EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Some seven weeks have passed since the 2008-09 season ended for the Los Angeles Kings. I recently spoke at length with head coach Terry Murray about his team’s performance, where they improved, where they still need a lot of work and what lies ahead. Look for part two of this interview on June 2, right here on Frozen Royalty.
LOS ANGELES — With the Stanley Cup Finals in full swing, it has now been close to two months since the 2008-09 season ended for the Los Angeles Kings, who missed the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. Over that period, Kings head coach Terry Murray has certainly had time to reflect on his first season with the team, especially their improved defensive play.
Indeed, when Murray took the reins of the Kings, one of the first things he said when he was introduced at a press conference in July, 2008 was that the Kings needed to cut down on goals against and it was clear from day one of training camp that defense and checking would be emphasized.
“That was the main focus coming into the first day of training camp when we met as a big group,” said Murray. “I talked to the players about the focus of the training camp and the priority was to cut back on scoring chances and cut back on goals against. The players gave tremendous focus and commitment to that.”
“In every practice and every exhibition game that was the number one priority and as you establish a solid foundation like that, everyone began to sense that success on the ice is based on playing well without the puck,” added Murray. “We used that as a rallying point to [create] a defense first attitude and it seemed to continue to build throughout the year.”
When the season was over, despite their poor 34-37-11 record, their last place finish in the Pacific Division and their 14th place finish in the fifteen-team Western Conference, the Kings had made huge strides on the defensive side of the puck, allowing 2.75 goals per game, ranking eleventh in the National Hockey League.
Penalty-killing was also vastly improved, with the Kings ending the season ranking seventh in the league with an 82.9% rating.
Those numbers showed significant improvement over those of the 2007-08 Kings who were absolutely horrid defensively, ranking 28th in goals against, allowing 3.21 goals per game. They were also ranked last in penalty-killing with a dreadful 78.0% rating.
Despite not making the playoffs, Murray spoke about the positives from the season.
“I was very pleased with how things went over the season,” said Murray. “We went into it knowing that there were going to be a lot of young players, a lot of new faces as a part of the LA Kings. As we got going early in the season, the chemistry, the locker room feel became very good quickly. I really sensed that the players liked each other, got along with each other and became a solid group.”
“It showed in our play from the beginning through Christmas,” added Murray. “As an example, I was very excited about how everything was coming together on the ice with team play and the way guys were playing hard for each other and competing every night. I know there were some games along that stretch where we wished we had a better end result, but the overall effort and commitment to each other was tremendous.”
Murray also said that despite their finish in the standings, the Kings are an improved team.
“I think it was a tremendous improvement,” he said. “When I look back to August, reading the predictions of where everybody was going to finish at the end of the year, the LA Kings were [ranked] 30th and a long way from being 29th. With the organizational decision to go with youth, to rebuild as we did last year to put some young players in the lineup—guys who were eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old and put them out there to play in critical situations, critical minutes—[for them] to develop and show us that they’re hungry for more at the beginning of next year, I think that’s a tremendous accomplishment.”
“If you take a look at, right up through the last ten, twelve games, we were right there, pounding on the door for playoff position,” he added. “So where we finished up, 14th in the conference, we wanted to be better, we wanted to be in the playoffs and that was something we talked about from the middle of the season. That was our goal—to make the playoffs. We were very close at the end of the day. I think our overall team play finished up being much better than what the position ended up being where we finished at 14th. I’m very pleased with the development and how things went overall.”
Even with the improved defense, the Kings still struggled at times, enough to obscure much of their improvement because they failed to qualify for post-season play.
“I thought our play up until Christmas was—in some games we played extremely well,” Murray noted. “If you remember, we were outshooting teams 40-20. As you get through those first 35-40 games of the year, [in a number of games], we were not coming away with more than a point and in some games, we weren’t getting a point out of it. We lost seven or eight big games going into the shootout, only getting a point out of it. That, in itself, is part of the reason [they failed to make the playoffs]. Our inexperience is certainly is a part of the reason.”
“Then you get into the last part of the year after the All-Star break when everything seems to tighten down on the checking side of it, that’s when the scoring became exposed, I believe,” Murray elaborated. “We probably were not able to capitalize on situations that were there. That’s the end result—we were not able to make the playoffs. Losing a couple of players due to injury right at the very end was also a part of it.”
“That sounds like excuses [but] they are reasons. We just have to continue to build and grow and stay energized. As we go through this thing next year going into training camp, I’m looking for good things to happen for us.”
Indeed, goal scoring was a problem for the 2008-09 Kings, who scored 2.46 goals per game, ranking 27th in the league. But Murray said that sacrifice on the offensive side of the puck was necessary for a young team that needed to improve by a country mile or two…or three…on defense.
“At the end of the day, when you look at the numbers you say, ‘we wish we would’ve scored more,’” said Murray. “But you have to start somewhere. There has to be a starting point whenever you have a new philosophy, trying to change the culture, trying to change the overall look of your hockey club. Last year, at the end of the season, there was a lot of player movement with veteran guys going out and a philosophical change was made within the organization.”
“You have to have a starting point,” added Murray. “[When] you look through the playoffs, you look though the end of the season, the teams that are able to shut things down and be a solid defensive team—you give yourself an opportunity to win games. I’m not losing sight that more goal scoring is needed. But that commitment to the structured play without the puck—there’s always going to be a sacrifice that has to be given in order to learn the complete game. If you get that defensive part and that checking part in place then it becomes a natural part of it.”
The question going forward is whether or not the Kings can be effective at both ends of the ice next season.
“I think the start point is the complete game,” Murray stressed. “We really gave a big push to the checking part of it. Everything we did in practice, all of the conversations, team meetings, reviews that we had, were all on the checking part of the game and that was critical to become an instinctive part of our game and that never goes away. You always have to bring the attitude that checking is the priority. That’s number one and with that, you’re going to have the puck and be able to counter and attack with more authority in the offensive zone.”
“We have instinctive players who are capable of putting up good numbers in the offensive side of the game and that’s been seen over the past couple of years with guys who have been in place,” Murray elaborated. “That’s now where we went to get back to—continue to play and have the focus on defense and checking and now add to the repertoire more complete flow of game where you’re playing that 200 feet of ice and that’ll come. That’s the next step we have to address and work at as we get into training camp next year.”
But a key to their success will be learning to get the puck to the net and get bodies in front of the opposition’s net on a consistent basis, two things the Kings often failed to do enough of this past season.
“I don’t want the team to lose sight of the amount of work that was committed to the checking and defensive part of the game last year,” Murray emphasized. “So don’t lose sight of what we built on and started last year and now we have to give a big push to the offensive part—more of a scoring/shooting mentality on a consistent basis.”
“When I look at our team as far as shots on goal [are concerned], we’re way down when compared to other teams,” Murray noted. “That, in itself, is an area we have to improve on. Get the puck to the net. [A] shot mentality with more traffic. Off the top of my head, those are two parts of the conversation that I really want to emphasize as we come into the camp and start getting on the ice. And that’s a hard thing. It’s not an instinctive part for a lot of players around the league. Even in the playoffs, watching all these series’ going on, these teams are high-end skill but they’re missing the opportunity to score because they [are not] getting to the net [to create] traffic, blocking out goaltenders’ sight lines is not being done consistently.”
“We were just not good enough in that area and that has to become more of a focus for us as we get going [next] year. As we got to the latter part of the season we started to see more consistent attacks but again, we still have to develop that shooting-scoring mentality. That is a bit of a process. We’ll keep pushing that. I believe we have some players who are pretty good offensive players—[Anze] Kopitar, [Alexander] Frolov, [Justin] Williams, [Dustin] Brown, just to name a handful of those guys.”
Can the Kings put it all together next season? If they can maintain and improve their defensive game and get more pucks and bodies to the net on a consistent basis, their outlook will be better. But their off-season work will be key, according to Murray, who discusses how critical the off-season will be for the Kings in the next installment.
Frozen Royalty by Gann Matsuda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Frozen Royalty – Licensing and Copyright Information.