COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Los Angeles Kings are in limbo. Their coach has been fired, their new coach hasn't been hired yet, and here they are stuck in between – on the road, mired in a five-game losing streak, under a lame-duck interim coach who can do little more than lighten the mood and try to manufacture some enthusiasm.
General manager Dean Lombardi addressed the players again after practice Wednesday at Nationwide Arena. He was calmer than he was Monday at a Boston hotel, when he told them he had fired coach Terry Murray and used, as one player put it, "a lot of bleeped words." He told them that he was going through the process of hiring a coach and that they needed to stick with it in the meantime. He declined to comment afterward, but a spokesman said he would address the coaching situation after Thursday's morning skate.
It remains to be seen whether that will be an update or an announcement. Lombardi is widely expected to hire Darryl Sutter, whom he once hired (and fired) as coach of the San Jose Sharks, but the Los Angeles Times' Helene Elliott tweeted that she is "almost certain now" that the Sutter era won't begin until Tuesday, when the Kings return to L.A.
"To be honest with you, we're just looking at this day by day right now," said interim coach John Stevens. "I think there's some uncertainty what's going to happen here moving forward."
Asked if he knew for sure he would be leading the Kings on Thursday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Stevens said: "As of right now, I'm intending to, yes. So, I mean, I don't know. If they happen to bring another guy in by then, the answer would be no. I don't anticipate that happening by tomorrow night, so we're forging ahead as if we are, yeah."
So, uh, there you go.
Lombardi doesn't care how this looks. In his mind, he's doing the hard but honorable thing. If he expects his players to give an honest effort and do what needs to be done to win, then he has to do the same.
To him, the bottom line is this: He decided to make a coaching change because this highly skilled, highly compensated group was failing to score goals and failing to live up to expectations as a Stanley Cup contender.
As soon as he reached that conclusion, he felt Murray deserved to be the first to know. He wasn't going to let Murray go behind the bench while he went behind his back and lined up a replacement. He has too much respect for Murray, who, frankly, is largely responsible for raising the expectations this team is now failing to meet.
So he flew to Boston on Monday, went straight to the hotel, met with Murray and broke the news to him face-to-face. Then he met with the players, and in an emotional meeting, he told them they were accountable for getting a good man fired but that he still believed in them. He told them to start doing what they are here to do.
"Obviously he was disappointed in us, and he let us know that," said center Jarret Stoll. "It came from the heart, you could tell that. Everybody took it for what it was. It was a very good – hopefully – wake-up call."
But is this really the right way to wake up the Kings? Lombardi has created an unusual and awkward situation in the short term, and there is good reason to be skeptical that hiring Sutter will be the solution in the long term.
Often teams don't announce they have fired coaches. They announce they have hired new ones. The replacement is ready before the incumbent is let go, and the focus is immediately on the future, because the whole point of a coaching change – especially at this point in the season, with a team still in playoff contention – is to clean the slate and spark something.
At some point after the Kings' 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on Saturday, Lombardi felt the situation was dire enough to fire Murray. But he didn't fire Murray on Saturday night. He didn't fire Murray before the team flew from L.A. to Boston on Sunday. He didn't have Murray's replacement ready, either. He didn't fire Murray until Monday, and he gave Stevens the interim tag about 27 hours before the Kings were to face the defending Stanley Cup champions in their own building.
"Yeah, it was a weird game, probably one of the weirder games I've ever played," Stoll said. "It was a tough day for everybody."
The Kings weren't as prepared as usual on Tuesday night, because Murray wasn't there to outline the tendencies of the opponent, as he usually does. They were shorthanded behind the bench, because Stevens slid into Murray's spot and had only one assistant. And they seemed deflated, not energized, in the first period. Stevens said they probably deserved "a pass just because of what happened." He said he thought "the guys were trying to get their mind around the game."
By the time the Kings came to life, they were already trailing. They finished with 41 shots but failed to find the back of the net even once, falling to the Boston Bruins 3-0. They hit a couple of posts. Dustin Penner failed to convert a 2-on-0. Nothing.
The Kings have managed only six goals during their five-game skid and somehow rank last in the league in scoring at 2.13 goals per game, despite several skilled forwards and playmaking defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. Perhaps the only player who has produced up to his potential is Mike Richards, acquired in a big off-season trade, but he has missed the past five games with an upper-body injury.
The feeling is that the Kings have not been doing enough dirty work. But Stevens said he was pleased with their drive and net presence by the end of Tuesday’s game, and he said they were generating chances without taking too many risks. He said they needed to keep their "foundation as a good defensive team and still try to build offensively."
"The struggle is when you do things right and you don't score, you think you have to do things differently," Stevens said. "You have to have the perseverance to stay with it if you believe what you're doing is right."
Can a kick in the butt from a new coach put the puck in the net?
"I don't think you can score from the bench," said center Anze Kopitar. "It's not rocket science. You've got to do the things that make you successful and do it to make goals. It's working hard, going into the hard scoring areas. That's what you've got to do."
Is Sutter the right choice, anyway? He has a strong coaching record and came within a game of winning the Cup with the Calgary Flames in 2004. But he's a defense-first guy, like Murray, and he hasn't coached since 2005-06. He hasn't been seen in hockey circles since he was fired as the Flames' GM last December, retreating to his farm in Viking, Alberta. He hasn't even spoken to his brother Brent, the Flames' coach, according to the Calgary Sun. This is man who is heavy on the frowns and light on the smiles, and this is a team that is heavy on the frowns and light on the smiles already.
Some of the Kings know about Darryl Sutter – or at least the Sutters. But some know little more than that about Darryl. "I know there's a bunch of Sutters, but … I don't know which one it is, really," Kopitar said. And no one knows what to expect or even when to expect it.
If Darryl Sutter isn't introduced until Tuesday, that means the Kings have to play the Blue Jackets, who have improved defensively lately, then visit the Detroit Red Wings, a talented team on a roll, then visit the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the media capital of hockey, before they can really move on – at a time when they need to turn things around so badly the GM fired the coach. They are pushing the salary cap and sitting 12th in the West.
No wonder Stevens tried to have some fun at practice Wednesday. He said the Kings intentionally tried to "lighten the mood a little bit," because emotionally the players had "burned up a lot of energy just having gone through that."
The players tapped their sticks and cheered when a puck went into the net. They did a simple pee-wee passing drill, skating hard from blue line to blue line, firing short passes to each other, just to get the blood pumping. They gathered around Stevens at the end of the session, and he told them, forward Justin Williams said, that they've "just got to focus on each other right now."
Right now, that's all they've got.
"We're the only guys that are going to be able to turn this around," Doughty said, "regardless of who the coach is."
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