EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: The following is the first in a series of stories based on an interview with Los Angeles Kings head coach Terry Murray, in which he looks back and evaluates his team’s performance during the 2009-10 season. Look for the next installment on Tuesday, September 7.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — With his team’s 2010 training camp coming up in less than two weeks, Los Angeles Kings head coach Terry Murray has returned to Southern California to prepare, knowing that his team must improve upon what they accomplished last year.
That said, the Kings’ 2009-10 season was one where the team took a big step forward.
“[Our team showed] good improvement, improvement that, I think, all of us were looking forward to as we started last year,” said Murray. “We had a start that was very important. It was a good start, the team played well. We were looking at the [line of Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams] as, probably, the best line in hockey at the start of the year, the first twenty games. They really gave us the energy and the momentum that we hoped would come out of the previous season.”
“I felt, over the course of the year, the players did a great job in maintaining the focus and the momentum that was built,” added Murray. “There were very few stretches where we took any kind of a big step backwards for an extended period of time, and we were able to live up to our own expectations as we got to the [midpoint] of the year.”
The hot start and continued success through the first few months of the season not only made those expectations attainable, but they also added to them—the Kings not only had to make the playoffs, but they could not be satisfied with that. Indeed, they now had to put in a respectable showing and not be a first-round pushover.
“I thought our expectations got to be pretty high,” Murray noted. “Our goals got to be higher, and I was really pleased with how things unfolded as the season came to an end.”
Compared to the previous season when they earned just 79 points and ranked 14th in the 15-team Western Conference, the Kings earned 101 points in 2009-10, good for sixth place in the West.
Murray pointed to his team’s ability to hold onto leads late in games as a major factor in the Kings’ rise in the standings.
“Over the course of 82 games last year, we showed good grit, good consistency in our performance and our checking and defensive game was real solid,” said Murray. “If I remember correctly, there were no games where we gave up a lead going into the third period. That could be wrong, but we were very good at protecting that lead as we got into the final twenty minutes.”
“That’s a very important part of the game,” added Murray. “Once you have it, you’ve got to be able to put it away and make sure you’re taking those two points home. Doing that on a pretty consistent basis throughout the year gave us a real good feel going into the playoffs.”
Resilience and grit also played major roles.
“A real gritty team, I like that description for our group,” Murray stressed. “It’s about this young team that showed tremendous resilience throughout the year. There’s lots of teams competing for the playoffs and everybody wants to get in there. It takes a hard and gritty team in order to stay with it, day after day.”
“Every game is a real, meaningful game,” Murray added. “There’s games where you’re getting into a lot of heavy going in the middle part of the year. You’re going to take a step back, but the most important thing is that you find a way to bounce back in that game or you find a way to come back in the next game, to give that effort in order to get the two points. We were really good at that.”
Murray also pointed to his leadership group, including captain Dustin Brown and assistant captains Kopitar and Matt Greene, as a factor.
“We showed determination, great leadership in the locker room—a solid core group of guys,” he said. “My leadership group was tremendous in carrying the message and setting the example every day, in practice or in games, to get ready to do things properly. They have real open minds on the learning side of the game.”
“When you’re coming into each day with that kind of attitude, there’s a lot of room for young guys to improve and perform at a high level.”
Despite getting off to a strong start and a solid first four months of the season, the Olympic break in February took just about all of the wind out of the Kings’ sails, sending them into a tailspin.
Indeed, after looking like a lock to earn an invite to the post-season party, the Kings suddenly found themselves as close to being on the outside looking in as they were to being one of the top eight teams in the conference.
To put it mildly, the Kings had let up in terms of their intensity in a big way.
“We had a real great stretch going before the break,” Murray explained. “You’re always concerned about a long break, there’s no question about that. Momentum is a word you throw out there. There’s that mental approach that’s so critical for a good sports team to bring every day and think when you get away for a couple of weeks, there’s a tendency for a young team to let up.”
“You think it’s going to start up and be the same way, it’s going to be easy, maybe a little bit easier because we were playing well before,” Murray elaborated. “Whatever the reasons are that go through the minds of a young team, it hit us. But you’ve got to go through it, too. It’s a great learning experience. We picked up on that pretty quickly and we able to get things back on track and play a pretty solid game again.”
With the Kings being in such a strong position to make the playoffs going into the Olympic break, did they get a bit complacent?
“That could be the word to describe it,” said Murray. “Sometimes, it’s just getting away from the demands of the daily routine. You just take a step back in intensity. It really gets hard in that last quarter of the season, especially after a break like the Olympics, where the veteran guys get refreshed, they get healthy.”
“A team like Detroit, as an example, were banged up pretty much all year long,” added Murray. “They started to get players back near the end [of the season], when games become harder. Veteran teams have been through all this, they answer that and expect it. They prepare themselves. Maybe, as a young team, the LA Kings were not quite as cognizant of it as we should have been.”
Perhaps the most visible sign of the drop in intensity was the play of goaltender Jonathan Quick, who played so well during the first four months of the season that he was selected to be one of three goaltenders to represent the United States during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver back in February.
Quick did not get into a game, so the Olympics turned out to be a two-week break from action. Despite being rested, he struggled mightily upon his return to the Kings, and his shaky play continued into the playoffs.
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot myself,” Murray noted. “I think the fact that he went to the Olympics was a great thing. It’s a great experience to be a part of that U.S. team. Not getting a lot of quality practice time has an effect on a goaltender…but we can’t hang it on that. That second part of the season, that last quarter of the season, it gets to be harder.”
Going into the Olympics, Quick was already a workhorse—he was near the top of the league in minutes played and by season’s end, he had started 72 games and played in over 4,200 minutes.
That raises the question: was fatigue a factor in his late-season malaise?
“I don’t think fatigue was a part of it, at that time, because of the two weeks of physical rest,” Murray emphasized. “There were some things going on in his life. The new baby [Quick and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child in mid-March]—that, no question, had an effect. We all went through that. I went through that. That’s as a big a change in your life as you’ll ever get, I think, outside of getting married.”
“When you have a new baby, that just takes that focus away a little bit, and when you play a position like goaltender, it can really take its toll over an extended period of time,” Murray added. “Maybe that was part of it, but maybe the big picture, the whole thing we’re talking about had an effect on him, I’m not real sure.”
Fatigue or not, Murray has learned that playing a young goalie that much is generally a bad idea.
“The bottom line out of the whole thing for me, coming into this year, playing seventy-plus games is a lot of hockey for a young goaltender,” he said. “I’m looking at [moving] Quick back into that high-fifties, sixty…whether it’s 57 to sixty games, and whomever the number two goaltender is going to be is going to play more hockey this year than what [backup goalie Erik] Ersberg did last year.”
Despite the downturn after the Olympic break, the Kings managed to finish stronger, fulfilling one expectation: making the playoffs.
“We paid for it a little bit,” said Murray. “We bounced around, back and forth, but, at the end of the day, I think we came back and had a nice stretch before the playoffs started. I think we won nine or ten games there and we were playing at a pretty good level. We got ourselves ready to play. We were looking forward to the playoffs and were real excited to get there.”
The Kings drew the Vancouver Canucks in the first round and although the Canucks prevailed in six games, all was not lost for the Kings as they were they not a first-round pushover—they ended up meeting all expectations.
But that was not the only positive to come out of their first-round loss to the Canucks. Indeed, in those six games, young defenseman Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson raised their games to levels not previously seen—they were, by far, the Kings’ best players against Vancouver.
“[They] really stepped up in the playoffs,” Murray beamed. “These two young players really understood what the playoffs are about. They’ve both been on the world stage in junior hockey and the Olympics. They understood that ‘now’s it’s time—I’ve got to step up, I’ve got take my game to the next level.’”
“Those two young guys, in particular, did a tremendous job, as did other players, but speaking just of those two players, they knew what to do, they had that in them, and that’s the kind of game we’re looking for as we move forward into this year.”
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.