Enjoying the Grind
Colin Fraser, Trent Hunter and Kyle Clifford are forging an identity under new coach Darryl Sutter
The Sutter sextet played a combined total of 4,994 NHL regular-season games, with 2,934 points and 7,224 penalty minutes. Brian Sutter was a 40-goal scorer in the NHL, and Darryl and Brent were 30-goal scorers, but for the most part, the Sutter name is tied to gritty, no-nonsense, hard-working shifts.
Darryl Sutter said recently that when he speaks to his mother, Grace, on the phone, her message has remained the same for decades: Work hard. It’s no surprise, then, that during Sutter’s brief tenure as Kings coach thus far, the players who have arguably thrived the most have been the fourth-line grinders.
Before Sutter’s arrival, center Colin Fraser and wingers Kyle Clifford and Trent Hunter had been largely adrift. Clifford found himself in a sophomore slump. Hunter, a training-camp signing, had been scratched from almost as many games as he played. Fraser didn’t crack the lineup at all until mid-November.
Now, the three vagabonds have found a rhythm under Sutter. The coach likes to roll four lines whenever possible, and bristles at the idea of even calling Clifford, Fraser and Hunter the ``fourth line.’’ That trio is playing a big chunk of minutes, and sometimes even getting power-play and penalty-kill time.
``That’s something we’ve talked about as a team, not only each line but as a team, creating an identity and talking about what our identity is going to be,’’ Fraser said. ``I think it’s a very important part of a team, to have an identity. Obviously for myself and our line, it’s energy. Just play in the O-zone and try to wear the other team out, and be physical. Obviously we want to chip in more offensively, but I think we’ve done a good job of being in the O-zone and finishing checks and playing hard.’’
Long before Sutter arrived last month, general manager Dean Lombardi fretted about the exact word Fraser used: Identity. Under previous coach Terry Murray, the fourth (and third) line had undergone a significant amount of shuffling, some of it quite understandable. The Kings’ injuries, and general lack of scoring, led to line-combination changes that often had Hunter -- and occasionally Clifford -- playing second-line roles.
Lombardi sought stability and identity, and shortly after Sutter took over, the Kings went with the Clifford-Fraser-Hunter line. If nothing else, the Kings thought, that trio would be able to skate and provide grit, and perhaps an occasional goal from Hunter, a former 25-goal scorer in the NHL.
So far, it has worked as intended. Hunter, coming off major surgery, has adapted to a new role and appears to be improving with every week.
Fraser is a gritty center and a solid teammate, and Clifford -- who struggled early -- seems to be regaining the type of aggressive, hard-skating way of his rookie season.
``We’re kind of starting to get to the point where it’s second nature,’’ Hunter said. ``We get the puck in and the first two guys are on it. I think we’re really reading off each other pretty well, and have been able to get some good cycles going. Those are the kind of shifts you want to have. You want to go out and create some energy, and hopefully give the rest of the team something to build off.’’
Last Saturday’s game against Calgary illustrates what Sutter is trying to accomplish. With a game looming the following night, Sutter balanced his four lines almost equally. In 5-on-5 play, Anze Kopitar’s line played roughly 14-plus minutes, Mike Richards’ line played 12 minutes, Andrei Loktionov’s line played 13 minutes and Fraser’s line played 11 minutes. It worked, as the Kings beat the Flames 4-1.
``As a fourth-liner, it just makes things so much easier when you’re rolling four lines,’’ Fraser said. ``You’re just in a rhythm. It’s about energy, but sometimes it’s hard to create energy when you’re sporadically going. Obviously that’s going to happen, but if you’re rolling and you have your legs and you’re in the game, it’s just easier to do it. Obviously everybody wants to play 20 minutes but not everybody can, so it’s nice to get as much time as you can.’’
In their own way, each fourth-line player has had to go through a bit of a transition this season.
Perhaps the biggest change belonged to Hunter. A former 25-goal scorer with the New York Islanders, Hunter found himself without a contract near the end of the offseason, with teams presumably scared away by the major knee surgery Hunter had undergone a few months earlier.
The Kings gave Hunter a training-camp tryout, then signed him to a one-year contract, largely as insurance in case Scott Parse got hurt.
Parse did get hurt -- and underwent major hip surgery -- but Hunter struggled to find a rhythm and roll early, and was frequently made a healthy scratch.
``It definitely took me a lot longer than I thought it would,’’ Hunter said. ``You like to think that you can just step right back in, but in reality, I missed a full season of hockey and it did take me a little while, but now I do think I feel more comfortable. Things are just coming more second-nature, moving my feet in the corners and kind of spinning off guys the way I used to. That’s the kind of timing stuff that was missing at the start of the year, so I’m definitely feeling better, that’s for sure.’’
Under Sutter, Hunter looks increasingly comfortable in a fourth-line role, one that is new to him. He’s still never going to be a big hitter or a particularly physical threat, but Hunter makes smart reads and is almost never a liability on the ice, which has endeared him to linemates such as Fraser.
``I don’t know if he’s been in this type of role before, but he’s taking it on, awesome,’’ Fraser said. ``It’s nice to have a guy like that, who has played in the league for 10-plus years and has a good shot and good skills. But, at the same time, he’s big and strong enough to grind and play a fourth-line role. I think he has adapted well, and accepted it. I think the three of us really enjoy playing together.’’