EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Kings general manager Dean Lombardi thinks his coach and good friend Darryl Sutter is misunderstood.
"Everyone wants to paint him as a farmer, but this guy had a full boat to Princeton -- and quite frankly if he had gone that way, I wouldn't be surprised if this guy was on Wall Street right now," Lombardi told NHL.com. "He is very sharp, but because he's a cowboy, us liberal intellects from the Northeast want to label him as stupid. We tend to do that. That's the thing that is really underrated here."
Not in the Kings' locker room.
The players say Sutter has been exactly what they were told he was going to be when he replaced Terry Murray on Dec. 20: brutally honest, crazy-smart, but with a shoulder to lean on as long as you're giving him the maximum effort and you're doing things his way.
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"I guess his reputation was to scream and yell a lot, and that's probably the only thing that hasn't happened yet," said captain Dustin Brown, whose team will start play in the Western Conference Finals against the Coyotes on Sunday at Jobing.com Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN). "I've talked to players that played for him in the past [Scott Thornton], and they said he is going to call it how he sees it and he's an honest guy from top to bottom.
"If you're playing good, he's going to tell you. If he's playing bad, he's going to tell you. Other than the screaming part, everything has been spot-on with Darryl, bringing that emotion from the bench and letting it trickle down to us."
Even more than the intelligence, it's Sutter's honesty that had Lombardi convinced the coach he had when he was the GM in San Jose was the right person to turn around the struggling-yet-still-promising Kings this season.
"I remember one time when we were in San Jose, one of our top players came to me after Darryl was really hard on him, and he said, 'Dean, he shouldn't have said that to me,'" Lombardi recalled. "I said, 'Why do you think he said that?' He said, 'Well, he was [upset].' I said, 'Yeah, but why else.' The player said, 'Well, he is trying to make me better.'
"I was like, 'OK, are we done here?' That's the difference with Darryl. He's doing what a great teacher is supposed to do -- make you the best you can be."
Lombardi's vision was reaffirmed when upon hiring Sutter he started receiving text messages from players that used to play for him. He got all positive words.
"That tells me everything," Lombardi said. "I knew he was the right guy. But in the end it's not what I think, it's what the players that have to perform for him think. It's the most compelling evidence."
As honest and intelligent as Sutter is, he still had the difficult task of getting the Kings to play his attacking, aggressive style.
Brown said the buy-in factor never was an issue because the players all wanted to be more aggressive than they were under Murray, but it still took the Kings a while to grasp the system because of the amount of work they had to put into it.
"As opposed to before, we would sit back in our structure but we wouldn't go after the pucks; to be able to do what we're doing now, it's a lot more work but it's a lot harder on the other team, too," Brown said. "I couldn't tell you exactly when it started clicking for us, but it has definitely helped us in our scoring. We are playing a lot less in the [defensive] zone now."
Sutter said he basically had to keep willing the system on his players.
"Terry did an awesome job [with the defensive principles], and that's not an easy thing to do because when Terry came here they had the worst goals-against and everybody could take advantage of them," Sutter told NHL.com. "So it started from square one and it evolved into that, but through that a lot of those guys sort of lost their identity. They were stuck in a defensive mode and couldn't get out of it. Even when they were in the offensive zone, it was like they were still defending, and you've got to break it.
"I knew he was the right guy, but in the end it's not what I think, it's what the players that have to perform for him think. It's the most compelling evidence." -- Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi on head coach Darryl Sutter
"You can't just say, 'This is what we're going to do.' You've got to play to break it."
The changeover eventually started to work after Lombardi made the Kings bigger and faster with the acquisition of Jeff Carter and the call-ups of Jordan Nolan and Dwight King from the American Hockey League. All the puzzle pieces started to fit; Sutter had two bona fide scoring lines to work with as well as a third line centered by Jarret Stoll that was capable of playing a strong two-way game.
The Kings scored 3.00 goals per game over their last 21 games and went 13-5-3 after averaging only 2.05 goals per game in their first 61, when they were 27-22-12.
They're still averaging 3.00 goals per game in the playoffs and are 8-1 with 15 of their 18 regular skaters contributing at least a goal so far.
Even better, their goals-against has gone down from 2.07 in the regular season to 1.56 in the playoffs.
"He has an identity," Lombardi said of Sutter. "Unfortunately, today it's hard to have an identity because we want to please everybody, so we become a phony and stand for nothing. If you're going to have an identity, yeah, some people aren't going to like it, but at least it's honest. It doesn't mean you're rude to anybody. He gives your team an identity, but it's still about the players.
"This game is made to be played hard. It's not an easy game to play. But if you're going to choose to play it you're going to play it the right way. In the end, you're going to be glad you did."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl