EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: In the third and final installment of this series, Los Angeles Kings head coach Terry Murray talks about his plans for the upcoming season, especially in terms of improving his team’s ability to score at even strength.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — Entering his third season as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings, Terry Murray has watched his team improve each year.
In his first season, 2008-09, the Kings finished 14th in the Western Conference and 26th in the overall National Hockey League standings, well out of the playoff picture.
But the silver lining from that year was a dramatic drop in goals against and shots allowed, as the team learned to protect the “home plate” area in the slot, right in front of the net.
After one year under Murray’s tutelage, the 2009-10 Kings broke through with a 101-point finish to their regular season, launching them into sixth place in the Western Conference and into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
The Kings went into the playoffs as the underdogs against the Henrik Sedin-led Vancouver Canucks, and, despite showing flashes of brilliance, the Canucks finally capitalized on the Kings’ weaknesses and eliminated them in six games.
“Normally, at the end of the day, you see the best teams winning the Stanley Cup,” said Murray. “When you’re getting into those critical games, when things have to happen—protecting that one-goal lead—all we had to do in a couple of those games was score on the two-on-ones and breakaways we had. In game 6, we could’ve won that game and put it away with that one-goal lead going into the third period.”
“It ends up sorting itself out at the end of the day, and it shows you what we, as a team and as an organization, need to focus on or what we need to get better at.”
Perhaps the biggest problem the Kings had against the Canucks was an acute lack of five-on-five scoring, something Murray knows must improve if the Kings are to take the next step in 2010-11.
“With the young group of guys we have, we’re looking to improve in the five-on-five play,” Murray stressed. “We showed a big step in that area last year, but we certainly are aware that if we’re going to stay where we are or get to be better in the overall positioning in the Western Conference, we’re going to have to be able to score more five-on-five. That’ll be a big focus as we start on the first day of training camp.”
At the same time, Murray warned that his team cannot lose their focus on play in their own zone.
“That’s still being cognizant of the fact that we’re a team that puts a great deal of emphasis on checking and the defensive part of the game,” he stressed. “We’ve got to maintain [those] numbers also. But, at the same time, [we need] to grow as a team. That [will come] by generating more five-on-five in offensive zone play.”
Increased production at even strength is a priority in Murray’s mind heading into training camp.
“Offensive production is going to be important to improve on this year,” said Murray. “The five-on-five, four-on-four is going to be real important from a team aspect. You’ve got to be able to get the job done in that part of it, and I think we have the ability to improve there. That’ll be a big focus in our training camp, to have a better attack game, a better possession game as we come through the middle of the ice.”
“Going back to last year, I thought we did a tremendous job in getting pucks deep on the forecheck, recovering pucks and getting a cycle,” added Murray. “When we do cycle the puck, we’re a very good hockey club that holds onto it, makes plays and gets pucks to the net. But as we go into this year, I’d really like to see a lot of possession entries and attack hard to the net with plays off the original attack, rather than going back and recovering [the puck].”
“That, to me, when you get into the playoffs and you plan on being a team that’s going to go deep into the playoffs, then that’s a part of the game that you have to execute at a pretty high level. That’ll be a focus for us going into the season.”
Murray explained that this change in the Kings’ attack does not mean he is changing their system.
“It’s not going to be so much the system,” he said. “[Rather], it’s going to be more just an emphasis because going back to year one [of his tenure with the Kings—two years ago], our focus was checking, the commitment to the defensive part of the game. That home plate attitude was really, really critical—to get it down and make that kind of a commitment. We were a team that turned a lot of pucks over at the offensive blue line two years ago.”
“Last year, I saw an improvement defensively, in our checking [and we were] much improved as we made decisions at the offensive blue line, in getting the puck deep and getting a forecheck and cycle game going,” he added. “I want to add onto that. I want to build onto that now in year three here.”
Experience is the key factor in Murray adding this new wrinkle to his offense.
“As we grow as a team and are more experienced and more comfortable with pucks on our sticks, [I want us to] generate more off that possession as we come through the middle of the ice, rather than going and getting it all the time or a lot of the time,” he emphasized. “Let’s generate more now from this possession. Show more poise. Make plays. Have confidence with the puck. Get something big happening to the net as often as possible, meaning driving through, stopping at the top of the crease, putting pucks to the net off that original attack.”
“Now, if there’s a loose puck or rebound, [we still have] that same attitude of recovery and getting your cycle going,” he added. “But that’s the next step for us, and I think it’s a very important step for us if we’re going to be a to be a real playoff contending team as we go forward this year.”
But contending for the playoffs or even just qualifying for post-season play will not be enough for the Kings this season.
“The expectations always grow when you make the playoffs as fast as we have here as we get things turned around,” said Murray. “We had a great season, finishing with 100-plus points. The expectations are higher.”
“The goal is to, again, make the playoffs and be more prepared, which we would be because of experience in the playoffs, for that next step, which is winning a round, getting into the second round, give yourself a taste of how hard it gets and what it means and just how hard it is in order to go deep in the playoffs,” added Murray. “It’s real important for young players, young teams, to have that taste and not continually get pushed back.”
“We’ve got to battle through and give ourselves that opportunity again this year, starting with the first day of training camp with that hard-work attitude.”
Of course, once a team wins a round, confidence rises, and then…
“Most importantly, you want to get into the playoffs, because when you get into the playoffs in the game today, you’re going to give yourself an opportunity to win some games and you could win a couple of series,” Murray noted. “You never know.”
“You take a look at the Chicago Blackhawks today, the Stanley Cup Champions,” Murray added. “They are a very young hockey club who have come together quickly over the last two or three years. That just proves to all of us that anything is possible, that playing as a team, playing hard, staying healthy and getting a bit lucky at times—real good things can happen.”
But before that can happen, the Kings have to understand that things can just as easily head back in the other direction, and that concerns Murray deeply.
“[I’m worried about] atrophy,” he said. “That’s the biggest concern I have. [When] we look at rookies coming into the game, why do rookies take a step back in year two? It doesn’t happen all the time, but why is that something that’s often talked about? Great rookie year, but we don’t see that same player in year two, and I’m not talking about any player in particular, but it’s just a common statement that often is made.”
“To me, it’s the same with a young hockey club,” he added. “Now we’ve taken a couple of years here and we’ve made some big steps, so I worry about that atrophy.”
“Are we going to take a step backwards, or are we going to come in with the same hunger, the same mindset, the same attitude? This is something that I need to address with team as we get going. I’m going to voice that concern to the players and to the team on a pretty consistent basis. We have to keep it going forward.”
A big question for Murray and the Kings heading into their 2010 training camp is whether or not one or more of their young prospects are ready to make the jump to the NHL.
The answer to that question is very much unclear at this point. Nevertheless, Murray likes what he has seen from the Kings’ pool of young prospects.
“I do expect some real competitive position in training camp,” said Murray. “The young guys in this organization have been working very, very hard. I know these young players have been [at the Kings training facility in El Segundo, California] quite often. They’ve been working very hard and they’ve been following a good [strength and conditioning] program.”
“The talent level that some of these young guys have shown at the junior level, college, Europe, or whereever it might be, is as good as anybody out there,” added Murray. “What holds young players back sometimes is are they physically ready to play? Is their strength good enough to compete and bring that same talent level out in the NHL?”
“It won’t be long before we’ll ask, ‘what have you been doing all summer?’ This is what training camp is about for us. If we see big improvement, we’re going to see the talent because it is there. But physically—are they going to be able to compete? That’s the exciting part about it and that’s what I’m looking forward to—to get into competition against each other in the scrimmages, in practices and then, moving it onto the exhibition games where they’re going to play against NHL players and see how it all goes.”
But competition for ice time during the exhibition games will be fierce, and there is not enough time to give everyone that long, hard look during camp.
“Ideally, I’d love to give everyone a long look in the training camp,” Murray said. “We’ve got six exhibition games, and the young guys—we’re going to get’em going right away and see where they’re at. They have a couple of rookie games and then the six [exhibition] games. We’ll play them and put them in competitive drills in practice.”
“It’s about the compete [level], it’s about proper execution, it’s about playing with the right attitude and the right way,” Murray added. “Are they consistently performing and executing the drills the right way? [Do they have] proper positioning on the ice?”
Going into training camp, center prospect Brayden Schenn, who was selected by the Kings in the first round (fifth overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, was expected to get the most attention. But he recently suffered a knee injury while training with his junior team, the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League.
At press time, Schenn was en route to Los Angeles to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) examination. There was no word from the Kings on the extent of the injury or how long they expect him to be out of action.
“Brayden Schenn, he showed tremendous awareness in his game last year in training camp,” Murray noted. “He played one game [with the Kings] and did a good job in Vancouver last year. He played on the [Canadian] World Junior team and was a big part of that.”
“He’s got a great foundation to his NHL game in place already, so it’ll be exciting to see how he’s come along over the off-season.”
Those of you who are well-read know what they say about the best laid plans…
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