December 11, 2011
Mentoring doesn't automatically connote a life-long relationship. The protégé learns, absorbs, adapts, takes what he or she will from the sage. They either become what the mentor intended them to become, or they seek another voice to influence them, to help continue their growth.
Terry Murray was 58 years old when GM Dean Lombardi hired him as the Los Angeles Kings head coach in Summer 2008. He took over a roster that had just seven players over the age of 30. A former defenseman, he oversaw a defense that featured six players 25 and younger, including Drew Doughty (19) and Jack Johnson (22).
He replaced Marc Crawford, who didn't have faith in the Kings' younger players and, in turn, the Kings didn't have faith in him. Enter Murray, whose meticulous commitment to defensive hockey was going to be the bedrock for everything the Kings did and, in turn, was going to be the fundamental foundation for the growth of their young stars.
In Year 4 of the Terry Murray regime, the teacher has become the target. With Saturday night's loss to the Dallas Stars, the Kings have followed a summer of significant talent upgrades with a middling 13-12-4 start featuring the worst offense in the NHL.
The coach and the players are facing questions about the team's philosophy. Los Angeles fans have seen just about enough to know that Murray's time in Hollywood is at an end.
The frustration and anger was visible in the dressing room, which not a surprise if you consider the Kings have lost four in a row, scoring an underwhelming six goals in that stretch.
A major player trade was expected from the Ducks and they ended up switching coaches, firing Randy Carlyle and replacing him with Bruce Boudreau. Do the Kings run the same play with Terry Murray? Or do they end up making a rare major mid-season trade?
King captain Dustin Brown was asked if he thought individuals were anticipating a shakeup, in terms of a player move. "It's hard to say. I've never been on a team that's good, that's gone through this," Brown said. "That's probably the biggest difference for me. We have a good team in here. We're capable of doing everything we need to with the people we have in here. … I don't think guys consciously think about that. Maybe it's in the back of some guys' heads."
The issue with the Kings, however, is less one of personnel than of how that personnel is being utilized.
The mindset under Murray has been defense-first, and the question has rightfully been asked if this mindset stifles offensive creativity. It's an especially salient point if you buy into the notion that Murray's offense is created by a dump-and-chase model that's best played not with skilled scorers like Mike Richards and Simon Gagne but with banging bodies like Ryan Smyth, Wayne Simmonds and Michal Handzus, all of whom are now ex-Kings.
If Dean Lombardi didn't see this problem coming, he was shortsighted. You just can't add "skill" to a system that doesn't play to it, but instead emphasizes size, and expect things will improve, unless a new forecheck and offensive zone attack is implemented therewith. If Lombardi believed Terry Murray would make the necessary adjustments, then he was either naive or took his eye off the puck — the one that dumps the puck, sends one man to retrieve and then loses it.
One of the solutions, he writes: "Replace Murray with a coach that can give the team an identity in the offensive zone that is consistent with its skill set."
Murray contends that the Kings, despite being last in the NHL in goals-for average (2.17) through 29 games, Los Angeles is more aggressive on the forecheck this year than last:
"We're really demanding our second support man to come with a lot more speed from the back of the net. We anticipated it, from what we saw at the end of the year last year, when a lot of teams started to go more defensive through the middle of the ice, at their own blue line. So we loosened up that second forechecker to get in faster, to help support and recover pucks. We're getting our share of pucks in the offensive zone."
And then doing nothing with them …
Quisp from Jewels From The Crown had an excellent assessment of the current state of the Terry Murray Kings:
We went through this last year, twice. Two long slumps, which required a record-setting hot streak to correct. I'm sure Terry Murray is making all sorts of changes to his game-plan, but from the outside looking in, through both slumps it looked like the strategy was to hold firm, to keep doing the things they "know" work ("shot mentality", "compete", "battle for pucks", "blue paint", "traffic", "speed on entry", "crash the net", "keep it simple"). This model is called "the system works if you actually execute it, so just do it". Close on the heels of this is, "I need more."
The players have to do what they're told. They are, after all, "character" guys who "want the right thing." The locker room is "tight." They "care about each other." When those ideals are trumpeted so often, does anyone expect the players to take a left turn when told to go right? There is no locker room leader -- or bigger-than-life personality -- on a par with (for example) Alex Ovechkin, or Chris Pronger, or Scott Neidermayer, or Scott Stevens. The Kings are, on the whole, a bunch of diligent students who want to please the teacher.
So maybe the solution is to change the teacher.
I've long felt this about the Kings: That Terry Murray was only going to take them so far. That his philosophy and his style and his world-view were the stuff a young team needed but not the thing that was going to turn this collection into a Stanley Cup contender.
I look at this roster and I see a Cup contender; the fact that this team can't seem to reach that potential yet is one of the NHL's most surprising developments, given that many pegged the Kings as division champions this season. (Had Anze Kopitar not been injured last postseason, this might be a different conversation, given how they hung with the Sharks.
I think the mentor has gotten the protégé this far, but that it's time for another voice. Randy Carlyle? Oh, that'd be rich ... but so is he, sitting on his behind and collecting the Ducks' contract money. John Stevens? He's already under contract for three years with the Kings -- Murray, by the way, is signed through 2013 -- and he's considered braniac behind the bench. But he's also the guy you fire before bringing in another guy to find success.
The real issue is Lombardi, who's a Murray fan and isn't going to pull the trigger until there's no other option. How long would the Kings have to look this bad, or underachieve this much, for that to happen?