FROZEN ROYALTY EXCLUSIVE: With the addition of center Mike Richards and left wing Simon Gagne over the summer, the Los Angeles Kings’ top two lines are both legitimate offensive threats, something head coach Terry Murray has not had at his disposal since his arrival in Los Angeles. What impact will they have on the team, and how will their presence change the Kings’ style of play? Also includes an update on veteran left wing Dustin Penner. Part 4 of a series.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — Since Terry Murray signed on as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings on July 17, 2008, his teams have had mixed results in the offensive zone, struggling to score goals in five-on-five situations.
Last season, the power play went south to join the five-on-five scoring, leading the Kings downward to rank 25th in National Hockey League in goals scored.
But with the addition of skilled, veteran forwards Mike Richards and Simon Gagne to the lineup—both were acquired earlier this summer—the Kings are expected to turn things around in the offensive zone in 2011-12.
“Management has done a great job here in the summertime,” said Murray. “There’s no question that the magnitude of adding a player like Mike Richards is—I still have a hard time believing that he’s here, because I know him from his junior days, right through to the first day he came to the [Philadelphia] Flyers organization. I know him personally as, not only for his on-ice talent level—what he is as a player, but [also for] the character that he brings, the attitude, the will that he brings to a team is incredible.”
“He gives us more depth, we’re stronger down the middle,” added Murray. “The depth, and [the ability to move players into spots in the lineup they are well or better suited to] is as good as it’s been since I’ve been here.”
The addition of a skilled center, one who could play on either of the top two lines, gives Murray the flexibility to move Jarret Stoll down to the third line, a role that he is likely better suited to.
“Stoll now slides into that third spot, and he’s always been a player who we’ve trusted to match up against anybody in the league,” Murray noted. “He’s a strong guy, he’s got speed, and he’s a very responsible player.”
Murray has not yet decided if Gagne, a left wing, will play with center Anze Kopitar or Richards, and probably will not do so until his 2011 training camp is well under way.
“I know Simon Gagne very well,” he said. “If we can keep him on page through the whole year, he’s a player who’s very smart, very intelligent, can check, plays the game the right way, he plays [all] 200 feet [of the ice surface], and he can score.”
“He’s got a nice touch around the net,” he added. “If people start getting him the puck, whether if he plays with Kopitar or Richards, I don’t know yet, but if he gets the puck in the right place, he’s going to score goals.”
For the first time since his arrival in Los Angeles, Murray will have two lines that will force opposing teams to think twice about match ups.
“Now we’ve got two lines that are going to put a little more pressure on the opposition to make decisions,” Murray explained. “‘OK, who do we put our best defensemen out against? Who do we match up our checking center against? How are we going to plan this out?’”
“I think, as we plan it out on paper right now, Kopitar and the line he’s going to have, and Richards, with the line that he’s going to be on, players that they’ll have with them will be able to identify their match up and take advantage of it, hopefully, on any given night, and be the line that can make the difference,” Murray elaborated. “It’s going to make a difference. That’s stuff that we need to get into the detail part of it as we sit down and have some conversations as we get ready for training camp and the start of the year. We’ll be able to answer that a bit better [at that time]. But it definitely does make a difference with the addition of those two players.”
Does having more talent up front mean a change to the Kings’ system and style of play is on tap for 2011-12?
Those hoping for drastic, fundamental changes are out of luck. Indeed, Murray’s Kings will continue to stress defense first.
“The one thing that we all understand is that the better checking teams—the more you check, the more responsible you are, as a player, the more you will have the puck,” Murray explained. “You’re going to get it back faster. That falls right into line with the players we’ve added to our hockey club in Mike Richards and Simon Gagne. Both are very good checkers, both are excellent penalty-killers, they know they have to play the game both ways, and if you work hard going back to your own end to recover pucks, the more often you’ll have it, and you’ll now have an opportunity to attack the other way.”
“It doesn’t change our system or philosophy,” Murray elaborated. “We think we can take more advantage of the opportunities that we’re going to have after we recover pucks, and that fits into our need, obviously, on the five-on-five scoring. We’ve got to find a way to be a more effective offensive hockey club.”
Even though the addition of more talent up front will not change the defense first attitude, there will be a bit of a different look in 2011-12.
“You’ve got a guy like Mike Richards, who’s a power play player, like Gagne is,” said Murray. “Where do we position them? Where do they fit? What’s the power play group going to look like, personnel-wise? It will change things.”
“It’ll change, maybe, the system, a little bit, on the power play,” added Murray. “Hopefully, it’ll change an attitude as far as getting pucks to the net [is concerned]. Both guys are shooters, both guys like to score goals.”
As mentioned earlier, the Kings were absolutely dreadful on the power play last season. But with the addition of Richards and Gagne to the mix, that should change for the better.
“When you put hockey players on the ice that have a real high IQ on the game—I mentioned Kopitar [defensemen Drew] Doughty and [Jack] Johnson (see Terry Murray Dishes On 2010-11 LA Kings’ Offensive Zone, Power Play Struggles)—you’ve got Richards and Gagne now who are very high IQ players,” Murray noted. “You get a basic, fundamental part of the structure set up, as far as what position, and you want to get to that [point where] you’re reading the penalty-kill pressure. If it’s overly aggressive to this part of the ice, then you have to trust your IQ in order to react to it.”
“You want to react,” Murray added. “You don’t want to stand there and start thinking about it too much. Things [need to happen] instinctively off this kind of a read.”
“In saying that, there’s a structure, a system put in place, which doesn’t have to be too far off from where we were last year, as far as basic fundamental set-up [is concerned]. But now, there’s a lot of options that can come off any set-up, and this is the area that we need to identify and get better at. That [follows] what I was saying earlier about movement. Now we need to get some movement, players moving off the puck, the player with the puck moving a little bit more to open up shooting lanes and passing lanes.”
Another addition to the mix, even though he is not expected to provide much in terms of offense, is veteran checking left wing Ethan Moreau, 35, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent to a one-year, $600,000 contract on August 23.
“Ethan Moreau (6-3, 215 pounds, native of Huntsville, Ontario) brings quite a bit to our hockey club,” said Murray. “He’s a player who has played in a checking role his whole career. He’s a very good penalty-killer, special team guy, not necessarily a power play guy, but he’s got a big body.”
“He brings the size and the strength that we lost when [center Michal] Handzus goes to San Jose, and [left wing Alexei] Ponikarovsky goes to Carolina,” added Murray. “Those are two big bodies we’ve taken out of the lineup. Moreau fills that kind of a bill for us.”
Murray is even toying with the idea of putting Moreau out on the power play, as left wing Ryan Smyth and Handzus have moved on—both were generally stationed in front of the opposing goaltender on the power play.
“It would be kind of intriguing to see how that might work [with Moreau in front of the net],” Murray mused. “But the other parts of his game, when I look at his career, he’s been a captain, [alternate] captain, he’s had a letter on his sweater most everywhere he’s been, from Chicago to Edmonton, and he ends up in Columbus last year. That’s incredible leadership, obviously, that’s being brought into our locker room.”
“I have talked to him, I have met with him,” Murray added. “He’s got an analytical mind, and he’s got a good pulse on a team, no doubt about that, when you look at the [captain and alternate captain positions] that he’s had over his career. That’s a character guy. It takes a lot of character to win in this game today. It’s demanding. It’s hard. The competitiveness, coming down to the last game of the year last season for Chicago to get into the playoffs, you need players who commit to the team, and play the team game the right way.”
For the offense to work, Murray will need much-maligned, veteran left wing Dustin Penner to carry his share of the load, as he was a huge disappointment last season after being acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in a trade deadline deal.
This summer, Penner has been hard at work on an off-season conditioning program, and appeared to be in much better physical condition when he spoke with the media in mid-July, having lost at least ten pounds at that time.
Murray, who spoke to Frozen Royalty on August 24, said that Penner has continued to improve his strength and conditioning through off-ice work.
“I think his progress has been real good,” said Murray. “He’s following through with all the commitments he made to us, in the off-ice part of it, throughout the summer. He’s up here three or four times a week, and that’s the way it’s been all summer long, working with the off-ice program.”
“He’s definitely changed,” said Murray. “His conditioning is moving in the right direction. I’m looking forward to seeing what the test results are on the first day of training camp.”
“I need him to be a good player. I want to bring out the talent that he has, and the only way you can bring it out is to be ready to go the first day.”
One thing that many NHL coaches do, especially those at the helm of teams that are not among the better teams in the league, is juggle their forward lines, and, much to the chagrin of many fans, Terry Murray is no exception.
Although one might expect that with the addition of more talent up front would lessen the need to juggle lines, Murray will not hesitate to do so when he is not getting what he needs or expects from his lines.
“As a coach, you’re always going to make adjustments on the fly,” he said. “Believe me when I say this, as a player, and as a coach over the years, I like to see partners play together, I like to see lines stay together. But there has to be a response there, too. There needs to be numbers, there needs to be results put up in order to stay together.”
“If you’re going to be a team that’s satisfied with inconsistent play, then, maybe you leave everything together,” he added. “But I’m not. I want to see good play every night. I want to win every game, every night.”
For Murray, it is all about performing at a high level on a consistent basis.
“Quite honestly, you’re looking for that consistency that the Vancouver Canucks showed through the [2010-11] regular season,” Murray explained. “They performed at a high level, obviously, to win the President’s Trophy. Fifty-plus wins. That’s the consistency that you’re looking for, and it’s nearly impossible, over an 82-game schedule, to get peak performance every night.”
“If a player is not on his game, I’m not trying to say, ‘OK, just because you’re not at peak performance here tonight that you don’t deserve to be on this line,’” Murray elaborated. “But if there’s something noticeable that’s lacking, and someone else is really on top of it, has great jump, and, in particular, it has something to do with your top two lines, then I feel that’s my responsibility, to try to put the right players on the ice at the right time. They’re the ones who are going to make the difference that particular night.”
Indeed, coaches do not juggle lines on a whim.
“[For example], if Dustin Penner’s out with Kopitar, and his game is, maybe the way it was at times at the end of [last season], then I’m not going to deal with that,” said Murray. “I’ll deal with it, but I’m not going to say, ‘you’re staying there, I’m happy, I’m satisfied with that.’ That would be wrong.”
“If I need to make a change on the fly, because it might be in the middle of the first, it might be in the middle of the second period, where a player is really off his game, or runs out of gas, or whatever the situation might be, then, I need to have a meeting [with the player] the next day and talk about it, ‘here’s the reason why I did this,’” added Murray. “We’re out to win games, and it’s a hard thing to do. If you’ve got a half dozen players on top of their game, then those are the guys you might have to go with more often.”
Expectations Are Higher, But Nebulous
Last year, the Kings made their expectations clear heading into the 2010-11 season, stating that they expected to advance to the second round of the playoffs, at least.
This year, expectations are higher.
“I think expectations grow,” said Murray. “You go into the season all the time with new hope. Certainly, with the moves management has made this year brings a lot of hope to our team, a refreshing challenge, and higher expectations. Saying that, we know that it doesn’t just happen. There’s a great amount of work that has to be put in place on the first day of the training camp, and we welcome the work. We’re a hard working team, we’re a gritty team. We take a lot of pride in competing hard every night, so we’re looking forward to the new challenge.”
“With the depth that we have, and the balance that we have now, especially in the forward lines, we match up pretty well,” added Murray. “Teams will have to make decisions, and that’s a good thing. That’s how you step up and meet a challenge, and move up in the standings. That’s how you move deeper into the playoffs. We’re looking forward to that.”
Although the expectations are higher, Murray hemmed and hawed as to exactly what they might be.
“How can we ever sit here and say that [specific goals or expectations]? I watched all the playoffs last year,” Murray noted. “The Boston Bruins, who won the Stanley Cup, went into three, seven-game series situations, and they end up scoring in overtime. I can’t believe that Boston was going to [say], during the summer, that they were going to win the Stanley Cup, even though they were one of the premier teams in the league the year before.”
How can you sit there and say that, coach? How? Easy. After all, you did just that around the same time last summer.
“The expectations always grow when you make the playoffs as fast as we have here as we get things turned around,” Murray said in an exclusive, pre-season interview with Frozen Royalty in early September 2010). “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,” Murray added. “It’s real important for young players, young teams, to have that taste and not continually get pushed back.”
Although Murray was nebulous about exactly what the expectations are heading into 2011-12, he pointed out that the playoff experience from the last two seasons will prove valuable going forward.
“We feel good about the position we’re in when we take a look at our balance, our experience now, and what we’ve gone through the last couple of years of being in the playoffs,” he said. “That’s a critical part of the process. I can tell the players what to expect, but [they] have to go through it and experience it. Now we’ve done that a couple of times, and against two of the best teams in the league, which is a real good thing.”
“We’re just looking forward to it, and we want to meet those expectations,” he added. “Do we have expectations? Yes. Absolutely. Are the players ready to meet the challenge? Sure. Guys are here every day, working out, getting prepared. They know the season that’s in front of us. We’re looking forward to getting deeper into the playoffs. It’s where you want to be. It’s what we work for every year, to get deep [into the playoffs], win, and, eventually, get an opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup. That’s what it’s all about.”
“…We’re looking forward to getting deeper into the playoffs… .” OK, now we’re getting somewhere, even though that is still a bit nebulous.
No matter what Murray says, or doesn’t say, expectations are now higher than they have been since the Gretzky Era (1988-96) and, given the lineup the Kings have, rightly so. But what happens if the Kings blow out a couple of tires on the way and suffer another first round exit from the playoffs, or worse, fail to qualify for the post-season?
One obvious consequence is that Murray’s job would likely be in jeopardy. As such, the pressure is on him like never before since he joined the Kings. But if he is feeling that pressure, he is not admitting it.
“I don’t know if it adds anymore pressure,” said Murray. “The pressure is always on to play the right way, to have a team that’s going to compete every night. That’s what you want. You want to see your young players improve, and that’s the coach’s responsibility—to develop young players, to get them prepared to step up, be good players and meet the challenge of the playoffs.”
“I like where we’re at in that part of it,” added Murray. “I think our development in all of the young players that we were bringing through Manchester, players that have been here with the Kings—look at [left wing Kyle] Clifford, Doughty, Johnson, Kopitar, how his game has come along. It’s right on track.”
“Those are challenges that you face as a coach. Now you want to bring it all together as a team. Our finish, over the past couple of years, has been good. Our play after the All-Star game last year was one of the best in the NHL. We could’ve finished [as high as fourth in the Western Conference]. We’re not going to run away from the challenge. We’re going to meet it head on, and we’re looking forward to getting started.”
Whether Murray is feeling the pressure or not, it is not likely to bother him.
“I always worry about my job,” he said. “Look, I’ve been in this business for so long now—that’s not in the front of your mind. The most important things that you’re focused on are your players, your team, getting everything in place to play the right way.”
“You have to have the confidence to go out and do that every year. We don’t just let it fall where it may. You work hard towards doing things right, playing hard, playing the right way, and being at the right place going into the playoffs. If you can do that, it gives you the best opportunity to win.”
- Los Angeles Kings Head Coach Terry Murray Looks Back At 2010-11 Season
- 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
- 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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