2010-11 YEAR IN REVIEW: Part 3 of a series.
LOS ANGELES — Despite earning a 46-30-6 (98 points, seventh place in the Western Conference) record this season, just three points less than their 46-27-9 (101 points, sixth place in the Western Conference) record in 2009-10, the Los Angeles Kings, along with just about everyone who follows them and the rest of the National Hockey League, expected the team to not only make the playoffs this season, but to at least advance to the second round.
Extenuating circumstances, namely, the loss of star center, leading scorer and top defensive forward Anze Kopitar to a serious ankle injury and not having right wing Justin Williams at full strength—both were injured in late March—severely diminished the Kings’ chances of winning their first round playoff series against the much more talented San Jose Sharks.
But even without Kopitar, and with Williams playing with a separated right shoulder, the Kings exposed the Sharks’ weaknesses and could have won the series if they adhered to their system and structure. But they failed miserably in that regard, dropping the series in six games.
The turning point came in Game 3, when the Kings blew a 4-0 lead through the early stages of the second period, only to lose the game in overtime, 6-5. Like their entire playoff series against the Sharks, that game pretty much mirrored how their entire season went…more on that in a bit.
As detailed in an earlier story here on Frozen Royalty (see 2010-11 Los Angeles Kings Were Reminiscent Of A Roller Coaster Ride), the 2010-11 Kings were highly inconsistent, and that might be a drastic understatement.
After a hot start to the season, the Kings followed that by losing seven out of eight games during the last two weeks of November.
After a strong December, the Kings fell right back into their bad habits, dropping ten out of twelve games from December 29 to January 20, 2011.
During both nose dives, the Kings skated far, far away from their system and structure. The result was sloppy, turnover-filled play that destroyed their defensive coverage.
For a team that does not score a lot of goals, that spelled certain doom.
Outside of those nose dives, the Kings looked like a completely different team, one that could hang with the big boys. For awhile, they even looked like one of the best teams in the league.
But the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs turned out to be a microcosm of the Kings’ regular season ups and downs, with some strong, smart play, but with much more poor, careless, lackadaisical play.
In the end, watching the Kings this season was indeed reminiscent of riding a roller coaster, and much of the responsibility for that lies at the feet of head coach Terry Murray and the rest of the coaching staff, along with President/General Manager Dean Lombardi.
Change Can Be A Good Thing
During the Kings’ two regular season slides, calls for Murray’s head were loud and clear from a rather vocal group of fans, and they re-surfaced after the Flop On Figueroa, their embarrassing, come-from-way-ahead Game 3 loss to the Sharks during the playoffs.
Some are still calling on the Kings to fire Murray, and assistant coach Jamie Kompon, whose responsibilities include their anemic power play. But a coaching staff must gear their system to the players they have, and, knowing that his team is not the most talented offensive juggernaut in the league, Murray has installed a defense-first system, one that has proven to be well-suited to his players…
…when they stick to it.
Indeed, their emphasis on the “checking side of the game,” as Murray often puts it, has vaulted the Kings into the playoffs the last two seasons, after eight straight seasons of being on the outside looking in.
Although no NHL team strictly adheres to their system for every second of every game, the Kings’ failure to play within their system and structure for long stretches during the regular season, as well their inability to do so during the playoffs, suggests that either the players are not capable of adhering to that system, they do not have the experience or maturity to understand the importance or doing so, or, perhaps, that they do not wish to.
The same might be said of their power play, which was absolutely dreadful all season long.
The Kings’ power play, which centers around the defensemen firing shots from the points with traffic in front of the net, and then having the forwards pounce on the rebounds, was a total disaster, as defenseman Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson struggled to get the puck on net from the point throughout the season and during the playoffs.
As a result, the Kings often looked like they were content to pass the puck around the perimeter, rarely creating anything that did not involve a point shot from a defenseman. In fact, they more closely resembled a basketball team playing the four corner offense, passing the ball around the perimeter as they tried to keep the ball away from the opposition, while killing time off the clock late in the game.
The Kings often looked completely lost on their power play, as teams began to challenge Doughty and Johnson whenever they had the puck. That began in Game 4 of their first round playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks last season, after the Kings, led by Doughty and Johnson, torched Canucks’ penalty-killers for four power play goals on twelve attempts in the first three games of the series.
But once the Canucks started challenging Doughty and Johnson at the points, the Kings scored just one power play goal on ten chances the rest of the way. That change in strategy was the turning point in the series, and was a harbinger of what was to come for the Kings this year.
During their late December/January nose dive, the Kings’ power play continued to be a sore point, and there were indications that the players were not happy with what the coaching staff was doing about it.
“I feel like we should practice the power play every day, it’s such a big part of the game,” right wing and team captain Dustin Brown said during the Kings’ January slide. “Penalty-killing is really tough to practice. That’s more about an attitude, blocking shots and working really hard. But the power play—I feel like we should work on it more.”
“We’re struggling right now, and we’re working on it,” Brown added. “But it should be something that we’re working on consistently.”
The Kings did practice their power play, but maybe not enough, as far as the players were concerned. Despite that, it is unlikely that additional practice would have made much difference without a change in the strategy used.
To be sure, everyone knew what the Kings were trying to do with the man advantage, and, as simple as their power play strategy was, it was equally simple to shut it down. All penalty-killers had to do was challenge the defenseman at the point, and they would effectively neutralize the Kings’ power play.
Despite that, Murray defended his team’s power play strategy throughout the season, remaining steadfast in his belief that his players simply needed to execute better to get the power play on track.
Murray is correct about the players needing to execute better. One of several examples was the high, slow, show-off backswing that Doughty added to his point shot this season, giving defenders an eternity to get into position and block his shot, a big reason he struggled throughout the season to get his shots on net.
Another example was Kopitar always looking for the extra pass instead of using his tremendous wrist shot and one-timer more often, making him more of a threat, preventing defenders from focusing on taking away the passing lanes. Add to that Johnson consistently missing the net when he was able to get his shot through, and it is easy to see that the players must bear much of the responsibility for their failure on the power play this season. After all, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure any of this out.
Nevertheless, Kompon’s, and, ultimately, Murray’s unwillingness to change the power play, to add new wrinkles and force penalty-killers into situations that they were not comfortable with, and, thus, creating scoring chances, was a huge problem and a major failure of the coaching staff.
Is Murray the next coming of legendary Montreal Canadiens coach Toe Blake, or even Scotty Bowman? Of course not. But do not let yourself be fooled by the contention that Murray is incompetent since former Kings winger Teddy Purcell was a complete bust with the Kings, but has gone on to have a solid season this year with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and could find himself playing for the Stanley Cup starting next week.
The fact that the Lightning are much more talented up front and can afford to emphasize offense more than the Kings makes that comparison unfair, at best, as Purcell simply does not have the defensive or physical responsibilities with the Lightning that he had with the Kings, even though he appears to have improved in those aspects of his game.
Although Murray is not likely to be the John Wooden of hockey coaches, his achievements with the Kings far outweigh his failures and weaknesses. But is he the coach who can take the Kings to the next level, let alone a Stanley Cup championship?
Not unless he is a bit more flexible and more willing to embrace change.
As stated earlier, a coaching staff has to gear their system to the players on their roster, and that is exactly what Murray has done—he is playing the hand that he has been dealt, forcing him to put such a strong emphasis on defense, and it has likely influenced his thinking regarding the power play—to keep it really, really simple.
As such, the dealer has a lot more to do with the successes and failures of the Kings, especially this season.
Time For Better Cards
In the casino game known as 21 or Blackjack, an experienced player will tell you that over the long haul, and sometimes, even in the short run, without some good hands, you are virtually guaranteed to lose money.
The same could be said for the Kings and Murray, who has not yet seen the good hands needed to be a big winner.
Unlike the casino, in this game, the dealer has the ability to change the deck in the players favor, and in this case, the dealer, also known as Dean Lombardi, needs to deal some better cards.
It is not difficult to see where the Kings need help. One need was a scoring winger to play on the top line with Kopitar. Lombardi should be credited for trying to fill that hole without losing anyone off the Kings roster by acquiring left wing Dustin Penner in a deadline-day trade that sent defenseman prospect Colten Teubert and a first round selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft to the Edmonton Oilers.
Although Penner was absolutely dreadful upon his arrival in Los Angeles (see Time For The Los Angeles Kings To Be Patient With Dustin Penner Is Up), Lombardi’s options were very limited at the deadline. He made a move that should have worked out better for the Kings than it did. For that, the vast majority of the blame for the deal not working out so far lies squarely on Penner’s shoulders—he should have been a lot better.
Going back to last summer, Lombardi knew he had a hole to fill on his top line, and he jumped into the three-ring circus that was the Ilya Kovalchuk Show. But he ended up signing a ridiculous 15-year contract with the New Jersey Devils that Lombardi was smart to walk away from. But he was so focused on Kovalchuk that he had no “Plan B” to acquire the scoring winger needed to play with Kopitar up front.
Because of that, the only forward the Kings signed last summer was left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky, who has never been the high-scoring winger the Kings needed. But he was the best option available as an unrestricted free agent at the time.
Indeed, Murray wanted to add a wrinkle or two to create more offense heading into the 2010-11 season (see Los Angeles Kings To Add New Twist To Offensive Attack In 2010-11).
“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].”
“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. 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.”
But Murray had to abandon that plan early in the season as he realized that his team would not be able to add this to their repertoire…not without the necessary talent.
When the ice chips settled for the final time in late April, the Kings wound up playing the entire season with a gaping hole on their top line, putting a huge crimp on their offensive production. Lombardi’s inability to acquire the scoring winger for that role has been his most glaring flaw this season.
The question is: will he do that this summer?
Maybe, maybe not.
This summer’s crop of unrestricted free agents is going to look like a massive drought has struck the continent, as the only one who fits the bill for the Kings will be star center Brad Richards, currently of the Dallas Stars.
Although the Kings plan to go after Richards starting on July 1, Richards has strong ties to the New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and is not likely to be interested in coming to Los Angeles. As such, if the Kings are going to acquire the top-tier winger they need for their first line, it will have to be via trade.
Of course, that raises the question of what players are available from the Kings.
On the other hand, it could very well be that Lombardi may wait until the 2012 off-season before he goes after that top-tier player. After all, by that time, forwards Ryan Smyth ($6.25 million), Dustin Penner ($4.25 million), Jarret Stoll ($3.6 million), and defenseman Willie Mitchell ($3.5 million), will all come off the Kings’ books (unless any are re-signed). That’s a total of $17.6 million of salary cap space Lombardi will have to work with going into the 2012-13 season.
By that time, the only potentially huge contract Lombardi will have to deal with is Doughty’s, but even with that deal, the Kings will still have cap space to make a big move. As such, it could very well be that Lombardi and the Kings will ask fans for another season of patience, even though they have to know that will not sit well with many fans who have earned the right to be impatient after 43 years of mediocrity.
In any case, the 2011 off-season could prove to be very interesting and exciting.
- 2010-11 Los Angeles Kings Were Reminiscent Of A Roller Coaster Ride
- 2010-11 Los Angeles Kings Year-In-Review: Evaluating The Forwards
- 2010-11 Los Angeles Kings Year-In-Review: Defense And Goaltending Was Their Strength
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