By Stu Hackel
Back in mid-September, we ventured a list of five NHL coaches whose jobs looked to be in jeopardy. Two of them, Davis Payne and Bruce Boudreau, were let go earlier this season and now a third, Terry Murray, has been relieved of his duties by the Kings. Only the Maple Leafs' Ron Wilson from that list appears to be safe as the Flames continue to meander under Brent Sutter with a record nearly identical to that of Los Angeles.
So the firing of Murray on Monday afternoon hardly ranks as a surprise. For those who follow the team, a Los Angeles Times story on Monday morning indicated the skids had already been greased.
Murray was something of a savior after he took over the Kings at the start of the 2008-09 season. They cut their losses by six in his first year, then made huge strides, improving by 22 points as he guided them to their first playoff appearance in seven seasons in 2009-10. They flattened out last season, but now things seem to going in reverse.
"I don't think words can ever describe how hard something like this is," said Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, who backed Murray in the face of media and fan criticism last season. "Terry really stabilized this franchise, pointed it in the right direction. He taught these players a lot. When they look back, they're going to realize they learned a lot from him."
The 61-year-old Murray is one win away from the 500-victory plateau for his NHL coaching career. He won't be achieving that mark in L.A., if anywhere. Alongside Payne, Boudreau, Paul Maurice and Randy Carlyle, he's the fifth head coach to get the axe this season.
This was a team many people expected to be a Western Conference power coming into the season. GM Dean Lombardi made a concerted effort to add some offense over the summer, pulling off a big trade for one of the game's best young leaders and clutch scorers in Mike Richards and signed talented veteran Simon Gagne as a free agent. His roster already featured Anze Kopitar, who is among the most skilled players in the game, and a few other guys who have track records of putting up good numbers.
These moves and the big contract given to Drew Doughty helped bring the Kings payroll, over $63 million, to nearly the limit of the salary cap, a level which ownership had not previously allowed.
The results so far have been disappointing. The Kings currently sit in the West's 12th spot with only 30 points. In a way, that's somewhat misleading because they are only three points out of first place in the Pacific Division which would put them third in the West, thanks to the NHL's practice of giving division leaders the top three Conference spots regardless or their record.
But even with those three points and a third seeding, their standing would be an illusion, not reflective of the team's quality. The Kings are anything but a conference powerhouse at the moment. By comparison, the leaders in the Northwest and Central Divisions, Minnesota and Chicago, have 43 and 40 points, respectively. You can safely say the Kings are probably about 10 points south of where they want to be.
They are also under .500 at home, 8-9-1. Last year, the Kings had one of the better home ice records in the NHL at 25-13-3.
Not only did the failure to win on home ice likely disturb Lombardi, it certainly angered the fans. Murray has not been a fan favorite in any case. They think he lacked fire and, worse, he's a defense-oriented coach and is perceived as holding his horses back. For Kings faithful whose last tastes of glory came during the high-flying Gretzky years -- and that's around two decades ago -- defensive hockey is repugnant. And they feel it's not working.
Los Angeles has the worst offensive statistics in the NHL, averaging 2.24 goals per game. They've scored only six goals in their last four games, no more than two in their last eight and have only scored three goals once in their last 10 games, a span that reaches back to Nov. 19.
From a defensive standpoint, the Kings have been formidable. Their 67 goals against is the seventh-best mark in the NHL, and their 2.24 average goals allowed a game ranks sixth. But they've scored two fewer goals than they have allowed.
To be fair, Murray can't be faulted for Doughty's training camp holdout, nor his injured shoulder. The man who would be king of the Kings' blueline, young Doughty isn't playing up to his potential at either end of the rink.
Nor can Murray be blamed for Richards' concussion, which landed the former Flyers captain on injured reserve. He's missed the Kings' last four games and could miss a couple of more weeks at least. It's a major blow.
He's not alone in the underachieving department. Justin Williams, who has 20-plus goal skill when healthy, has only four goals, a pace that would give him 11 for the season. Dustin Brown, who's always good for 20 goals, has five, on a pace for 14. Gagne, a two-time 40-goal scorer who hit 34 in his last healthy season, is on pace for 20. And Kopitar hasn't scored in eight games.
Whether they are slumping because of Murray's system, his lack of inspiration, the possibility they've quit on him or, alternately, a miscalculation by the Kings hockey department on their personnel, is uncertain. Regardless, Murray is taking the fall. Lombardi addressed the team after firing Murray in Boston and by all accounts it was not a pleasant discussion.
‘‘Ultimately, the message is that they’re accountable,’’ Lombardi said. ‘‘Unfortunately, the coach has to pay the price, but make no mistake, they’re the ones who are accountable for this.’’
The question now, of course, is who's next. Assistant coach John Stevens takes over on an interim basis, and he formerly coached the Flyers, so he's no neophyte and could get the job full-time. One downside to Stevens is that his coaching philosophy is not much different from Murray's, although he can display more emotion.
The Times reported that Carlyle, the former Ducks coach, is not being considered, and Lombardi has not asked the Penguins for permission to speak with assistant coach Tony Granato, a popular former King during the Gretzky Era who coached Colorado, although not very successfully.
Darryl Sutter, who coached the Sharks when Lombardi was GM there, has also been mentioned as a possible replacement. Ken Campbell of The Hockey News does not believe Sutter would be a good choice for L.A., citing the stat that in his nine full seasons of NHL coaching, Sutter's teams finished in the top-half of scoring once, and most times pretty far down the list. Defense, Campbell argues, is not the problem with the Kings.
"The Sutter way, which is heavy on rhetoric about hard work and short on success, involves playing suffocating, mind-numbing defensive hockey that is enjoyable to neither watch nor play," Campbell writes. "And Los Angeles is one of those markets in the NHL where the team not only has to be successful, it has to be entertaining."