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2014 Stanley Cup Final Preview: The Head Coaches

Some notes, analysis, and history on the two head coaches, Darryl Sutter and Alain Vigneault, whose teams will compete for Lord Stanley's hardware.

Harry How

I am probably not alone among fans of the Los Angeles Kings when I say that I love Darryl Sutter. He has captivated a fanbase, though usually for reasons that have little to do with his coaching tactics. His press conferences have reached near-legendary status, as the man spends a delightfully awkward few minutes basically mocking the entire concept of narratives with his weird anti-charisma. He has no time for your questions about clutch players or "near collapses", media! Instead, listen to him wax poetically about how his team played better in their losses than their wins against Chicago, or how hope is actually a bad thing, or whatever else he decides to talk about that really had nothing to do with your actual question. It's quite delightful.

In addition to his pressers, Darryl also just gives off a vibe that naturally draws people to him. When Kings fans everywhere first read that the team had hired Sutter to replace Terry Murray (who, it must be said, did yeoman's work in transforming this team, giving Darryl a very strong foundation to build off of), I can't imagine too many pictured his demeanor would be anything like it's turned out to be. I had the pleasure of sitting directly behind the Kings' bench for a Kings-Islanders game on February 11th, 2012 on Long Island, not too long after he first took over. Watching Sutter at work almost became more interesting than the actual hockey game. Up and down the bench he would go, constantly patting players on the back, leaning over to whisper things in their ear in an almost fatherly manner. The players never once looked uncomfortable with it; quite the contrary, they seemed to appreciate his words of, presumably, encouragement and advice. It summed up what Sutter has been throughout his time in Los Angeles: abrasive with the media and likely occasionally with his players, sure, but for the most part he just comes off as your kindly old grandfather. It's that personality along with his immense quotability ("park and ride", anyone?) and amazing SutterFace GIFs that lead to his rise in popularity.

But here's the thing: I said before that he is beloved for many reasons that have little to do with his coaching tactics, and that's absolutely true, but his coaching tactics have been great in this postseason. Especially when it comes to one area in particular: lineup adjustments.

To illustrate, look at these forward lines for LA's first game of the playoffs, that awful defeat at the hands of the San Jose Sharks (hey, remember those guys?):


Those lines were taken from Langluy's preview of Game 1 against the Sharks--and no, in case you've forgotten, there was nothing wrong with Tanner Pearson; he was simply a healthy scratch. Those lines were garbage, yes, definitely not an optimal use of LA's forwards. But, to Sutter's credit, he adjusted them. He didn't allow his preconceived notions of what wins in the playoffs (presumably, grit and veteran experience) over what loses (again presumably, youthful inexperience; there's no other justification for playing Clifford and Nolan over Pearson and King on the 2nd line with Toffoli on the 3rd) to blind him to what was actually happening. By the time Game 4 rolled around in Los Angeles, the Kings' lines looked like this:


Big difference. Let's talk about some of these adjustments he made:

-Swapping Williams and Brown: This is one that might fly under the radar a little bit. Williams is a driver of puck possession over the course of his career, while Brown is not. But neither is Brown an anchor, either. So by swapping Brown and Williams, the Kings put Williams on a line where he could help drive puck possession, and put Brown in a position where he could forecheck and throw hits and do his thing while still having Kopitar there to keep the puck moving in the right direction. This was an ingenious adjustment, and one that paid huge dividends for the Kings almost immediately, making them a far more balanced team.

-Carter back to C, on a 2nd line with Pearson & Toffoli: This is the one most people will probably talk about the most. Jeff Carter, contrary to what you might hear from Philadelphia beat writers, is pretty great defensively. He is more than capable of playing in all three zones, which is ultimately what you need out of your centermen. Moving him back to center allowed him to play on a 2nd line with Pearson and Toffoli that has been nothing short of deadly for the Kings. Without a 2nd line playing at the level these three played at against Chicago, it would have been virtually impossible for them to win with the Kopitar line being negated (and maybe even outplayed a few nights) by the Toews line.

-Richards as 4th line center: Mike Richards has had an up-and-down time with the Kings, that's for sure. He found himself on the 4th line at various points throughout the season (though because he plays a lot on the power play and penalty kill, his overall ice time will still look much higher than your typical 4th liner), but to start the playoffs Sutter put him back centering the 2nd line with King and Carter. That line looked amazingly ineffective against the Sharks, especially in the first two games. Moving Richards back down to the 4th line gave the Kings the opportunity to move Carter back to center (where he belongs) and build that high-powered 2nd line around him. And whatever you may think of him in 2014, Mike Richards is a ridiculous 4th line center. He's sporting a cool 54.4% Corsi (a plus 1.9% Corsi rel) and 54.9% Fenwick (a plus 5.4% Fenwick rel) in 5v5 score close situations in the playoffs so far, while starting a lot more shifts in the offensive zone. Simply put, he's doing a great job in sheltered minutes, and he's doing exactly what you would expect a borderline 2nd line/certainly 3rd line guy to do with soft 4th line minutes: killing them, for the most part.

Now, you may say that the moves Sutter made weren't all that impressive. Maybe you even think they were obvious. Which is fine, except the coaches he went up against failed to make similar adjustments time and time again. Todd McLellan actually let Mike Brown dress for his Sharks in 6 of the 7 games, only scratching him once while better players like Tyler Kennedy and Martin Havlat sat in the press box. I guess he just felt like he couldn't live without Brown's 36.4% Corsi or 2 points. In addition, he really only tried the most obvious adjustment the Sharks could have made--moving Joe Pavelski off the top line back to 3rd line center, which would have actually given the Sharks comparable forward depth to the Kings, instead of a total garbage fire in their bottom six--for a few games, constantly going back to Pavelski on the top line. Pavelski was moved to 3rd line center in game 2, stayed there for game 3, then inexplicably moved back up to the top line at the start of game 4 (you'd think you'd stick with what worked, no?). He ostensibly started as the 3C in game 5 but that lasted just a few shifts, then played as 3C for most of game 6, and then was back on the top line to start game 7. Todd's waffling on Pavelski showed exactly the kind of indecision that Sutter never really approached; other than some in-game adjustments, he's largely stuck with his lines throughout the rest of the playoffs, even after dropping three straight to the Ducks in the very next round.

In the conference finals, it took Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville until game five of the series to finally get Michal Handzus the hell off of the 2nd line, where up until that point he had been shutting down Patrick Kane better than any other team's defense in NHL history. Of course, he didn't actually take Handzus out of the lineup--who could have possibly replaced his 3 points and 36.3% 5v5 Corsi?--but hey, at least he finally moved him down. Meanwhile, Coach Q also dressed Brandon Bollig for an amazing 6 of 7 games in the conference finals, only scratching him from game 3. Again, one assumes he couldn't find any replacements for Bollig's 1 point in 15 games and 35.4% 5v5 Corsi.

This is why Sutter is so worthy of praise. For a coach who many assumed would be living in the past from the moment he first came to Los Angeles, he has constantly shown himself to be far more willing to adapt to a changing league than many of his contemporaries (even younger coaches, for that matter). After all, how many times has Jordan Nolan played in this postseason? The answer is three: twice against the Sharks, once against the Ducks. Compare that to Bollig's fifteen games and laugh.

So, we've spent a long time praising Darryl Sutter. It's time to talk about the head coach he'll be up against in the Stanley Cup Final.

Alain Vigneault

Alain Vigneault was fired by the Vancouver Canucks following the 2012-13 season, the scapegoat for a 1-8 run in two straight Conference quarterfinals after the Canucks had come within just one win of their own first Cup. Vigneault left the team as the winningest coach in Canucks history, compiling a 313-170-57 record over the course of seven seasons, starting with 2006-07. He won six division titles with the Canucks, was nominated for the Jack Adams three times (winning it once, in 2007), and only missed the playoffs once, in 2007-08. But the Canucks decided to go in a different (and ultimately, disastrous) direction, hiring ex-New York Rangers coach John Tortorella. Vigneault, in an amazing coincidence, was hired by the Rangers to replace the aforementioned Torts after his own dismissal following the Rangers' 4-1 second round loss to the Boston Bruins last season.

Things were not looking good for the Rangers in this unique game of Coach Swap at first. The Rangers had to start their season with a 9-game road trip due to renovations at Madison Square Garden, and they went a dismal 3-6-0 on that trip (with one of their three wins coming over the Kings, because of course). That also included the embarrassment of losing to the Sharks 9-2 and then to the Ducks 6-0 just two nights later. The Rangers clearly weren't that bad, but even as late as December 16th they were still unable to get back to .500, sitting at 16-17-1 following a shootout win at home against Calgary (yep, needed a shootout to beat Calgary, at home, things were going great) the previous evening. Meanwhile, the Canucks were sitting a cool ten games above .500 at 20-10-5, which was still only good for 4th place in the Pacific at the time because the Pacific is freaking crazy. But regardless, the Canucks were clearly ahead in The Coach Swap Game.

You probably know how things went for the two teams since. The Rangers had a great second half, going 25-12-4 from January until the end of the season, eventually finishing as the second seed in the weak and stupidly named Metropolitan division and actually grabbing home ice for themselves in the 1st round. The Canucks, on the other hand, went just 10-23-3 from January on, missing the playoffs (something they hadn't done under AV since 2007-08). John Tortorella was recently fired as head coach by new President Trevor Linden with four years left on his five-year deal. So, uh, yeah. I think it's pretty clear who won The Coach Swap Game.

How did AV take a Rangers team that, by all accounts, underachieved in the lockout-shortened season to a Stanley Cup Final in his very first year as coach? Well, simply not being Torts probably had a lot to do with it. Rangers players have praised Vigneault's "patience" in dealing with the team even when the losses were piling up early in the year, and one doesn't exactly have to read deep between the lines to understand the unsaid "Unlike that other f'n guy, man he would have been screaming at us like a crazy person." Like Sutter, Vigneault appears to have a remarkably calm demeanor behind the bench. He's fond of gum chewing, and can be found standing behind his players, chomping away (seriously, close your mouth AV, it's gross) with a stoic expression roughly 99.99999% of the time, regardless of what's going on in the actual game.

Where Vigneault differs from Sutter is that, other than changes necessitated by injuries, he hasn't really made very many adjustments to his line combinations at all throughout the playoffs. Instead, AV found line combinations that are fairly effective and has generally stuck to them. This is not to say he hasn't occasionally tried things that were monumentally stupid--such as placing Dan Carcillo on Brad Richards' wing--but he has, for the most part, stuck with what's worked. The Rangers' top end forwards aren't nearly as good as the Kings, and Brian Boyle is no Mike Richards when it comes to 4th line centers, but they do match up decently when it comes to overall forward depth. They've got a solid top six made up of Nash-Stepan-Kreider and Hagelin-Richards-St. Louis. The third line of Zuccarello-Brassard-Pouliot should at the very least play King-Stoll-Williams pretty evenly, if Pouliot doesn't take dumb penalties; though I guess you can swap out "Pouliot" for "Stoll" and that sentence would make just as much sense.

AV, to his credit, has resisted the urge to tinker with his lineup just for the sake of doing it, constantly going back to what's worked for his team all year long as long as health would permit it. As opposed to the pigheaded stubbornness shown by McLellan and Quenneville, Vigneault hasn't repeatedly dressed any sort of large anchor. The Rangers' worst Corsi player at 5v5 has rather inexplicably been Carl Hagelin (usually a driver of such metrics) at 43.6%, but taking him out of the lineup would be rather absurd given his speed and history of driving play in the past. And while Boyle and Dominic Moore are about hovering right around 45% as well, those numbers are affected by some damn difficult zone starts, and those two are a far cry from the Mike Browns and Brandon Bolligs of the world. Derek Dorsett is sort of a goon, I guess, but he's a sort of goon with a 49.1% 5v5 Corsi, which looks positively sparkling compared to some of the idiots that other coaches have been dressing against the Kings.

Vigneault believes he's found a set-up that works for his team, and it's tough to argue with his results. Unlike Sutter, he didn't dress a sub-optimal lineup in the very first game of the playoffs, and didn't have to come up with a historic comeback from 0-3 in the very first round as a result (though his Rangers did have to rally from a 3-1 deficit in the very next round against the Pens, which was also historic since the Rangers had never come back from such a deficit in their entire history). It will be interesting to see if he does find himself making any adjustments should the Rangers end up struggling to generate chances against the Kings.

Other than the breath of fresh air his far more relaxed attitude undoubtedly brought to the Rangers' dressing room, it would seem obvious that Vigneault changed the way the Rangers played, as well. While the team will still block shots and play well defensively--they were coached by Torts for five seasons, after all--AV has allowed his defensemen more freedom to join the rush and make plays. This untethering makes great sense, because the Rangers boast three pairings that each have a defenseman who can handle the puck with some skill: Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, and John Moore (though Moore will miss Game 1 of the SCF due to a suspension). As someone who watches a lot of Rangers games, I'm not going to tell you they're nonstop excitement nowadays or anything like that, but compared to the paint-drying-esque Torts years they're almost the friggin' 80s Oilers.

The change in style didn't create a huge uptick in the Rangers' possession stats this season, the way Darryl Sutter did for the Kings almost immediately after taking over for Terry Murray; the Rangers were a 54.1% Fenwick Close and 52.7% Corsi Close team in 2012-13, compared to a 53.6% Fenwick Close & 53.2% Corsi Close team in 2013-14. If you compare it to the last full season rather than the 48-game one, things do look a lot better for AV; the amazingly overrated 2011-12 Rangers squad was just a 49.8% Fenwick Close & 48.5% Corsi Close team. But when you lead a team to their first Stanley Cup Final in twenty years in your very first season behind the bench, you're doing something right. That isn't to say that AV and his Rangers haven't benefited from good fortune; the Canadiens taking out the Bruins in a shocking second round upset was a huge break for the Rangers, the kind that almost can't even be overstated (some might also point to Carey Price getting injured in game 1 of the Eastern Conference final as an equally big break; personally, I don't think the Rangers were likely to lose to the Habs even if Price had remained in net, but we'll obviously never know for sure). So was AV the benefit of good fortune? Sure. But did he also push the exact right buttons for a group that was mentally fatigued after five years of dealing with this screaming lunatic? I absolutely think so.

And that's my breakdown of two head coaches, who have more in common than many would probably notice at first glance. Both bring an undeniably calming presence to their locker rooms, and both have overcome tremendous adversity to make it to this Stanley Cup Final. Now all that's left to do is see which coach (awkwardly, because they are old) lifts the Cup itself.