There’s no easily encapsulated way to describe what it means to play under Darryl Sutter, but there is one central tenet: practice as you play.
Since arriving in Southern California in December of 2011, the Kings’ practices have been more up-tempo, and for morning skates on game days, there is a palpable focus that clearly sets the day apart from a typical practice day skate.
“And the more serious the game,” Jake Muzzin said, “the more focused and serious it is around the rink. But game day is game day. You’re ready to play, and it’s time to play. You come into the rink thinking about it here and there. You’re not thinking about it the whole day, but you still want to be relaxed and composed and confident and still have fun, but a focused fun. At the end of the day, you know you have a game that night and you’re thinking about it throughout the day.”
Getting to that game day is a process that requires players to address and fine tune the detail in their games: the positioning, the crispness of their execution, the commitment to battling and improving team speed as they move up and down the ice in five-man units. There is ample video work that prepares the players well for their 82-game marathon, but the on-ice sessions require a gradual fine tuning of their habits and a renewed focus and commitment to develop some of the behaviors that may have gotten them to this point in their careers but must be refined to reach an advanced age in the league.
Dustin Brown has a well-oiled routine, one that was crafted by emulating the veterans that he shared a dressing room with much earlier in his career. It wasn’t the same environment as the current room; when he was a rookie in 2003-04, there weren’t murals and photographs and trophies and the constant reminder of the club’s two Stanley Cups.
“When I was coming into the league, it was mostly left up to me on my own but there were guys [who set good examples], Brown said. “Matty Norstrom was a good example of a guy who really prepared himself. But again, it’s hard for an 18, 19, or 20-year-old to think that far ahead. You just don’t know any better and you have to go through the learning, the growing pains and figuring it out for yourself.”
Now, Brown is the tenured player who leads by example. Since the club’s rise to prominence this decade, there have been others who have also served as pillars reinforcing the club’s constitution – Rob Scuderi, Anze Kopitar, Robyn Regehr and Jeff Carter are among them – and all have thrived by exemplifying the maturity that begets strong, repeatable practice habits.
Success breeds success, and those who have taken part in the club’s title runs have by example pushed those around them to improve their own off-season conditioning regimen. Brown, who saw a nutritionist over the summer and shed weight, was joined by Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, amongst others, as those who’ve sported a sleeker, slimmed down look when the team reconvened in September.
But not all practice and work-out time at the rink is push, push, push. There are lighter moments, and Darryl Sutter, who entered the season having coached 1,121 career regular season games, knows the appropriate times to keep things light.
“That all depends on how the team is doing,” Muzzin said. “If we’re winning and doing well and playing well, competing hard and working hard, then he’s fun and a little bit more laid back as opposed to when we’re losing or the team’s not working as well as he wants or as well as we should. It all depends on the situation. But when it’s a winning time or a good time, he’s pretty laid back and cracks some jokes.”
Sutter isn’t the only coach directing traffic at practices and morning skates. John Stevens has been integral in helping to implement the club’s defensive structure and has found great success working with young defensemen. Together with Davis Payne, who works more closely with the club’s forwards, the Kings have maintained their status as among the league’s top possession teams and have operated with a proclivity for playing in the offensive zone and ceding few shots against.
Goaltending Coach Bill Ranford is on the ice every day and may often be joined by members of the club’s development staff. Mike O’Connell, Nelson Emerson, Glen Murray, Dusty Imoo and Mike Donnelly may all assist in practices when not on assignment and working with the club’s prospects. It’s not really accurate to say that there’s a good cop / bad cop balance among the coaching staff; all members of the staff are there to coach and make players better, all are experienced in addressing and working with players of all ages, and all have open doors both on the ice and in the club’s facility.
One misconception about the teams is that coaches will react punitively at practice after a poor outing. When the Kings opened the season with a 5-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks, Darryl Sutter wasn’t going to force them to do wind sprints or squats in the name of punishment.
Instead, the complete focus shifts to the next game on the schedule. More video will be watched. A greater attention to detail in practice habits will be laid. There are several times a year coaches can elevate their voice to get a point across, but this has generally been a Kings team with a strong constitution and the ability to police itself. You don’t win two Stanley Cups without trusted, experienced leadership.
Brown, who became the youngest captain in club history shortly before his 24th birthday in 2008, was still in the process of nailing down the detail in his practice habits and his focus on non-game days.
“I was probably about 25-ish, around there,” he said. “I think from then it has changed a lot, too. I think if I sat here and said I was where I wanted to be at 25, you keep on learning every year. You add things and take away things and figure out what kind of works. But a lot of it is just your preparation for the games. When I was younger, I didn’t think there was much to it. I think every player kind of goes through that learning curve, and for me it was right around 25.”
That aging curve has lowered as a young Kings team won its first championship in 2012. In the 2014 championship run, younger players such as Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli were also a part of the impressionable young group who had much to gain from the older players’ habits.
And for the older players, it’s about finding what works, what doesn’t work, and replicating the routine as best can be achieved, home or road.
“You kind of have to remind yourself a little bit when you go into that first preseason game,” Marian Gaborik said. “Practice days are routine throughout the summer, kind of, but game routines, some guys have different game routines – warm-up, and practice warm-up. I do as well. You just add more stuff. So you kind of have to remind yourself, but it doesn’t take long at all.
“I’ve been playing for 15 years or so, so you kind of get used to it. You know every rink pretty much like the back of your hand. You’re used to it. It’s a little different when you have to go to a practice rink or something on the road, but as long as you’re in the big rink, it’s pretty easy.”