Having locked Dallas into the jail of futility, the Deputy Dawg Kings faced the Underdog Coyotes. Jason La “Hanna” Barbera’s Huckleberrys Hounded their playoff nemesis, and 5 minutes in it was obvious the Kings were deep in Scoobie Doo Doo; ruh roh.
Mr. Peabody himself would have been baffled by the Goofy line combinations; for example, Clifford the Big Red Dog played on 3 of 4 lines, with a total of 5 linemates among 4 unique line combinations. Shane “Droopy Dawg” Doan played among a squadron of Red Baron’s, and in this comical stripping of points the Kings, like Snoopy, crashed in the desert.
Let’s examine the flight plan, before the winds of change blew airship L.A. off course:
It all seemed to be going well; chances, zone time, shots, but La Barbera was very strong, made some great stops, and contained all rebounds to thwart the Kings opening push. Line combinations began as the X Ray shows, and lasted to the middle of the 2nd period. Still, highly unusual coaching decisions originated in the seemingly normal 1st period, and overtook the game until becoming even more bizarre when the line juggling started.
I track shifts, and personnel, throughout the game. To me, the way a coach manages his bench is equally as interesting, and as important, as the player’s performances. The two are inseparable, really, equal parts of the same game. I don’t presume to know better than Sutter, but I can point out when he does things that are unusual.
In most games, the shift log shows about 25 shifts in each period, sometimes as high as 30. There have been instances of 33, and a rare 35. In the 1st period against the Coyotes, the shift count was 44. It is my belief that this was done to energize the team among all 4 lines, to counteract the fatigue of a 5th road game and the potential lackadaisical attitude of a team playing the last game before going home after assuring themselves of at least 7 of 10 points. In short, maybe the Kings were gonna come out soft and satisfied, and maybe Sutter wanted to hype things up.
What ended up happening was a wide-open game, more wide-open than any this year. It seems to me that making so many line changes would unavoidably scramble the Kings positionally as players came and went. It seems that yielding possession of the puck, by dumping it in to allow a line change, would give Phoenix more attack opportunities. It seems that the mandate of a quick “on-and-off” would ramp up the energy, and in a way would subliminally countermand the idea of extended possession. I can’t say that there is a direct causal relationship; I can say that two very unusual things happened, simultaneously.
A counter argument could be that the shift count in the 2nd was closer to normal, at 31, yet the play remained wide open. I would then say, as I am now while arguing with myself, that 31 shifts is at the top of the range and barely normal anyway, and that the style of game had already been established. I would then add another factor that was unusual, alleging said factor to also contribute mightily to the wide-open style: scattershot line juggling.
As I said, halfway thru the game, Coach Sutter started mixing line combinations. The first evidence was Toffoli moving from the Richards line LW to the Stoll line RW, but I think that was done to make room for Brad Richardson to replace Toffoli, and skate with Carter. Sutter says he is looking for speed to match with Carter, which in the past prompted Lewis and Clifford both to get time on the Richards line with Carter. Suddenly, we are looking for a scoring left wing again; note that we were looking for a scoring left wing while Gagne was still here, as his play did not qualify him for the role.
Once Richardson was in place with Carter and Richards, Toffoli replaced Lewis to play with Stoll and King. Lewis was sent to center on the 4th line, replacing Richardson, between Clifford and Nolan. So, it was a three player swap; Richardson for Toffoli, Toffoli for Lewis, Lewis for Richardson. The Kopitar line remained intact, as it would for the entire game. It all made sense; that lasted one round of shifts.
Here is a list of the various line combinations that ensued, in just the 2nd period:
Asterisks mark a new line. Of the 17 shifts shown, 7 were newly formed. The top 3 show the three-player swap, then the Kopitar line came out followed by the new Stoll line with Toffoli. A new line appeared, with Richardson at LW to Richards at Center and Lewis at RW. Then the Kopi line, followed by 3 new variants in a row.
Does this juggling necessarily have a major impact on the game? Well, it doesn’t have to, but it can, and in this game it sure as hell did. The first change was to put Toffoli out on the 3rd line, the Stoll line, the checking line. On Toffoli’s second shift with that line, the Phoenix goal was scored by Lombardi. Toffoli was in a new role, on a new line, with new guys. Toffoli is a rookie, in his 8th NHL game, so you tell me: is it surprising that he was a half-step behind, with second choice positionally, and that a goal was scored by his man? To me, the kid did everything that could be expected of him, even got the guy to the backhand, but rules is rules and it was his guy what scored. Did he fail, or were we asking too much?
A list of lines in the 3rd period shows fewer new combinations, but then again, perhaps all plausible possibilities had already been used in the 2nd. Clifford ended up with Richards and Carter, but a close look finds that the Stoll line was featured over the Richards line to start the period, then there was a Power Play, after which a time of juggling occurred.
It is my contention that the game started with so many quick line changes that a possession game, a slow, heavy game of play in the corners, was thwarted by natural tendencies to play quick and get off quick. I believe the game style was established, and that it would have been difficult to adjust the game back to a slow game, but that also the line juggling created some confusion and further detracted from a control game of tight, methodical progression. It seems no wonder that shot-mentality was effected, meaning outside shots with few screens and few tips. The Phoenix goalie was “on,” and when that is the case a team needs tips, deflections, screens, loose pucks in the crease with scrums for possession, and zone-time. That style of game was lost to begin with, and would not likely be recaptured when players are being mixed in such haphazard fashion.
In just a personal 4-shift span during the 2nd period, Lewis played RW with Stoll and King, Center with Clifford and Nolan, Right Wing with Richardson and Richards, then back to Right Wing with Stoll and King. He would later play Left Wing with Stoll and Carter, then finish the game with a shift at Left Wing with Richards and Carter. If it sounds complicated to read it, imagine playing it.
I thought the team played well, within the limitations of an inappropriate style. I don’t think the coach lost the game, and I don’t think he was crazy to try to shake things up. I just think it didn’t work, and failed badly.
It’s gonna be tough to finish a 5th game on the road, in this shortened season especially, so maybe it was inevitable that Sutter’s bag of tricks lost to Tippett’s ACME products, and the Roadrunners fell to the Wile E. Coyotes.