How Sutter can brand this Kings’ team with a hot iron, or burn himself and GM Lombardi in the process

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The Associated Press

Darryl Sutter’s bitter-beer face peering out from behind the Kings’ bench could be the best thing at this moment for a team that’s reached its tipping point.

Or, should Kings’ fans be better prepared for an ending that will leave them feeling bitter all over again, crying in their tipped-over beers after a season that began with all kinds of promises goes sideways into the gutter?

Starting with tonight’s contest against cross-freeway rival Anaheim, the Kings are about reboot things with a well-known grouch who knows a few things about kick starting troubled franchises.

This could go one of two ways fairly quickly.

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The one general manager Dean Lombardi is banking on — Sutter climbs down from his saddle at his cattle range outside of Alberta, fires up his branding iron, and prods this talented-filled roster out of its offensive funk in time to make a playoff run come April. One that goes deeper than just a first-round knockout.

Barry Melrose, himself a former fired Kings coach, thinks that’s what’s in store.

“Darryl Sutter is walking into the perfect scenario for a coach: He’s going to a team with tons of talent that isn’t playing very good, and all he has to do is get them to compete, play with a little bit of fire and passion,” said the ESPN analyst.

“They just gotta start working and paying the price. And Sutter is the type of coach that will demand that. . . . If he just changes it a little bit, gets them to winning, he’ll look like the savior.”

“If” is another story.

Because Sutter, who has been out of coaching since resigning from Calgary in 2006, may have already flamed out. What if he doesn’t connect with the young stars? Suppose his act doesn’t work?

“How long as Bobby Valentine been out of coaching?” Lombardi asked, referring to the Boston Red Sox’s recent managerial hire.

The end play here is that Sutter and Lombardi, who last teamed up as coach and GM in San Jose nine years ago, jump the shark together.

Whatever way it breaks, it won’t be like a trip to Mardi Gras.

Ken Campbell of The Hockey News (linked here) wrote that “if the Kings think (former coach Terry) Murray was no barrel of laughs, wait until they experience a couple of months under Sutter.”

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald (linked here) wrote that Sutter can be “as much fun as foot fungus.” But he also notes that Sutter “makes the underachieving Kings a far more dangerous proposition.”

There are many who are highly skeptical of what the 53-year-old Sutter can do for L.A. hockey after all this time off.

Introduced Wednesday as the 24th head coach in the Kings’ 44th season, Sutter says he’s never turned off the coaching part of his brain since he’s been gone, and he’s watched the team’s last five games on live TV, as well as viewing parts of seven other games that Lombardi sent him.

He seems to have made some kind of an impact on the players after his hour-long initial practice at the El Segundo training facility.

“I don’t think you’ll see anyone take a night off; that happened too much around here already,” said Dustin Brown, the Kings’ captain.

“He’s come as advertised,” said Matt Greene, the Kings’ defenseman and alternate captain, leaving it at that.

Sutter would have been Lombardi’s first choice as coach when the Kings hired him as the GM back in 2006, but it didn’t happen because of Sutter’s ties to the Calgary franchise. Sutter led Calgary to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004. In his other two coaching stints, with Chicago and San Jose, the teams won a division title. Sutter’s teams made the playoffs in 10 of his 11 seasons.

Sutter, who has about as many career penalty minutes as he does points generated in eight NHL seasons as a left winger, can be compared in a way to a Kirk Gibson-like grinder, who imposes his will on his players.

He scored 161 goals, including a career best 40 in 1980-81. His goal as the new head coach of the Kings: Don’t make themselves think that all they have to do is change their focus from less defense to more offense.

“You have to be careful not to over emphasize (offense),” he said. “Some players have had trouble scoring this year, but I think it’s just a matter of time.

“This is a 3-2 (final score) league. It’s not 5-2 or 5-4. There’s still a tremendous amount of impact by being good defenders, not spending as much time in your own zone, controlling the neutral zone. There are a lot of parts to it.”

A lot of moving parts, actually.

Sutter is just one of them. Mike Richards, who began his first season in L.A. as an offensive leader, may be return to the lineup tonight after sitting out with the non-contact practice jersey since he had a concussion on Dec. 1.

That could be enough to wake up the Kings’ offense. The energy generated from facing the Ducks, who’ve slipped further down in the Pacific Division since their coaching switch from Randy Carlyle to Bruce Boudreau, might be another part of good timing.

The Kings’ track record in firing a coach sometime during the season in hopes of creating a new atmosphere may be a bit deceptive.

In eight previous switches, the Kings made the playoffs three times – 1982 (when Don Perry replaced Parker McDonald), 1987 (when Mike Murphy replaced Pat Quinn) and 1988 (when Robbie Ftorek took over for Murphy).

Jim Fox, the Kings’ TV analyst, was on all three of those teams when the changes took place.

“Changes are a lot different now than they were back then,” he said. “The Xs and Os back then were fairly consistent from team to team. A change was made maybe 90 percent of the time just to get a new voice. Now, it’s closer to 60-40, because it’s more intricate with what system a coach brings in.

“You hope a change in this case revives everyone and emotions are lifted up, which could make the learning curve move faster.”

Otherwise, Sutter could be sent out to pasture for the last time.

“I’ve kind of done both, hand in hand, for a long time,” said Sutter when asked Wednesday the difference between being a cowhand and a coach. “I guess I don’t get to see the cows for a while.”

That’s all depends on how many victories he can milk out of this team before spring.

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The Associated Press

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