FROZEN ROYALTY EXCLUSIVE: Each summer, since his arrival in Southern California, Los Angeles Kings head coach Terry Murray has graciously taken a break from his preparation work for the new season to talk with Frozen Royalty during a one-on-one interview. He did so once again this week, looking back at last season and ahead at the 2011-12 campaign. In this story, the first of a series, Murray shares his thoughts on his team’s up-and-down 2010-11 season.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — One of the most talked about aspects of the 2010-11 season was the fact that the Western Conference playoff race was so tight from the first day of the season all the way to the last, as the eight playoff teams were not determined until the very end.
“The division, the conference was so competitive,” said Los Angeles Kings head coach Terry Murray. “It came right down to the last game of the year, whether Chicago gets in, or Dallas gets in. It was that competitive.”
Like the rest of the West, the Kings were not immune to the swings in the ultra-competitive Western Conference’s standings, and could have finished as high as fourth in the conference if they won one of their final two games of the season, a home-and-home series against the Anaheim Ducks.
But the Kings did the exact opposite, dropping those two games, finishing seventh in the conference standings. Despite that, they qualified for the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
“It was a very good year for the LA Kings,” said Murray. “Our start was exactly the way we wanted it, and the way it has to be. Those points [early in the season] are as important [as those picked up late in the season].”
“I think we showed a lot of grit, a lot of resiliency as we got into the heavy part of the schedule,” added Murray. “Our whole month of February was on the road—very, very hard, very demanding, and the team responded. They played great, and got some huge points.”
For those needing a reminder, the Kings began play in February with ten straight road games. Nevertheless, they managed to rack up a 6-1-3 record over that arduous stretch.
There are those who contend that the Kings, who finished the 2010-11 season with a 46-30-6 record, good for 98 points, did not improve from the 2009-10 season, when they finished 46-27-9 record, good for 101 points.
Just don’t try telling Murray that.
“When you look at where we finished, it is an improved hockey club, because of the demands that were put on us, because of scheduling, the circumstances,” Murray countered. “That’s just the way it was through that very difficult time post-All-Star break.”
“When you look at the end result, we were one of the better teams in the NHL post-All-Star break,” Murray added.
One area where the Kings did not improve was in the consistency department, as their season was highly reminiscient of a roller coaster, or of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Indeed, on the up side, the Kings showed they were capable of playing lights out hockey, as they did during that ten-game stretch on the road in February, not to mention their 12-3-0 start to the season in October. But on the other side of the coin, the Kings also displayed the ability to look more like the Keystone Kops than a hockey team, as they suffered through two huge nose dives in the standings, dropping seven out of eight games from November 15 to 29, and then losing ten out of twelve games from December 29 to January 20, 2011—in both stretches, the Kings played so poorly, it was somewhat comical.
What caused such extreme highs and lows last season?
“I don’t know if this is the right answer—you look at a lot of different things and try to come up with the right answer—we’re a team that’s not a high scoring team,” Murray explained. “In fact, our five-on-five goals for was in the bottom part of the league [statistics] (ranked 25th, 2.55 goals per game). Whenever you get into situations of close games, tight games, and you’re trying to dig yourself out of a stretch where you haven’t won in three, four or five games, now you’re trying to do a little bit more than, maybe, what you should. You’re looking for that extra play, that extra pass. Now, you’re a little gun shy shooting the puck.”
“It’s starts to snowball on you,” Murray elaborated. “That’s inevitably going to happen with, not only a young group of guys, but a veteran hockey club can fall into that very easily, and I think that’s exactly where we got slotted in during those situations. We were pressing, trying to score. We knew that it didn’t come easy for us, and we were looking for the extra play. As a result, those turnovers are going to come back at you.”
Without question, consistency was rather elusive for the Kings last season.
“It’s the competitiveness of the scheduling, the conference—you play extremely well for a long period of time, which we did at the beginning of the year,” said Murray. “Inevitably, you’re going to take a dip. You’re striving for the consistency of high performance all the time.”
“If you look at the President’s Trophy winner, Vancouver, they showed that they are that consistent hockey club over the regular season,” added Murray. “They’re a veteran team, they’ve been together now for many years. They showed that you have to earn the right to be the number one team over the course of a long season.”
“We’re trying to get to that point, where we can show the consistency with a young group of guys.”
That consistency problem came back to bite the Kings in the post-season, as they bowed out of the first round for the second straight season, dropping their first round series to the San Jose Sharks in six games.
“When I look at the goals that were scored in the playoffs by San Jose, those were plays that happened off the rush,” Murray noted. “In the regular season, there was a lot of trying to do too much. [As a result,] turnovers were happening in critical areas and coming back at us. Some of that happened, but I think our attitude towards getting pucks to the net in the playoffs was really good. We shot the puck, we went hard to the net, we did a lot of things.”
Murray was trying to accentuate the positive, but all one has to look at is Game 3, on April 19, 2011, at Staples Center, when the Kings took a 4-0 lead into the second period, only to see the Sharks come all the way back to win in overtime, 6-5, a crushing, embarrassing defeat that shined a bright light on the Kings’ constant struggle to score goals.
“We ended up losing three guys sometimes because of a real hunger to try to score on second and third opportunities, and, San Jose, a veteran club that transitions the puck extremely well—and they’ve got some mobile guys on the back end who put a lot of stress on us on the rush, they were coming with four all the time,” said Murray. “They capitalized on quite a few of those opportunities.”
Inconsistency also prevented the Kings from taking advantage of home ice, failing to win any of their playoff games at Staples Center.
“We started off stumbling a little bit in the first game,” said Murray. “We gave up a goal on the first shift, kind of feeling our way around. We bounced back after [center Jarret] Stoll got suspended in Game 2—we really responded with a great effort. But then, we come back home, and that home ice advantage was not an advantage for us last year.”
“We go back through January, we go back through the playoffs—we didn’t win those games that you want to win for your fans, and you want to win for yourselves,” added Murray. “That was elusive for us. That’s something we have to take away from the post-season, the regular season, that we have to be better [at home]. We want to be better there, and, hopefully, we can take the next step and get that done.”
The Kings lost top center Anze Kopitar on March 26, when he suffered a broken right ankle and torn ligaments, and was lost for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs.
His absence was more than noticeable.
“Absolutely it would have,” Murray said about whether or not having Kopitar in the lineup against the Sharks would have made a difference. “He’s our leading scorer, our best forward. No question it would’ve made a difference. It would’ve been critical to have him in the lineup, but it didn’t happen, so it’s hard to speculate, and I don’t want to go back too far on that. Injuries happen. [They provide] an opportunity [for other players to step up].”
“Look at what [rookie left wing Kyle] Clifford did in the playoffs,” Murray added. “He was our leading goal scorer. It put him into a situation where he got tested, and he really responded very well.”
“It was unfortunate that we lost Kopitar. It was unfortunate that [right wing] Justin Williams got hurt, although he came back and played well, but it’s always hard coming back from an injury and being at the top of your game.”
Although Murray stopped well short of claiming that having Kopitar would have put the Kings over the top against the Sharks, he noted that he would have made life a lot more difficult for Sharks star center Joe Thornton, who finally became an impact player in the post-season against the Kings.
In short, Kopitar would have helped the Kings offensively, but his absence was felt the most on defense.
“That’s the biggest part of it,” Murray lamented. “You lose the offense, that’s very noticeable for our hockey club. But that’s a big body matching up against their big body. [Center Michal] Handzus did a real good job, but, at the end of the day, the Kopitar and Thornton match up is more comfortable. Again, injuries happen, and we didn’t get the job done.”
In 2009-10, Murray’s go-to, stopper center was Handzus, who was usually on the ice against the opposition’s top center. But that changed last season, as Kopitar emerged as one of the NHL’s top defensive forwards, even earning consideration for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward.
“He plays both ends of the rink very, very well,” Murray beamed. “As a young player, he’s one of the better all around players in the game. His confidence, his intelligence, he’s got a high IQ on the ice without the puck. He’s not hesitant in the physical part of it, leaning on people. He’s got great instincts to get in the right position, above people.”
“We missed him,” Murray added. “At the end of the regular season, take a look at our finish. We lose two games to Anaheim with the [Ducks cenrer Ryan] Getzlaf line being a big factor. We could’ve finished higher in the standings. That’s how competitive this division is, and that’s where we were talking about a difference of three points in the standings when you compare [the last two] years, that’s all it came down to—a little bit of good health, bad health, bad luck, whatever you want to call it. A couple of [wins] here and there, it’s the difference.”
Despite the inconsistency, the embarrassing, come-from-way-ahead loss in Game 3, and losing the series against the Sharks, there was a bit of a silver lining.
“Overall, in the playoffs, coming away from that, we scored as many goals as San Jose did in that six-game series, so there were a lot of things that I want to keep encouraging and bring into the training camp and into the start of the year,” said Murray.
“Take a look at the young line we had going at the time [Brad Richardson centering left wing Kyle Clifford and right wing Wayne Simmonds],” added Murray. “They performed extremely well, and with a great deal of confidence.”
“Making the playoffs, in this conference, is a big challenge. It’s hard. Going into the playoffs, we were the youngest team in the post-season, so we’re making solid strides.”
As Murray mentioned, Clifford, who had a solid, if otherwise unremarkable rookie season last year, stepped way up in the playoffs, earning high praise from his coach.
“That’s just the attention to the detail of his game that he put in place all year long,” Murray noted. “That’s how you improve. That’s how you get better. There wasn’t a day that went by that he wasn’t [at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California, the Kings’ practice facility], doing something to improve his game, whether it was off-ice workouts, shooting extra pucks, heavy pucks, he was on the ice early, he was late getting off, he was always paying attention to the details.”
“He reviews his own game constantly [using video],” Murray added. “We’d bring him in and review the detail part of his game, his shifts, ‘here’s what you could do a little bit better, keep working on that.’”
Clifford’s efforts earned him goal scoring and overall scoring honors for the Kings during the playoffs, with three goals and two assists for five points in six games.
“He goes to the hard areas, he scored playoff goals, which is right from the top of the crease,” said Murray. “He’s a fearless guy.”
“There’s not a day that goes by that he’s not trying to get better, and, when you get into the playoffs, you want players to rise to the occasion,” added Murray. “Some players are very good at elevating to the next level. Others may not change at all. He’s one of those guys. He knows how to dig in. He knows how to respond. It was a big challenge, and he wanted to meet it head on. What a phenomenal playoff he had.”
Another positive for the Kings was Williams, who almost made it through the season injury-free, only to suffer a separated shoulder late in the season.
Coming off a serious injury (broken ankle) in 2009-10, Williams arrived in training camp in top shape, and he was often the Kings’ best forward last season, and, even though he was not at full strength during the playoffs, he was one of the Kings’ best players in the post-season.
“He played really well,” Murray said about Williams. “I was so happy for him to come back into the training camp last year off that injury. That was bad injury, a really, really serious injury, and to come here on the first day of training camp energetic, enthusiastic, with a smile on his face, looking forward to getting on the ice that first day—he had a great start [to the season], great numbers, and performed at a high level all year long.”
“That’s why he got rewarded with a new contract,” Murray added. “Offensively skilled players like that are hard to find. We’re very happy and excited to have Justin back for a few more years. It’s a great deal for him and for us.”
Williams showed the offensive ability that he became known for prior to his arrival in Los Angeles…when he was healthy, anyway.
“On the offensive part of the game, he is one of our best forwards,” Murray explained. “He is creative, he can score, he’s very, very confident with the puck. Sometimes, he puts himself into situations high in the offensive zone, trying to do a little bit too much, rather than getting it at the net, but he’s a very gifted player.”
“Instinctively, he plays the game with the puck, and I give him that freedom,” Murray elaborated. “There’s areas of the ice where you try things that are acceptable. There’s other areas of the ice that you don’t want players to try too much. But he’s a veteran, he knows that. He gets results for us.”
While their offense sputtered, the Kings’ defense shined, ranking seventh in the league.
“We improved in all areas [on defense],” said Murray. “Our goals against got better, our shots against got better, our quality, grade A chances against are down, which we track ourselves. The checking game is a part of the game that you have to have in place in order to win, there’s no doubt about that.”
Solid goaltending from Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier was where that improvement began.
“Jonathan Quick, if you go back and break down the season into quarters, the first quarter of the year, you couldn’t ask for anything better,” Murray noted. “With Bernier, he got his taste of the NHL, he learned a lot, and it all paid off in the second quarter of the year. He was on his game, and won some big games for us.”
“The goaltending is very good,” Murray added. “Both guys are incredibly young, and the tandem is outstanding together. They really play hard for the team, and support each other, so we’re in a nice place there.”
Going back to the Kings’ offensive woes, as Murray indicated, they were near the bottom of the league in goal scoring. Murray’s thoughts about his team’s offense last season, not to mention their power play, will be the subject of Part 2 of this series, coming soon.
- Terry Murray Dishes On 2010-11 LA Kings’ Offensive Zone, Power Play Struggles
- LA Kings Head Coach Terry Murray: Drew Doughty And Jack Johnson Need To Take Steps Forward In 2011-12
- Terry Murray: Added Talent Up Front Does Not Mean A New Style Of Play Is On The Horizon For LA Kings
- LA Kings Head Coach Terry Murray Talks Prospects, Goaltending, And The Return Of The Trap
- Frozen Royalty Audio: Interview With LA Kings Head Coach Terry Murray, August 24, 2011
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