaf in the first two games, L.A.’s best two-way presence only saw 11.9 minutes (5.7 and 6.2) of even-strength action against the MVP candidate in the next two outings.
Anaheim would win both contests and reclaim home-ice advantage.
Again, Sutter learned the hard way and circled back around to the right approach in Game 5, icing Kopitar for 8.2 even-strength minutes against Anaheim's leader.
Getzlaf and Perry had been afforded the breathing room to get the ball rolling, though, and were now much more influential players than in the first two games of the conference semifinals.
Look at how effortlessly the top line carved through L.A.'s defense on the play below. When Getzlaf and Perry are hot, they make great offense seem like a walk in the park.
Sutter opting to ditch the matchup in Game 3 would have been understandable if the Kings had been trailing the series or there was another player on the team fit to handle Getzlaf’s blend of size and supreme skill. They weren’t, and there isn’t.
Kopitar’s 6’3”, 224-pound frame is nearly identical to Getzlaf’s 6’4”, 221-pound body, so he can hang with him in the trenches while using his defensive awareness to keep Anaheim’s best weapon relatively quiet.
Furthermore, Kopitar and Gaborik possess the kind of elite skill that forces the Ducks captain to exert energy in the defensive zone.
Against any other King, Getzlaf would have a field day.
He was shockingly granted that opportunity, putting up one goal, three assists and an even rating in the past three games after only managing three helpers and a minus-two rating in Games 1 and 2.
Perry, for his part, has gone from no points and minus-two in the opening two games to one goal, two assists and an even rating in his last three.
Their improvement in the plus/minus category is telling of how much easier a time Getzlaf and Perry have enjoyed away from Kopitar.
With a firm Kopitar-Getzlaf war down the middle (Games 1, 2 and 5), the Kings are 2-1. With Getzlaf facing a committee of centers (Games 3 and 4), the Kings are 0-2.
Isn’t it glaringly obvious? Not to Sutter. With the benefit of last change in Games 3 and 4, he willingly deviated from the matchup that had produced such strong results early on.
Even stranger, he briefly decreased Kopitar’s ice time, scaling his minutes back from 26:10 (inflated due to overtime) in Game 1 to 16:37 and 16:43 in Games 2 and 3, respectively. His playoff average is over 20 minutes per game.
Instead of leaning on his star for the Kings to put their foot on Anaheim’s throat when they were up 2-0, Sutter failed to go for the kill, and the Ducks came roaring back.
The Kings have looked like deer in headlights ever since.
In a playoff setting, where momentum is at a premium and awfully difficult to wrestle back from the opposition, Sutter's mistakes may well have buried his club.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater.
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