NEW HEAD COACH: Terry Murray, the Los Angeles Kings’ new head coach, will have to endure many long nights on the road to get his new team back on the right track.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — With the Los Angeles Kings finishing, for all intents and purposes, in the National Hockey League basement last season, and considering their head-first dive into a youth movement, the 2008-09 season is almost guaranteed to see them not only miss the playoffs for what would be their sixth consecutive season, but also have them competing for last place in the league standings once again.
Given all that, Terry Murray has to be a serious glutton for punishment, to say the least, after accepting what Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi called “…the toughest job in the National Hockey League right now.”
Indeed, on July 17, Murray, who has a 360-288-89 record over eleven NHL seasons as a head coach with the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and the Florida Panthers, became the 22nd head coach in Kings history, accepting a reported three-year contract valued at $2.65 million to coach a team that, at the present time, resembles an American Hockey League team more than a legitimate NHL club.
In short, with the emphasis on playing young prospects while dumping high-salaried veterans such as defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky and not signing defenseman Rob Blake to a new contract, the Kings are going to sink or swim on the backs of their young, up-and-coming prospects.
Only time will tell if the Kings will show any improvement in the coming season. But history has proven that most of the time, young teams struggle and often times, “struggle” would be putting it mildly.
To be sure, the Kings know this, and with the hiring of Murray, they have begun to lower expectations. Clearly, Lombardi’s description of his team’s head coaching job as “the toughest job in the National Hockey League right now…” was the first clear indication of that, especially noting that it was the first thing he said at the press conference introducing Murray.
For Murray’s part, it is quite clear that he understands the huge mountain his new team must climb just to get out of the NHL’s basement.
“This will be my biggest challenge as a coach,” said Murray. “There is a lot of work ahead and it will take a collective effort to execute the plan we have in place. I am looking forward to training camp and to getting the process under way.”
“It’s going to be hard, I’ll tell you that up front, right now,” added Murray.” “I know that. I know it’s going to be difficult, I know there are going to be some very hard nights, some very long nights.”
As tough as that will be for many Kings fans to accept, Murray agrees with Lombardi that they have to see the rebuilding process through, regardless of the tough times that the team and its fans will have to endure.
“As we work our way through the process and come out on the other side, we’re going to have some young players who will be the core players of this hockey club and they are going to take ownership of this hockey club,” Murray explained. “That’s the time when we, as coaches and management, we look at it and it’s a time when you say good things now are really going to start to happen.”
“It’s a great opportunity for this young group of players and the team we come out of training camp with to take advantage of the opportunity that’s going to be there and is there for them right now.”
In Murray, Lombardi saw a coach who not only knew the game, but could be patient with young players and be a teacher, unlike Marc Crawford, who was fired on June 10 after two seasons at the helm.
“The checklist required for this job is, number one, a knowledge of the game,” said Lombardi. “I don’t think there’s anybody who knows the game and knows the National Hockey League who can question Murph’s [understanding and knowledge] of the game, inside and out. Two, work ethic. I know from experience that his light burns longer than mine and, with that, I know he’s putting in the effort. Three, a teacher. For those of you who can remember Murph as a player, he was a smart player who got by on his smarts and his guile, and found a way through the years to translate his experience to younger players and veteran players alike.”
“He’s honest and direct,” added Lombardi. “He knows and distinguishes between those players who are kissing his butt and those who are busting their butt. He won’t always tell them what they want to hear, but in the end, it’s about trusting him and trusting that he wants to make you better. He’s about structure on and off the ice in everything we do.”
During his tenure with the Kings, Lombardi has shown that he is big on communication and building a winning culture, and he apparently believes that he has found those qualities in Murray as well.
“The ability to communicate—when you have eighty people on your reserve list, it’s up to everybody in the franchise to be able to communicate with its players,” Lombardi explained. “But the importance of the head coach in communication is establishing the message from the trenches and then finding a way to delegate it so that it goes out clearly and concisely and on the same page.”
“Understanding the meaning of ‘culture…’ I don’t think it’s any coincidence that three of the four teams in the Stanley Cup [playoffs] have a history of winning,” said Lombardi. “Dallas, Detroit and Pittsburgh are teams that have established a culture that I think, in the cap era, is invaluable. It’s that five to ten percent that makes you a little better than your competition, and I think having watched Terry through the years and seeing where he’s been, he understands the larger picture of building a culture as well as a team.”
“My philosophy coming in is, as we talked with other teams that I went into coach who were going through tough times, it’s patience, communication, development, on-ice structure,” said Murray. “I’m very big on the detail side of things, developing a core group of players—a leadership group that I’m going to have as liaisons who can carry the message into the locker room. “There’s a lot of things that need to be set in place in order for it to start to work the right way. That’s the challenge you have. You have a group of players and you want to bring it together as a team as quickly as possible.”
Lombardi is also big on character, and Murray met that requirement easily.
“I don’t think character is what you say, it’s what you do and I think sometimes the most revealing test of character is how you handle adversity,” Lombardi explained. “When you’re in athletics, the meaning of character is to be the best you can be and be a teammate.”
“When Murph was not coaching, he did not go out and promote himself,” Lombardi stressed. “He accepted a job within the [Flyers] organization, asked his role and went out and did it—to do everything he could to help the organization to win. It wasn’t beneath him to be a pro scout. He went out and learned and saw the bigger picture by sitting in the rinks and studying other teams.”
“When he was asked to be assistant coach, he assisted one of the most successful current coaches in Ken Hitchcock—he went out there and did his job for the best of the team, and then he assisted in breaking in one of the top young coaches in the league, John Stevens. And that’s character, because it was all about team and not himself.”
In the end and perhaps most important, Lombardi hired a head coach who shares his philosophy and knows how to coach a team that will be filled to the brim with youngsters within a couple of seasons.
“This is the first year that I think we’re going to start to get young,” said Lombardi. “Getting young and building a franchise is incredibly difficult. It requires somebody with special skills because getting young for the sake of getting young is not the way to build. You have to get young the right way, and at the right time.”
“It requires somebody who can focus on each individual battle but not lose sight of the ultimate objective, which is to win the war,” added Lombardi. “He understands the importance of teaching, which is critical to the building process.”
Winning the war is exactly what Murray seems to have in mind, as he clearly wasn’t projecting immediate success.
“This is very exciting for me and my family to become a part of this organization and I’m coming into this job with my eyes wide open,” said Murray. “We have some very good hockey players in this organization right now. We’re going to get younger, we’re going to bring those young players along at the right time and develop them with the right process so they can feel success in this NHL. It’s a very, very difficult league to play in, but I’m looking forward to putting in the time and effort to help develop these young hockey players to become the very best that they can.”
“As Dean was talking about my experience in the past few years with the Philadelphia Flyers, I know exactly what the process is to move this along and to get the organization back on track,” added Murray. “But I also understand that process requires doing it the right way. We’ve got to make sure the players we’re bringing in are ready to play.”
“We need to get younger, we need to get the young guys going and we also need the players who are presently young players and on this hockey club to really start to show the way, to help lead and takeover as core players of this hockey club and help these new young guys get their feet under them the right way.”
Murray’s past experience with the Capitals, Panthers and Flyers might prove useful.
“There are similarities and that was very inviting to me,” he explained. “I have been though this before. When I took over the Philadelphia Flyers they had missed the playoffs five years in a row. They had some real good players in place, but the fact of the matter is, you have to change the attitude, you have to get things back on track and start playing as a team and doing things the right way.”
“Going into Florida, the team had finished in last place,” he added. “It took a year where we got reorganized, got some new guys in the lineup and got headed in the right direction and made the playoffs in the second year.”
“There are similarities in the places I’ve been. I hope to draw on that experience, bring it here and get things going the right way.”
With the emphasis on youth, Murray stressed that his young core players are going to need to help the even-younger players develop, especially the defensemen, the Achilles heel for the Kings last season.
“It’s a difficult position for a young player, we know that,” Murray explained. “It’s going to take everyone on the ice—the whole team—to develop young players, especially young defensemen. In systems-style play, we really need our forwards to help out on the defensive part of the game for those young defensemen to have success. They can’t be isolated, they can’t be left on their own facing odd-man situations with a lot of speed. The game has that today more than ever.”
“With the help of everybody playing the game the right way, we’ll get some young players in place,” Murray elaborated. “We’ll get their development going in the right direction and the confidence in their game that they need to start to contribute as we move forward. We have some really good, young players in place here right now, but it all has to come together the right way and be done the right way.”
Although assistant coaches Nelson Emerson, Jamie Kompon and goaltender coach Bill Ranford are expected to be retained, Murray will be looking to hire his own assistant coaches and hopes to move quickly.
“I need to go through that with people here,” he said. “It’s going to be a matter of sitting down and meeting [with people], seeing what they’re thinking. I need to get some feel for where they are and make some decisions real soon. I don’t want to delay this long. I want to get it in place and we need to get ourselves ready for training camp. I hope to accelerate that and get it done pretty quickly.”
Going back to the low expectations, Murray said that no matter what kind of team a head coach has, expectations are high.
“The head coaching job in this business is real hard,” said Murray. “When you’re coaching one of the top teams in the NHL, the expectations are extremely high and you have to pull it all together right now. It’s no different for the teams who haven’t made the playoffs. The expectations are to develop the players and become better.”
“It’s a process and we have to go through that process together. We know what’s in front of us and we’re going to follow that plan.”
One can only hope that Murray has a crystal-clear understanding of what is in front of him…many, many long, hard nights with a lot of losses as things will likely get worse for the Kings before they get better…if they get better at all.
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