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Sutter ready to challenge Kings to be better

by Curtis Zupke
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Even though he hasn't been behind an NHL bench for five years, Darryl Sutter never really stopped coaching.

Every day he watched a handful of games and pondered the moves he would or wouldn't make, the buttons he would push and the bad bounces he would endure.

Sutter did so more than ever during the past week when he pored over tapes of his new team, the Los Angeles Kings. So what happened when he stepped on the ice for his first practice Wednesday?

"I felt like I was 25 again," Sutter said at the news conference introducing him as the 24th coach in Kings history.

Sutter, 53, was lured back by a promising yet underachieving L.A. squad and the opportunity to work again under general manager Dean Lombardi, who hired Sutter when both were in San Jose.

Sutter's debut as Kings coach on Thursday against the Anaheim Ducks will be his first as an NHL coach since he gave up those duties with the Calgary Flames at the end of the 2005-06 season to concentrate on his role as general manager -- he resigned that post last Dec. 28.

Five years away from coaching is an eternity in the NHL, and it wasn't about a job simply opening up because Lombardi said Wednesday that Sutter had been contacted by two other teams before he hired him.

"I always told my family if I had the right opportunity, I'd be back coaching again," Sutter said.

"I'm not a person that's sat and waited for another job or hoped there would be a change somewhere. I was ready for it. I just think I got lucky."

Sutter coached under Lombardi in San Jose from 1997-2002. He made it past the first round of the playoffs only twice with the Sharks, and Lombardi fired him after a 9-12-2 start to the 2002-03 season.

Sutter was hired as coach of the Flames in 2002, became general manager the following year and proceeded to lead the franchise back to relevancy after it missed the postseason the previous seven seasons. In his first full season as coach and GM, Sutter led Calgary to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, a series they lost to Tampa Bay in seven games.

Lombardi said his long-time connection to Sutter id due in large part to their shared philosophy.

"We're both the same age and grew up in different environments - one the son of a factory rat and the other the son of a farmer," Lombardi said. "The values are the same: You work hard, you'll be rewarded. You have an identity. You stand for something."

Sutter's task is to lift a sinking club that has fallen far short of lofty expectations that it was a top-four team in the Western Conference. The Kings are fourth in the Pacific Division and 10th in the conference thanks to a punchless offense that has wasted some of the best goaltending in the League by Jonathan Quick.

Los Angeles is last in the NHL with 2.12 goals per game. It hasn't scored more than two non-shootout goals in 12 straight games and looked canyons apart from Detroit in an 8-2 loss to the Red Wings on Dec.17.

That was a big topic Wednesday, and Sutter admitted "we've got a lot of work to do."

He pointed to the fact that center Mike Richards has been out with a potential concussion (he has been cleared to participate in practice) and that Justin Williams and Drew Doughty are starting to trend upward. He also said that "this is a 3-2 League," and was reminded that the Kings have had trouble getting that third goal.

"We want it to happen in a hurry," he said. "We'll get there."

Sutter downplayed the notion that his tough style ideally suits a team that could use a confrontation or two.

"I don't think it comes into play," he said. "I think it gets blown out of proportion."

But Sutter also acknowledged that "quite honestly, players need to be pushed and pulled … they want to have success."

That would seem to apply to several of L.A.'s top players that are struggling.

Doughty has two goals and 10 points with a minus-6 rating, captain Dustin Brown has only seven goals in 33 games and Dustin Penner has just four goals in 41 games as a King.

Asked about Penner, Sutter said, "I think that's where we talked about style of coaching. The player needs that to be (pushed). He's, quite honestly, (responded to) similar-type coaches and he hasn't. That remains to be seen. We need him to be a good, solid player for us -- a good, all-around player. Not to measure his performance on goals, but overall performance."

Sutter also spoke to the value of a new voice in the room and what it can do.

"Hopefully it jump starts them, right? I think Xs and Os tend to be as good as they are in the game, but I think one thing that hasn't changed in this game, regardless, and never will, is you have to play (with emotion). It's men playing a boys game, and there is some emotion about it."

Lombardi's faith in Sutter is also based on his view that Sutter is re-energized after the time off and coming into the peak time of his career.

"What I'm excited about is that he's in his prime," Lombardi said.

Sutter said he will retain assistant John Stevens and goaltending coach Bill Ranford as he wants the focus to be on the team, which embarks on a new, seemingly tougher era on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Brown alluded to it when said he talked to Scott Thornton about playing for Sutter. Brown said Thornton painted a pretty good picture of his new coach and what it could bring.

"He said he hated him while he played for him, but looking back he said it was the best hockey he played as a professional," Brown said.
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