Darryl Sutter was running late for his first postgame media scrum in five years. The joke floating among reporters waiting inside Staples Center was that Sutter, the Los Angeles Kings’ new coach, was phoning home to Alberta to check up on his cows.
Sutter’s debut game last Thursday was a success, a 3-2 shootout victory over rival Anaheim. And while Sutter’s return from the farm grabbed headlines in the US and Canada, he wasn’t the most important addition to the Kings’ bench last week.
Center Mike Richards had missed the previous eight games with a concussion — a stretch during which the Kings went 2-6-0, fired head coach Terry Murray, replaced him with assistant coach John Stevens on an interim basis, then hired Sutter away from the Calgary Flames’ front office.
A healthy Richards shook off the turmoil, scoring goals against the Ducks on Thursday and again the next night in San Jose — the Kings’ only goal in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Sharks. They were Richards’ team-leading 12th and 13th goals of the season, and each came shortly after the Kings’ opponent scored first.
Asked last Thursday whether he noticed a difference between the Darryl Sutter era and the Terry Murray era, Richards said, "We were doing the same systems, we were doing everything the same. We were a little bit more tenacious on the puck, which has to continue."
Sutter spun the compliment quicker than the cows could come home.
"Mike Richards is a tenacious player and to get him back in the lineup . . . this team’s played a lot of time without Richards," he said. "It makes a big difference. That’s by example more than anything else."
It’s worth asking whether Murray would still be behind the bench in Los Angeles if Richards had not been concussed. The Kings were scoring less than any NHL team at the time of Murray’s firing, and the veteran coach was roundly criticized for his lack of creativity generating offense.
But it may have been understated how much the Kings were missing their leading goal scorer. The team is 15-8-5 with Richards in the lineup and 12-2-3 when he records a point. After Monday’s 4-3 victory over Phoenix, Richards now has goals in 10 of his last 14 games (11 goals, one assist, 12 points), going back to before his stint on injured reserve. One could argue — with due respect to the often stellar play of goalie Jonathan Quick and center Anze Kopitar — that he is the team’s most valuable player.
"When I found out this player was available, there was no doubt in my mind," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said in June, when asked about the blockbuster trade that brought Richards to Los Angeles.
It’s been more than six months since Richards was acquired for center Brayden Schenn, right wing Wayne Simmonds and a 2012 draft pick. The Flyers could still wind up on the better end of that trade; Schenn and Simmonds are still young, and second-round draft picks have occasional potential to improve a team’s fortunes.
But there is no question that Lombardi’s gamble to trade for the former Philadelphia Flyers captain has paid immediate dividends in Los Angeles.