September 15, 2009
Once he opens his mouth, there's no mistaking Coach Andy Murray's profession. His voice has that hoarse rasp that comes from barking orders to countless hockey players, from camps to assistant coaching gigs to nine years as an NHL head coach for the Los Angeles Kings and the St. Louis Blues, his current franchise.
It's a voice that indicates the coach works as hard as he demands his players work; if the blue-collar hockey the Blues have played under Murray is to be judged, they're getting the message.
The Blues were one of the League's most pleasant surprises last season. It was a franchise that didn't miss the postseason from 1980-2004, before stumbling for three seasons. Some had St. Louis tabbed for the Western Conference basement, or even last overall in the NHL. Preseason and regular-season injuries seemed to point them in that direction ... until Murray's team defiantly rallied for an unlikely playoff berth.
"Of our last 41 games, there were only nine games where we didn't get points," recalled the coach.
The Blues lost in a sweep to the Vancouver Canucks, but it was an education for what is still a young team. Last week, we asked Murray about that journey, and how some believed his job hung in the balance, as well as about this year's expectations. We also asked about freaky injuries on golf courses, rookies who find themselves in mayoral campaigns, Luc Robitaille vs. Alexander Ovechkin(notes) and, of course, his adult beverage of choice. Enjoy:
Q. At this time last year, there were a lot of doubters: About yourself, and about the team. The media had your head on the chopping block, and then you end up second in the Jack Adams voting. Honestly, at the beginning of last season, did you feel like there was a decent chance you were going to be fired?
MURRAY: Was there?
There were more than a few people that were questioning if you'd make it through the season.
I was rated in two papers as being one of the top four coaches in the League, but that's ... no, I agree. I don't know if it was necessarily a reflection on the coach. I wouldn't say that the coach was under ... I think the reason it was said that the coach might not finish the season was because the team was picked 30th. I didn't necessarily see it as a slam on the coach.
I've been in it for such a long time, and I know most of the media guys very well. There may be one or two that I haven't seen eye-to-eye with. I don't think the question was my coaching ability; I think the question was whether our team had enough to get it done. When a team isn't very good, the coach doesn't look very good.
That said, did you think you'd be a Jack Adams finalist?
People wondered about my future because they thought the team would be poor. One has to look at it the other way, too: I was at the Jack Adams Award affair in Las Vegas because the team got it done. I didn't see it as any special honor for me.
I picked the Blues in the first round over the Canucks last season, and I'm not afraid to admit it -- even though I'm still the laughing stock of Vancouver. So what the heck happened?
Well, it's really interesting. I know they beat us in four games, but to be honest with you we felt we could have won every game. That's funny to say when you lose 4-0, but they were a lot tougher games than you'd expect in a four-nothing series.
We were in every game into the third period. They got it done, we didn't. [Roberto Luongo(notes)] played extremely well; he didn't have as good a series against Chicago. I think he got hurt in that series against us.
We didn't play well enough five-on-five in the season. Our special teams were very good, but our power play wasn't good in the playoffs. That's an area of improvement for us: To be better five-on-five.
One specific thing I wanted to ask you about last season was that power play. You said you wanted to take a more active role in coaching it, and it went from last to eighth in the League. What's your secret?
We were able to put five good players on the ice that got the job done. We didn't complicate things. We also had some guys that unexpectedly put pucks in the net for us - I don't think anyone expected [Patrik Berglund(notes)] to get 25; Brad Winchester(notes) got some key power-play goals for us. We're a team that's noted for its work ethic and stick-to-itiveness, and that's what we did on the power play. A lot of our power-play goals were scored in the last 30 seconds. We just wore teams down with pressure.
I read a piece about the high participation in the voluntary skates, and you said that you think the Blues were a legit sixth seed but that "there's not going to be any fatheads around here." Do the players feel like they haven't gotten the credit for last year's run?
"Fatheads" probably wasn't a good term ... it was the only thing I could think of at the time. (Laughs) Most people would say "swelled heads."
To be honest with you, I don't know if we feel any worse than what the Detroit Red Wings do, because any team that doesn't win the last game you play in the year leaves wanting more. It doesn't matter when we lost; you always want more. And certainly we do.
We never hung our heads last year. You talk about losing Erik Johnson(notes), Paul Kariya(notes), Eric Brewer(notes), Andy McDonald(notes), T.J. Oshie(notes), D.J. King(notes) ... we just worked hard. People talk about us having so many young players, and the sophomore jinx. I'd like to think we'll refuse to let that happen.
Injuries have haunted your teams since your days in LA. Do you ever feel like you've offended the hockey gods somewhere along the line or something?
I don't know. Just strange things that happen to us. We don't have muscle strains that come from pressing too hard in practice. Ours are broken bones, high ankle sprains. Obviously, Erik Johnson gets hurt golfing (laughs). Eric Brewer has nerve damage on the back of his leg. Paul Kariya has an old injury from seven years ago flare up.
You look at things, and wonder if there's anything you can do to prevent them. We did that in LA too. But even there it was strange things, too. Like guys getting hit with pucks on the bench.
For the record: You've never considered an exorcist or voodoo priest?
No. Some of these are meant to happen. It means you play through adversity. And hopefully it means we'll go through a year injury-free.
Were you relieved that Erik Johnson didn't participate in Oshie's golf tournament?
(Laughs) He didn't participate in it last year, I don't think. He was hurt in a team outing. No, Erik's put on 10 pounds of muscle, he looks good on the ice. Not sure if he partook in any golf games at all this summer.
He was over a point a game last year and was a big part of the four power-play goals we scored in the first game of the season. He makes us faster, more skilled. He's got great leadership by example, and tougher to defend.
We [rolled that line] a bit two years ago. Paul's capable of playing the left side or the right side, depending on what we want to get done. He'll see ice time with Brad Boyes.
Speaking of Boyes, I was really impressed with the way he handled the extra pressure from the contract and the way he sort of burst onto the scene statistically. Were you worried there'd be some sort of consequence on his play?
One of the key things is that Brad just plays. He doesn't feel the pressure. He's had two consistent seasons, and we're challenging him to have a third. But the thing we need from Brad is for him to be a plus-player. But that's an issue for the entire team.
Did you support TJ Oshie's write-in candidacy for mayor?
Ah, I didn't even hear about it. Somebody threw his name in there. I think the guy actually got in trouble. But yeah, he's quite popular in St. Louis, and he's popular with his teammates and his coach, and we've gotta make sure that stays the same.
He can worry about his constituents afterwards.
Oshie could be one of the players competing in the 2010 Winter Olympics. As a coach, how do you deal with that break?
It is what it is. It's on our schedule right now, and quite often those games in February or January are dog days, and that break should reenergize everybody. I'm taking a glass half-full [outlook]. If we're playing well, it allows us to go into the break with positive energy. If we're struggling a little bit, it'll let us refocus.
And it's good for me, because I'm going to go and watch my son and daughter play some college games.
Two Los Angeles Kings questions for you, the first being: Who would you take on left wing: Vintage Luc Robitaille or Alexander Ovechkin right now?
[Long pause] I would take them both and put Ovechkin on the right side.
Uh, Sean is misunderstood, I think. To me, Sean's a good player and when he's in that Rangers lineup, they're a better team.
Getting a little nostalgic: You were an assistant coach during the run in 1991 with the Minnesota North Stars. When you saw Ulf Samulsson score first goal in that 8-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Game 6 Cup-clincher, did you know it was over?
No. Our biggest problem was that we saw in Game 4 that Mario Lemieux wanted to win a Stanley Cup and took the series over.
The Minnesota North Stars' late, great jersey being one of the best in hockey history, we ask you what, besides the Blues' sweaters, are your favorite current NHL jerseys?
There would be three. I grew up being a passionate follower of the Montreal Canadiens. That's a special jersey for me. Having coached in LA, the Kings jersey [has meaning] for me. The third is that I have an offseason home in Minnesota, and I kind of like the Wild jerseys.
I would say I like the Blues jerseys 90 percent and all those jerseys 3.3 percent.
Talking about the NHL in general: If you could change one rule in the League, what would it be?
I leave that to higher powers. I've always felt that. I like the game the way it is.
Favorite movie of all-time?
(Laughs) My kids laugh because I saw it when I was younger, and I throw it in ever so often: "Swiss Family Robinson." People probably think I'm goofy.
We ask this of all our interviewees: Your beer or adult beverage of choice, sir?
Here in St. Louis, it would have to be Budweiser.
Now, is that a political answer or is that what you're drinkin'?
Finally, the Blues have this plan where they're keeping young talent and augmenting it with veteran players here or there. But as a coach, do you ever take a look at the roster and say, "Man, if only we'd be in for Marian Hossa(notes) or Dany Heatley(notes)" ... are there ever any of those thoughts?
I don't have one thought that way at all. It's the coach's responsibility to coach the team that he's got. When he starts thinking about other things, they'll find someone else to coach his team.
If you do a good job where you are, you'll be appreciated and recognized. I've never sent out a resume for one coaching job. If people want you, they'll find you. Just do a good job wherever you are.