Without Mike Richards, the NHL all time, teams coming back from 0-3 in a series to win = 2.
Now it’s 4.
So much talk Centers on Richards needing to come back like the old Mike Richards. So much talk about his salary and his line assignment, and if he is overpaid for his recent output. The thinking goes, “Mike Richards should not be a 4th line center.” That thinking is based on an obsolete model, an incorrect grasp of the Kings actual intent.
I submit this to you: any evaluation of Richards must conform to the Kings actual wishes for him. Of course, right? But here’s the thing…
Remember how many times Sutter has made it absolutely clear that he does not number lines? Remember how many times he has said “we’re trying to get everyone into the game? Remember how many times it has been correctly stated that the Kings “roll 4 lines?”
So let’s define the objective here: The Kings want to roll 4 lines, game in and game out, playoffs and regular season. Most teams want to. Most teams can’t.
Further, Sutter does not line match forwards. He just doesn’t. He rolls 4 lines in an order, and at the start of the game that order is made clear. It might be Kopi, Carter, Stoll, Richards. It might be Stoll, Kopi, Carter, Richards. But, Sutter goes into the game knowing his order and he does everything possible to maintain it. If it gets altered due to a run of special teams assignments, he just sticks with a new order and rolls 4 lines in that new succession.
Sutter does not, for example, put Kopi out there if there develops an O-zone draw; Vigneault, for example, did this ad infinitum in Vancouver. O-zone draw, trot out the Sedins, line order be damned. Not Sutter. Who’s up next is his determinant, not the fickle location of a mid-game faceoff.
Sutter does not double shift lines. He doesn’t even do it for a Power Play. It’s based on availability, and if the players from first PP unit aren’t rested enough, the second unit goes out there.
Sutter is so committed to rolling 4 lines that he will even “slip centers” one line, if he is forced to put 2 centers out for a D-zone draw. If he needs 2 centers for that, a common tactic in case one gets ejected from the faceoff, he has been seen to simply make new lines when he needs to. If Stoll, for example, cannot get off right after the draw and spends a full shift playing with the other center at the same time, Sutter will just play the next wingers intact with the next available center. Suddenly it seems like all 4 lines have been juggled, but no. Sutter slipped Centers, and played them with an on-going winger tandem. So committed is Sutter to rolling 4 lines that he rarely even does the 2 centers for a draw thing in the first place, because it either disrupts the flow of ice-time, or disrupts the line combos.
Now back to Mike Richards. If Sutter rolls 4 lines and does not number them, who is to say which line is the 4th and 2nd or 3rd and 1st? If they all get their turn, in whatever order but they all play one shift out of 4, then how do we end up with the disparity in ice time? Kopi’s gonna get 20 and Clifford’s gonna get 12. How?
Special teams. And here’s the magic. Sutter rolls 4 lines knowing that his best players are slotted in for special teams play. Other coaches play their guys according to imperatives established from minute to minute, based on circumstance. Sutter says no to that, and his imperatives are fixed, predictable, and reliable. Some would say it’s conservative in comparison; to me, it’s smart and the other guys are risky.
The only time I’ve seen Sutter “shorten his bench” and reconstitute into a 3 line rotation was against the Hawks, late in the series and in Game 7. He dropped Lewis out of meaningful ice time, as Lewis was getting killed on matchups, for whatever reason. (Trevor Lewis played the hardest minutes of anyone, as first pair PK and Right Wing with Richards, whom Quenneville thought he could beat by matching Towes/Hossa against Richards. I think he just wore down a couple games. We don’t even get to that game 7 without him.) Even then, Sutter rolled Carter and Richards together, sometimes with LW Pearson and sometimes with RW Toffoli. So it wasn’t really just 3 lines that time, even.
So Sutter wants to roll 4 lines. Most teams want 4 lines that can score, and they think that will be the answer. See Bruce Boudreau: linkatron ”We got three different lines scoring. We had to. It’s something that’s been going on all year. We need that depth to score because sometimes it’s not that difficult to check one line. But when you have four lines with the ability to score, usually you come out ahead.” Yeah, usually. But not always, huh Bruce?
The Kings want 4 lines that can defend, and THAT is the correct answer.
Here is the Kings philosophy: If we are gonna roll 4 lines, in order, without regard to matchups, then it must follow that we need 4 lines that are matchup-proof. Simple, right? But it’s radical.
So when Sutter looks at his blank lineup card, would he not think to himself, “Jeez, I got a chance to ice Kopi, Carter, Stoll and Richards as centers.” Folks, that is not a bad thing.
If Sutter puts out Gaborik-Kopi-Brown, Pearson-Carter-Toffoli and King-Stoll-Lewis, that is a solid, Cup-Winning, established line formation.
In the conventional view, that makes a hell of a lineup with lines 1, 2 and 3. Toss out some scrubs in limited action, maybe a Brandon Bollig and Ben Smith type line that’s gonna get 6-9 minutes and almost none of it in the 3rd period. Lotta GM’s would say that should be good enough to win, we’ll play our best players more often and that will make the difference in close games. They forget that guys do indeed fatigue, I guess.
Fun fact is that with the above lines, Sutter would still have Mike Richards and some guy who just won a Conn Smythe Trophy left over, and to me that seems like a decent start on a forward line regardless of which number unknowing journalists attempt to force that number on.
Last year, Richards’ linemates would, at the end of the game, look as if they didn’t get regular shifts because their ice time was noticeably lower. But it is my belief that if a game ever happened where there were no penalties and no special teams play, that ice time would be damn near equal. In that case, nobody would be able to force old-world thinking of what a “4th line” is, onto the Kings actual new-world methodology.
So Richards isn’t a 4th line center at all. He’s a center. His linemates don’t get 4th line minutes; they just do not get special teams ice time.
There isn’t a 4th line, there are just 4 lines. And by the end of the game, or the end of the series, those 4 lines will all have gas left, while Jonathan Toews, for example, will have less. That’s what works, that’s what has worked, and I mean “worked” as in 2 Cups in 3 years.