Darryl Sutter has his work cut out for him.
There is nothing that the average NHL coach is criticized for more than the line combinations and defensive pairings he puts out on the ice. It's nearly impossible to put out a set of eighteen skaters without a discernible weakness or a questionable match, and as we've seen all series, even lines that should work sometimes... don't. And now, the Los Angeles Kings' head coach has to put out a lineup -- in an elimination game -- that does ALL of the following:
- Contains a forward line and a defensive pairing capable of shutting down the San Jose Sharks' top trio of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Tomas Hertl...
- Contains a third and fourth line that are actually capable of scoring...
- Contains three pairings which can be trusted to play more than ten minutes apiece...
- And can do all of the above for three games.
Try putting together a set of players that fits all four criteria. I tried doing it, just for the forward lines, for ten minutes this morning. I found something I was terrified of in every single lineup. So the big disclaimer is: this is not an easy task. Having said that, the lineup that Darryl Sutter IS choosing to skate is, for better or for worse, a microcosm of LA's season and the organizational philosophy as a whole. Via NHL.com...
King - Kopitar - Gaborik
Lucic - Carter - Toffoli
Pearson - Lecavalier - Brown
Clifford - Lewis - Versteeg
Scuderi - Doughty
Muzzin - Schenn
McNabb - McBain
Here's what we've got:
- Loyalty and veteran presence. The 13 current players who have played the most games in LA (and aren't injured) are in the lineup. Every King who participated in the 2014 playoffs is in the lineup, with the exception of emergency replacement Jeff Schultz. And of the guys who weren't there in 2014, Sutter is going with the veterans. Vincent Lecavalier, Kris Versteeg, Luke Schenn, and Jamie McBain have 1212, 566, 550, and 345 NHL games under their belts. Nick Shore, Andy Andreoff, and Kevin Gravel have 102, 78, and 5 games under theirs.
- Rolling (three or) four lines. Dwight King's placement is the one you'll hear the most complaints about. In 2013-14, his most frequent linemates were Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, and maybe LA's attempting to recapture some of that productivity. The primary reason, though, seems to be balance. Sutter put Carter and Kopitar on the same line fairly often this year, with mixed results, but the Kings usually try to find an equation that involves being able to use all their lines. Putting King higher allows for a third line (70-44-23) that, on paper, should be threatening on offense. That underscores that philosophy of trusting in at least three lines, but Sutter's refusal to top-load one line at a time when LA is facing a one-line team is telling.
- Matching puck movers with puck stoppers on D. The last couple years have been a revolving door of bottom-pairing defensemen, and this year, the Kings went out and got two guys who they acquired to round out the lower section of the six. With Alec Martinez injured, though, Sutter is icing both players in his top four. This ties into the veteran presence thing, but more than anything, it's a reminder of the one puck mover/one puck stopper model of years past. A top four of Doughty, Muzzin, Martinez, and McNabb made sense coming into the season, but now that Martinez is out, the Kings are going back to their roots. That means playing Drew Doughty with Rob Scuderi and Jake Muzzin with Luke Schenn.
None of the above has to be a criticism. It's what won the Kings two Cups, and with the possible exception of that last item, it's been what got them home-ice advantage in Round 1. With LA's backs against the wall, what else would Darryl Sutter do? The offseason brings monetary challenges, the players aren't getting any younger, and the Kings' core looks more likely to change this summer than it has in a long time. If LA manages to come back from this 3-1 deficit, they'll do it against the toughest opponent they'll face all postseason, and Sutter has opted for familiarity over innovation. The Kings might go down tonight, but if they do, they'll die how they lived.