LOS ANGELES — Before Terry Murray took over as head coach, the Los Angeles Kings were a mess. They could score goals, but they gave up so many more that they found themselves hurtling into the abyss, ending the 2007-08 season tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning with 71 points in the standings, the fewest number of points out of the thirty teams in the National Hockey League.
That team scored 2.76 goals per game (GPG), ranked thirteenth in the league. But they allowed 3.21 GPG, ranked 28th in the league, just 0.03 GPG better than the league-worst Lightning and the Atlanta Thrashers.
To make matters worse, the Kings were ranked dead last on the penalty-kill with a dismal 78.0 percent rating.
Indeed, one look at the 2007-08 Kings on defense made many people exclaim “yikes!” In fact, yours truly heard that very word numerous times that season in the Bob Miller Press Box at Staples Center when the Kings’ defense failed miserably again and again.
Murray came on board the following season and taught his young players how to play in the defensive zone, and his efforts paid off as the team allowed 2.76 GPG, moving up to eleventh in the NHL.
Perhaps more impressive, the 2008-09 Kings ended the season ranked seventh on the penalty-kill with an 82.9 percent rating, a significant improvement over their 2007-08 numbers.
But the 2008-09 Kings still finished 26th in the league standings with 79 points, primarily because they struggled mightily to score goals.
That season, the Kings scored just 2.46 GPG, ranking 27th in the league. What saved them from an even worse fate was that they earned a 19.2 percent power play rating, ranking 14th in the NHL.
This season, Murray’s Kings are one of the best teams in the league in scoring, averaging 2.90 GPG (eighth in the league) with an 18.7 percent power play rating (eleventh in the NHL).
The Kings were on fire to start the season, scoring goals in bunches. But their defense and penalty-killing looked like it was reverting back to their 2007-08 form.
Although the Kings’ defensive zone play has improved considerably as the season has progressed, there is still work to be done.
“I think there’s a lot of things, on the micro level [that must improve],” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. “Our penalty-killing is not where it needs to be. Our face-off [percentage has] gone down, which has led to problems with our penalty-killing.”
“I don’t think we’re happy with our goals against,” added Lombardi. “I think we still feel we’re giving up too many chances. In terms of the little things you see—the face-offs, the penalty-killing, the goals against, the chances against—those all have to improve [for us] to be a contender and we have to score more goals As much as it has improved, we’re not matching up to San Jose and Chicago.”
One reason for the defensive problems in the first few months of the season was that the Murray changed the Kings’ system to create more scoring chances.
“Murph instilled [the commitment to defense] last year, but then when you go into training camp, we had to make some adjustments,” Lombardi explained. “He changed part of his forecheck system to make it more of a possession game, which then made us a little vulnerable to the rush.”
“Whenever you do a change like that, two things happen,” Lombardi elaborated. “There’s the physical adjustment—it does make you more vulnerable to odd-man rushes. But there was also such an emphasis that we had to place on getting pucks to the net and developing a shot mentality.”
To be sure, whether it was getting pucks to the net, getting bodies in front of the net and just shooting the puck, the Kings were sorely lacking on all fronts in the offensive zone, especially in five-on-five situations. In fact, they scored just 114 goals in five-on-five situations last season, ranking them last in the league.
“There was clearly the stigma on the team—they felt in the room just like we all did and the media all talked about it—they can’t score five-on-five,” said Lombardi. “It was a conscious effort. ‘Hey! We’ve got to score goals here.’ When that becomes the emphasis, it’s hard to put it all together.”
“What I’m seeing defensively, at times, I don’t think is a function of not working hard or not caring,” added Lombardi. “It’s losing a little emphasis [on defense] because we had to emphasize [goal scoring]. So [now] let’s bring it all together.”
“What inevitably happens, you forget what you learned [before] to try and go do something else. But whether you’re playing a musical instrument or learning any trade, that’ll usually happen, and then you have to go back and bring it all together.”
As the Kings move into the home stretch coming out of the Olympic break, it seems that the Kings are working to do just that, allowing an average of 2.66 GPG (twelfth in the league) and, perhaps more notable, they have already scored 114 five-on-five goals this season with 21 games remaining.
“We always said at the beginning of the year, ‘who’s going to score? We need a scorer,’” said Lombardi. “The fans would always [say], ‘well, we didn’t go out and get a scorer’ [during the off-season]. Our goals for in five-on-five situations was brutal. We were way down—last in the league. We were held up by the power play.”
“We thought that having Justin Williams for the whole year, and Ryan Smyth [would improve their five-on-five scoring],” added Lombardi. “But a lot of people still doubted us since we didn’t get the big name—Marian Hossa or someone else.”
“I think we’ve addressed that. Five-on-five, our goals for are fine. Ironically, I think we can do better defensively. Don’t forget, our goals against two years ago was brutal. That was Murph’s first mandate. It starts with the back. We [had] to clean that mess up. Our defensive zone coverage was a wreck.”
As Lombardi stated, the Kings are not at same level as the San Jose Sharks or the Chicago Blackhawks, who are considered to be Stanley Cup contenders. Nevertheless, it appears that the Kings are, at the very least, heading in that direction.
In fact, general managers across the league have taken notice, as the Kings are no longer a pushover.
“That’s what the other general managers were saying when they play us, that we’re not easy to play against because we could roll three good lines,” Lombardi explained. “Not a lot of teams can do that and I kind of like that because it has a team feel and it wears down [other teams]—it’s a playoff-type team.”
For long-suffering Kings fans, those are encouraging words, no doubt.
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.