(This article was originally published by me as a guest author at the site called “Surly and Scribe.”)
First of all, a few quick housekeeping items. Yes, it’s too early to decide, and early to talk about it as if it happened, and the Kings aren’t even in the Finals yet, but if we are gonna sit around and hope to win the thing it is perfectly reasonable to imagine doing just that. If it’s okay to dream about parades, and Dustin Brown being the first King to hold the Cup, then we can talk about whose name would go on it, too.
Also, don’t come bitching about jinxes, either. Jinxes are superstition, and being superstitious is bad luck.
The rules about coaches are vague, as far as I can tell. But regardless of any rule or interpretation of same, there is an escape clause. The league allows any team to petition the Commissioner to have a person’s name put on the Cup due to extenuating circumstances. So, if the Kings wanted to have Terry Murray’s name on the Cup, they could simply ask for it. Should they?
In my view the Kings would not be where they are without the work done by first Murray and then Sutter, and in that order. Murray not only established a mentality, he also instilled the skill to execute the most rigorous and demanding style of play. The puck-swarming style you now see is the result of all-out effort coupled with chess-like strategies required to be designed and followed spontaneously, everything made up on the fly with players reading off each other at full speed and under great pressure. Learning that took time and terrific guidance; coaching. Murray was the one that spent that time. Murray gave the Kings the wisdom and ability to withstand all forms of forecheck, and to also thwart all forms of attack. Murray got the guys to do everything but score, and he was taking steps to improve that when he was let go.
Sadly, Murray was trying to take steps based on too few adaptations of the Kings’ system. At the start of this year, the Kings proven breakout was changed, and ultimately, changed for the worse. Because the Nashvilles and Detroits of the world were having success with a two-men-deep, point-pinching forecheck, Murray asked the players to use two breakouts, the short and long.
Trouble came when the Kings failed to recognize which was needed, or which one each player was expecting. Instead of just the “short breakout”, with the center typically swooping through the defending zone from below the circles to accept a short pass from the defense and then carry it out, Murray wanted the addition of a quick-up to a forward in center ice to stretch the play (the long breakout). This is over-simplified, of course, but in general the Kings were expected to incorporate two breakout methods, and then recognize as a group which should be used.
What ended up happening were giveaways, passes into pressure, and gaps. The stretch forward was closer to coverage, so he had less time to accept a pass and make the next one; other forwards were either streaking to stay with him (gapping themselves from the defense) or lagging behind having expected the shorter pass (isolation of puck-carrier, and gaps, too). Whipped eggs became neither omelette nor souffle; they just turned into odd, scrambled lumps.
Then, along came Sutter. Forget the quick-up, unless there is a breakaway. Now, the Kings simply want all five guys to stay together, break out methodically, and NOT make the pass too early. If the defense has room they skate it out until they draw coverage, and then they pass it. Why would you send the puck so far away from yourself that you are now out of the play, into the hands of a forward in center-ice facing immediate, out-numbered pressure? Carry the thing and take the ice until you make them cover you, make them come to you, and then you can find a nearby teammate to pass it to. If there is no pressure, keep going! That’s how you saw Rob Scuderi dishing the pass across the attacking blue line against the Blues in game 4; he was carrying the puck, and the Blues let him keep coming.
The result is that our five guys can stay together, and make it a true 5 on 5 attack. The Blues could not really trap, or force, because all options were available, plus the most dangerous King player was usually the open man coming with speed looking for a pass, which forced coverage decisions and opened up ice for the carrier.
So Sutter cleaned up the breakout, but his real mark was made in his attacking zone decisions and changes.
Our old attack was built on a 1-man forecheck going to 2 men only if not “risky.” The third forward was F3 high, but to a fault. Too high, too 3. We needed him to come in for retreival down low, but he wasn’t there unless he could switch with F2. We almost never had all 3 forwards below the faceoff dots, or even below the tops of the circles.
Also, our point men were very different than now. The guy on the side where the puck was, the strong-side guy, could sometimes hold the line, but rarely pinched as low as the half-wall. Our weak-side guy, the other defenseman, was stationed mid-ice outside the zone, like a roving safety. We never had the weakside point covered. Consequently, the Kings effectively played at 3 on 5 in the attacking zone, and occasionally it went to 4 on 5 if a low-to-high shot developed. We had no back-door attack (Voynov sneaking down for shot), we had almost no pinching to keep it in.
Under Sutter, it’s a two man, swooping tag-team forecheck on a moving puck, and a solid two-man down low on a stopped puck. Our F3 can join when their 3rd forward goes in, too, as long as he doesn’t get tied up in the scrum and has an escape when he gets the puck.
At the points, our strong-side defensemen now pinch below the dots on the walls, and our weakside guy patrols inside the zone from middle to his own point. This, to me, is the single most important new element to the Kings game, and I had been hoping for it, and writing about it, for years.
Now, we pinch both points, we are there if our board battler needs to ring it around to maintain possession and we are also there to obstruct and disrupt the defending teams’ safety valve play for their own breakout. The weak side used to be a free out for our opponents, but now when the puck gets sent around they have to deal with the same tough pressure on both sides of the ice. If the opposition can’t even get uncontested possession, they sure as hell can’t get speed and flow on attack. Again, our five guys are together, with no gaps, and that makes the forecheck easier, makes retreival easier, and makes scoring easier when we do win the puck.
Under Murray, the system was geared toward semi-possession on offense, a careful defensive presence and containment. Under Sutter, the system is geared toward full-on possession, omnipresence and disruption.
I think it’s obvious that the Kings can execute these new tactics only because Terry Murray taught them how to anticipate, angle and maintain the defensive discipline necessary to contain attacks and prevent shots even when the opponent had extended possession. But, Sutter has expanded the system including new attacks, which in turn have led to more Kings’ possession and thereby fewer attacks against.
One could not be, without the other. The other could not be, without the one. For me, if the Kings had this choice to make, I say Terry Murray played a large enough role in the team, and the season, to be included with his name on the Cup. I just hope it’s a decision that becomes necessary to make.