EL SEGUNDO, CA — When Terry Murray was hired as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings on July 17, 2008, his highest priority was to teach his young team how to play defense, something that seemed like a foreign concept to the Kings in the seasons just prior to his arrival.
Two years later, Murray’s mostly young charges had improved their defensive zone play in dramatic fashion by emphasizing coverage of the “home plate” area in front of their own net. That new focus, along with improved goaltending, resulted in a dramatically reduced number of shots against, far fewer quality scoring chances by opponents and, as a result, a lot less pucks ending up in their net.
That focus was on point to start the 2010-11 season, one that saw the Kings jump out to a 12-3-0 start. But their defensive focus went by the wayside in mid-November, and the Kings have been in a deep slump ever since, losing five of their last six games while allowing one glorious scoring chance after another and giving up goals in bunches.
“We got away from our little home plate attitude, and it’s been costing us,” said right wing Wayne Simmonds. “We’ve got to fix that quick.”
Indeed, on November 26, while many were running around town or surfing the World Wide Web in search of Black Friday bargains, the last thing the Kings had on their minds was bargain hunting. Instead, they were hard at work at their practice facility, studying video and working on their defensive zone coverage.
“It’s real tough to say, for me, since I’ve only been here for a couple of days, but just from the Montreal game [on November 24], it’s just battling a little bit harder—we went over a lot of video this morning,” said defenseman Alec Martinez, who was recalled from the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) on November 23.
“The systems are good,” added Martinez. “We’ve just got to get that little extra push, finish when we have our opportunities, take care of the puck, and just settle down and make plays in our own end.”
“We addressed [the defense] a little bit today,” said defenseman Davis Drewiske. “As a defensive corps, we’ve got to be better in front of our own net, more physical, and just make sure we’re eliminating bodies in front. It all starts at the net. We need to be hard to play against there.”
If one thing has been blatantly apparent during the Kings’ current six-game slide, it is that they have been getting badly outworked in front of their own net, or they find themselves out of position—both problems have shown up at the same time on numerous occasions.
“It’s hard to score in this game today, and you really have to go after it, hang out longer and get into those pits, those hard areas of the game in order to win and also to defend,” said Murray. “There’s plays that are happening at our end, at our goaltender, that, with more of that attitude and better positioning, you can eliminate shots, scoring chances and goals against. That’s what the focus of the practice was today.”
“We just need to concentrate on doing the same thing we were doing at the start of the season,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “One of the problems in the Montreal game was loose pucks around the net and not finding them. We’re learning to pick up sticks and pick up bodies if we can’t find that puck.”
And it’s not just the defenseman who have been responsible for the Kings’ poor play in their own zone, as the forwards have been equally guilty of blowing defensive coverages.
“I don’t know what it is, if it’s mental, or if it’s not, but we’ve got to stop swinging away from pucks and start coming back to the home base and stopping,” Simmonds lamented. “I think that’s where it starts.”
“We’ve been taking big [skating] loops [back to their own zone] and that’s not going to cut it,” Simmonds stressed.
Another problem is that as the Kings have gone deeper and deeper into their current slump, players are trying to do too much, thinking they need to cover for someone else instead of focusing on their own jobs when on the ice, which just makes things worse.
“[Each of us] needs to worry about doing your own job, and not about doing anybody else’s,” said Drewiske. “We just have to stick together through it, really, focus on the system, trust each other, keep that energy and have fun working hard.”
Although the Kings have been absolutely dreadful of late, especially in their defensive zone, apparently, it does not take much to throw a wrench into the works.
“Out of the games that I’m looking at, starting with the San Jose game, I was not happy or pleased with the way we played at San Jose,” Murray explained. “But other games, when we go through them, we played pretty good. There’s goals that are being scored against us that are critical goals, obviously. But against Columbus, we’re in good shape going into the third period. We’re playing well, but end up losing. I can go though each one of those games—Buffalo, Ottawa. We’re outshooting and outplaying them, but we’re giving up those goals at critical times.”
“At Montreal, we weren’t as effective as what we would’ve liked to have been,” Murray elaborated. “Our puck management was really off. We’re not off page by that much. It’s the importance of one or two plays. [We need to pass the puck and manage it] better. But structurally, when I go back through all of the situations, system-wise, we’re in pretty good position.”
“We’re not off that far. We need to relax, go out and play, enjoy the game and get it back on track. We have to earn the right. We have to work to get it back on track, work harder and work smarter. But we’re close.”
The players saw things much the same way.
“It’s just a couple of breakdowns here and there, and [the opposition] capitalizing on them,” said Simmonds.
“Breakdowns happen in every game, said center Anze Kopitar. “That’s just the way the game goes. I think the structure is there. Again, [we have to be] a little smarter, a little more reacting instead of thinking.”
But after playing so well in their first 15 games, what went wrong?
“I think we lost a little bit of our momentum,” Murray explained. “We had extended breaks there, and it gets away. Some of that momentum, and a couple of key veteran players [defenseman Willie Mitchell and left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky are out with injuries] standing on the sidelines and watching—that’s sometimes all it takes, and it’s not an excuse, but I’m looking for reasons why, and I do come to that as part of it.”
“I also think our play at the start was really good,” Murray elaborated. “The intensity level was something that you’re not going to be able to maintain for an extended period. There’s going to be a down side to the curve. You’ve got to work through it and get it back on the up side again.”
Defense Is Not The Only Problem
Although poor defensive zone play has been their biggest problem of late, turnovers have been a major factor as well.
“It’s that attitude with our play in our own end,” said Murray. “Be better in front of our net. Be better with the puck on our sticks and making that next play, that next pass. I felt that in the Montreal game, a lot came back at us because of [poor] decisions that we made. That puts a lot of pressure on us.”
Murray noted that the Kings could use harder and heavier play in front of the net on the other end as well.
“We’ve got to be harder at both nets,” he lamented. “Part of the practice you saw today [focused on] defensive zone net play. I think the same applies to the offensive zone. We could hang out a little longer, have more of a dig in attitude to find those loose pucks and to screen goaltenders.”
One way he hopes to improve the play in front of opposing goaltenders is to move Simmonds up to the first line, with Dustin Brown shifting over to left wing.
“I’ve been battling with the thought of putting Brown back on left wing, last year, and, at times this year,” Murray noted. “I really felt, and I do feel that he’s a right winger, a power forward/right winger. But I had a meeting with him this morning to discuss the importance of putting our top group of guys together, to really consolidate and work our way out of this.”
“He assured me that he has no problem with it,” Murray added. “I know he had a great  Olympic [Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia with Team USA], playing on the left side. I did have him there a few times last year. He’s fine with it. It gives me two veteran players with Kopitar.”
“I felt [rookie left wing Dwight King] did a good job there, but the fact of the matter is, he’s a young guy, and there are some areas of the game that we need to finish better and have extended time in the offensive zone. I think this gives me that look with Brown [on left wing].”
Murray added that Brown’s strength and speed help him adapt to playing on the left side.
“The one thing I’ve seen with Brown and his play, he’s got such a strong base,” said Murray. “He’s a powerful, strong guy who is able to handle the pressure that’s coming to him from the checking side of the game and continue to make that play, or he’s quick enough to be able to carry the puck himself out of that situation.”
“On the plus side, attacking off that left side, for him, with his speed, to be able to pull it and go hard to the net is a very favorable look for the player on that side,” added Murray.
Simmonds worked well on the third line with center Michal Handzus and Ponikarovsky, as well as with rookie left wing Kyle Clifford, who now finds himself on that line. But playing with Kopitar and Brown on the first line will not be unfamiliar territory for the young right winger.
“I played with Kopitar before and Brown as well,” said Simmonds. “I think Terry put me there to bring my game—a strong forecheck and just create loose pucks for those guys. I figure that’s my job. I like to play physical down low. I think I can give those guys a little space. Hopefully, this works out here.”
“I played with Kopitar in the playoffs last year and a couple of times during the season, and I thought I worked well with him,” added Simmonds. “Nothing changes with my game. I think that’s the reason I’m there, because of the type of game that I play. If I change that, I could find my way off that line just as quick as I found my way on it.”
Kopitar is not only looking forward to the move, but is hoping it finally brings stability to his line, as the Kings have not been able to find a suitable left wing to play on their top line since the season began.
“Hopefully, we’re going to hit it off right away,” said Kopitar. “I’ve played with Simmonds before and Brown has played with [him] before, so we know each other pretty good. There’s a few things you have to work on and get through as a line, so now it’s just a matter of keeping it simple and getting it done.”
“[Stability on the first line] would be nice, of course,” added Kopitar. “We haven’t had any this year. With Brown going on the left wing, hopefully, we’ll hit it off and Terry doesn’t have to make any more changes.”
The Kings will need to step up in a big way with a renewed focus on their defensive zone coverage and solid play from their newly-configured top line if they are going to right the ship in their next game, especially with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks coming to town tonight (November 27).
“It’s going to take hard work, but, at the same time, we’ve got the personnel to do it,” said Kopitar. “We’ve shown it before, so we just have to get back on track. Maybe it’s not even working harder. We’ve been working hard. Maybe a little smarter and if we catch a few breaks here and there, the game can go either way. But it’s definitely not going to be easy, that’s for sure.”
“You always have to stop the slide before you can go uphill again, so it’s going to be hard,” added Kopitar. “We [have to] keep it simple and within the structure, within the system, and go from there.”
Against the defending champions, the Kings will have to be on top of their game.
“I just think we haven’t played a full sixty [minutes] in this little tailspin we’ve been having,” said Simmonds. “We haven’t played a complete game yet, and that’s hurting us, with one win in the last six games. We’ve just got to get back to basics—just play to our strengths.”
“I just think we’re in a little bit of a funk, but you can’t feel sorry for yourselves,” said Drewiske. “We just have to continue to work. I just think we have to push through it, and we’ll better on the other side when we come out of it.”.
Raw audio Interviews
(Edited to remove extraneous material and dead air)
Anze Kopitar (2:17)
Drew Doughty (0:55)
Alec Martinez (1:46)
Davis Drewiske (1:37)
Terry Murray (9:57)
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