FROZEN ROYALTY EXCLUSIVE: In Part 5, the final installment of a series based on an exclusive interview with Los Angeles Kings head coach Terry Murray, he talks about the chances for the Kings’ young prospects, such as center Andrei Loktionov, to make the big club’s opening night roster. He also discusses the loss of some of the Kings’ prospects to European leagues, his team’s goaltenders, and he warns of the return of the neutral zone trap…or a variation thereof.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — With the addition of veteran forwards Simon Gagne and Mike Richards this summer, the Los Angeles Kings have upgraded the talent on their first and second lines. Add to that the signing of veteran left wing Ethan Moreau, who joins centers Jarret Stoll and Brad Richardson up front—the Kings have plenty of veteran talent on their forward lines.
Then you have Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis, Scott Parse, and heavyweight enforcer Kevin Westgarth—these forwards will likely fill out the remaining left and right wing spots on the third and fourth lines.
There is also a yet unknown factor…center Colin Fraser, who was acquired in the trade that sent left wing Ryan Smyth back home to the Edmonton Oilers on June 26 . Even though the Kings have filed a grievance with the National Hockey League, alleging that the Oilers misrepresented his condition at the time of the trade, it is unlikely that any remedy will result in Fraser being returned to the Oilers. As such, it appears that young prospects, such as center Andrei Loktionov, among others, are going to have a fierce battle ahead of them to get ice time, let alone a spot on the Kings’ 2011-12 opening night roster.
Indeed, the Kings do not appear to have any open spots in their lineup. Nevertheless, one can never say never—anything is possible.
“You never say no,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “You don’t know. Young guys improve over their time in Manchester. They’ll come to training camp, and there’s going to be lots of [exhibition] games. Players are going to play. You have to look at where their games are at.”
“There’s always opportunity, so we’ll see where it’s at,” added Murray.
Although Loktionov spent a little time on left wing during a short stint with the Kings last season, he was much better as a center, his natural position. But the Kings are now loaded at center, with Anze Kopitar, Richards, Stoll and Richardson expected to fill the four center spots. Then you have Lewis and, if he ends up with the Kings, Fraser, who are also natural centers.
Murray also noted that Loktionov is better as a center.
“I think he’s a center ice man,” said Murray. “He played pretty good as a winger last year when we asked him to. Obviously, a young player wants to play, and he’ll say, ‘yes coach, I’ll do it.’ But he’s a better center ice man, and when we got him to the middle last year, you could see he was better. He was more confident, more comfortable.”
“[Loktionov is] not going to play [as the third line center],” added Murray. “Stoll—that’s going to be his position. We have Lewis, we have Richardson. Lewis played some right wing last year. We’ll just have to wait and see how this all shakes out through the training camp and as we get through the exhibition games. He’s going to get an opportunity to play.”
True or not, as the head coach, Murray cannot admit that his lineup is pretty much set heading into training camp. Indeed, he cannot afford to have the team’s young prospects thinking there is no hope of making the big club’s roster, no matter what point they may be at in their development.
“I don’t want to rule anybody out, or discourage anybody,” Murray explained. “It’s important that everybody come in hungry and feel that they’re going to get a fair look at making the hockey club, especially when they’re knocking on the door as Loktionov is.”
“He’s close,” Murray elaborated. “There’s no question that he’s going to be a player who plays in the league and a good player.”
“We’ll see where things fall into place. We’ve got lots of players with the deals that have happened during the off-season, new guys coming in, so we’ll see where it’s at.”
Some of the Kings’ prospects, whether it was for more money, impatience, or other reasons, have decided to play in Europe next season, rather than play for the Kings or their primary minor league affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League.
Forwards Corey Elkins (HC Pardubice, Czech League), Oscar Moller and Bud Holloway (both will play for Skellefteå AIK of the Swedish Elite League), have all departed for Europe.
Murray said, flatly, that these young players are not helping themselves in their quest to play in the NHL.
“Players like Oscar [Moller], I don’t get it, personally,” said Murray. “This is just my own feeling, it’s not a reaction from any conversation I had with anybody in the organization. To me, if you want to be a hockey player, and play in the best league in the world, the NHL, those players made a mistake.”
“You’re 22-23 years old, Elkins is a little older at 25,” added Murray. “Bud Holloway’s game, in the last two years in Manchester, has improved dramatically. He’s knocking on the door. Even if you start [the season] in Manchester, with the course of the way things go in a season, he’s right there as a call-up.”
“Oscar played in the playoffs last year. When Stoll got suspended, he played in Game 2 and he played well. To me, I don’t get it.”
In Elkins case, it makes even less sense because he would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency after the 2011-12 season.
“Even with Corey Elkins, he becomes a Group 6 free agent at the end of the year,” Murray noted. “Why would you go [to Europe] when the spotlight is on you? There’s an opportunity with 29 other teams if you don’t feel that your opportunity is here.”
“When you’re young, and you want to play in the NHL, you hang in through the adversity, the grit—it’s a good thing,” Murray added. “You’re going to become a better player if you can deal with all this. Your opportunity will get there. At the young age of 22-23—to me, that’s a move you would make if you were 28, 29 or thirty years old, when you’ve been in the minors through your whole career.”
For A Change, Goaltending Not A Concern
Switching gears from young prospects to established strengths…for the vast majority of the Kings’ 44-year history, their goaltending has been the stuff that jokes are made of, rather than a strength. But last season, Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier showed that they may be the best pair of goaltenders the Kings have ever had.
Indeed going into the 2011-12 season, goaltending seems to be the least of the Kings’ concerns.
“The goaltending is very good,” said Murray. “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.”
“Jonathan Quick, if you go back and break down the [2010-11] season into quarters, the first quarter of the year, you couldn’t ask for anything better,” added Murray. “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.”
Quick got the majority of the starts as the team’s number one netminder, earning a 35-22-3 record, with a 2.24 goals-against average (GAA), a .918 save percentage, and six shutouts in 61 regular season games.
Bernier, who played in 25 regular season games, earning an 11-8-3 record, with a 2.48 GAA, a .913 save percentage and three shutouts, may see a bit more action in 2011-12.
“There will probably be more games there,” said Murray. “I don’t have it planned out as I did last year at this time. Jonathan Quick is our number one goaltender. That’s the way it is coming [into training camp].”
“Bernier, post-All-Star game, his game really improved,” added Murray. “He really stepped up. So it’s going to be exciting here in camp, in exhibition games. We’ll get going at the start of the year, and see where everything is at.”
The Second Coming Of The Neutral Zone Trap?
Last season, the Kings struggled offensively all year long, and that was no different late in the season and in the playoffs. But the reason was not just the absence of star center Anze Kopitar, who suffered a broken right ankle and torn ligaments, and missed the last seven games of the regular season, and all playoff games.
Indeed, late last season and in the playoffs, the Kings often saw opponents drop four or five players back to their blue line, a variation of the neutral zone trap, made famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view), by former New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire, who won the Stanley Cup in 1995 with neutral-zone-trapping Devils.
“The other thing that plays into [the Kings’ offensive struggles] big time, now, in this league, without the red line, you can go back through the playoffs, in almost any series,” Murray explained. “When teams lose possession of the puck, they’ve got four or five guys back on their own blue line. When you have that kind of mentality on the checking part of the game, it is literally impossible to enter [the attacking zone] with possession, and have a good rush attack game. Literally impossible.”
“Vancouver played a one-one-three game,” Murray elaborated. “Dallas, who we played a couple of times near the end of the year, they changed their checking game, dropping five guys back on their blue line. Anaheim—the last two games we played in the regular season, they had no forecheck going whatsoever. If you take a look at that game, they just lined up four across, their first man standing at the red line, center dot, and their other four guys across their blue line. It’s impossible to have any kind of possession/entry game [against that]. Absolutely impossible.”
Murray warned that the neutral zone trap, or a variation of it, is being used by an increasing number of NHL teams.
“That’s where our game is right now,” he lamented. “That’s the one thing, in losing the red line [in determining two-line passes], which has been going on in Europe for years, the old neutral zone trap that the New Jersey Devils were winning with—we knew, when the red line was going to come out, where the trap was going to go to. It was going to go from the red line back to the defensive [team’s] blue line. We knew that, we talked about it, and that’s exactly where the game is at.”
“You watch this year…as more and more teams go to that kind of philosophy when they lose possession,” he added. “There’s going to be less rush/possession game [play] than what there [has been].”
“If you look at the seventh game between Tampa Bay and Boston, as an example. When Tampa had no possession of the puck, where did they go? Their first man was at the red line, they had three guys across their blue line, and their fifth guy? He was at the hashmarks in front of his net, sometimes, he was almost touching the crease. The puck gets dumped in, he goes back and gets it, and rims it off the glass, out to the neutral zone. It’s only going to get harder and harder to score off the attack, and it’s harder to score in the offensive zone because of the shot block mentality.”
Murray is not the only one who has observed the return of the trap.
“…Five players idling in the neutral zone in a 1-3-1 configuration has become more prevalent than the stretch pass,” wrote Darren Eliot of Sports Illustrated, in his “View From The Ice” column (see “Return Of Neutral Zone Sludge,” January 24, 2011). “I even saw up-tempo aficionado Peter Laviolette of the [Philadelphia] Flyers pull all five of his guys into the neutral zone for long stretches recently. And why not? It conserves energy because less skating is involved. Defensive players are getting away with more while moving their feet less.”
“…I’m not blaming the coaches,” added Eliot. “If they can gain an advantage, they have to take it. Guy Boucher is bogging down the ice from blue line to blue line, but he has his Tampa Bay Lightning in first place atop the Southeast Division, and is challenging Laviolette’s Flyers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Boucher’s team gives up the fewest shots on goal in the NHL. His formula works.”
If Murray and Eliot are correct, this is a big, big problem for the NHL in term of growing the game and attracting new fans. After all, many hockey fans will tell you that watching Lemaire’s Devils and Wild teams was often about as entertaining as watching paint dry. Of course, that is an exaggeration, but not by much.
“Why [is the NHL] having all these research and development camps in the summertime? They’re trying to find ways to score,” said Murray. “It’s because of the attitude that’s out there right now, and with the red line being out, you don’t want to get caught with that long transition pass from behind the net to the far blue line, so everybody’s just staying above the puck.”
“With the way the game is set up now, with the five back mentality, you’re going to see it game after game after game.”
- 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
- Terry Murray: Added Talent Up Front Does Not Mean A New Style Of Play Is On The Horizon For LA Kings
- Frozen Royalty Audio: Interview With LA Kings Head Coach Terry Murray, August 24, 2011
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