ANAHEIM AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — Following a 3-2 loss to the struggling Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center in Anaheim on December 6, if you traversed the various web sites, Facebook and Twitter, one would get the distinct feeling that the Los Angeles Kings were already doomed, and that all hope for them to qualify for the playoffs was lost.
But one look at the standings reveals that the Kings are just three points out of first place in their division, and from third place in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference.
Despite that, the sky is falling for many of the Kings’ faithful, who seem to be looking, desperately, for something and someone to blame, and many are blaming head coach Terry Murray and the system he has the Kings playing, which many claim is archaic, and stifles his players’ offensive abilities.
For weeks, there has been a growing cacophony of frustrated fans blaming Murray for everything that ails the Kings, calling for him to be, not just fired, but run out of town on a rail, or worse.
After the December 6 loss at Anaheim, two replacements for Murray were suggested that should leave just about anyone shaking their heads in disbelief…
Former Kings head coaches Barry Melrose and Marc Crawford.
Before going further, please note I do not mean to embarrass or insult anyone, nor do I hold any malice towards those who offered these suggestions. Nevertheless, there are reasons that neither Melrose or Crawford can hold onto a head coaching job.
Indeed, the qualifications of the two are questionable, at best, and that’s being rather generous. In any case, the fact that they were offered as suggested replacements indicates that not only are fans frustrated, but it also shows that a significant number are not looking closely enough at what is going on. Even worse, some may be unable to do so, for whatever reason.
Where this is most evident is in the criticism aimed at Murray because of the system the Kings play, which so many claim inhibits them offensively, stifles their creativity, and promotes a dump-and-chase mentality rather than carrying the puck into the attacking zone.
Kings players don’t see it that way.
“I’m not going to say that’s not true [at all],” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “Terry puts that defensive system in place because that’s what’s working in the NHL right now.”
“I think we have more of a defensive system, so [fans] are right on that part,” added Doughty. “But, at the same time, [the coaching staff is] really pushing the issue on offense.”
“We made some adjustments to [our system], but it’s not really that much different where the change would be [so] significant where it would hurt our scoring,” said center Anze Kopitar.
So what is causing their offensive struggles, which has the Kings ranked dead last in the league, averaging 2.26 goals per game (through games played on December 7)?
Virtually every NHL team has adopted some sort of neutral zone trap, frequently sending one player in on the forecheck, while four players line up across their own blue line.
“All teams are playing it, whether it’s a 1-3-1, or whatever,” Doughty noted. “Everyone’s playing a defensive system, and they create their chances off of turnovers, and that’s what we’re trying to do [on offense].”
Kopitar called it a “neutral zone forecheck.”
“That’s what it is,” said Kopitar. “Everybody’s pulling back. I guess the [New Jersey] Devils played that just before the lockout, and everybody was getting on them. Now, it seems that everyone is doing it.”
“Are we the most offensive team in the league? Probably not,” added Kopitar. “But are we the most defensive team in the league? I don’t know. [The] Tampa [Bay Lightning have] been sitting back [with four or five on their blue line] for quite a bit. Minnesota is sitting back, even Anaheim last night—they were playing 1-4 right from the get-go.”
“I guess that’s where the game is going. It’s more conservative.”
Late last season, Murray noticed the move to line up four players on the blue line, and, in an exclusive interview with Frozen Royalty before training camp, he accurately predicted that this would become a league-wide trend.
“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.”
With the red line no longer a factor when determining two-line passes, teams fear the long clearing pass.
“That’s where our game is right now,” Murray 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]. 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.”
After that story was published on September 4, 2011, many fans claimed that Murray was wrong. They categorically denied that the Kings had ever faced the trap last season, or that it may be coming back into the league. Some even went so far as to accuse him of lying about the trap to cover up his system’s alledged offensive shortcomings.
Fact is, like it or not, Murray was dead-on correct. But it seems that many are either oblivious to that fact, or are unwilling to accept it.
“If you go back to [before the] 2004-05 lockout, the number one scoring team scored 262 goals,” said Murray. “Who was the top scoring team in the NHL last year? Vancouver. How many goals did they score? 262. So, it hasn’t changed much. What has changed is the neutral zone play, which is much tighter. You saw it last night at Anaheim, and we’re seeing it with every team in the league. Everybody’s pulling back to their own blue line, and it’s a very tight structure now in the middle of the ice.”
“It is difficult to have a possession entry, or [even] organized attacks,” added Murray. “You can get organized, but there comes a time when you’re being fronted. Now you have to just get pucks in deep, and go recover them. So it’s hard. It’s hard for everybody in the league right now.”
For the record, the Vancouver Canucks scored 258 regular season goals in 2010-11. But a difference of four goals does not weaken Murray’s point.
Knowing the trap was making a major comeback, Murray adjusted the system, trying to counter it.
“We anticipated, with what we saw at the end of the year last year, a lot of teams starting to go more towards [backing off to] their own blue line,” Murray explained. “So we loosened up that second forechecker to get in faster to help support and recover pucks.”
“If anything, we’re more aggressive on our forecheck this year than we were last year,” Murray elaborated. “We’re really demanding our second support man to come with a lot more speed.”
Kopitar also pointed to his team trying to create more off their forecheck this season.
“The forecheck is definitely more aggressive,” he noted. “It’s just a matter of getting that forecheck [going].”
“Sometimes, we’re just too far apart from each other, [and] you can’t really forecheck aggressively enough, because the defensemen in the league now, from top to bottom, on each and every team, they’re so good at making plays that you really have to be right on them, and stop the puck just to get a chance for [us] to try and retrieve the puck,” he added. “Most of the time, we’re too spread out, and we really can’t get anything going off that. It’s a matter of the forwards coming together, and putting the puck in the right place where we can get it back.”
“If [our] guys are standing on the blue line, it’s pointless to dump [the puck] in, because you can’t get to it before the [opposing] defensemen. You can’t even get close enough to them to interfere with the guy and [create a] turnover.”
Indeed, where the Kings have struggled, the system is not to blame. Instead, look at the trap being used throughout the league, and how the Kings are executing against it.
As Kopitar noted above, support on the forecheck has been a problem of late. But Murray indicated that his team is improving in that area.
“We’re getting our share of pucks in the offensive zone,” said Murray. “The one thing that’s starting to come is moving our feet when we get possession, to create some time and space for passing lanes.”
“Puck recovery is huge, and when you do get the puck, have the confidence and composure to hold onto the puck and move your feet,” added Murray. “The longer you can have the puck on your stick whenever you’ve recovered it in the offensive zone, and I don’t mean [like] Peter Forsberg. He could hold onto the puck for thirty or forty seconds in the offensive zone by himself. The more you can have it on your stick—five or six seconds—moving your feet, that creates lanes, creates options, and it gets people away from the puck open. It gives them time to get into new positions.”
“For a stretch here, I think we’ve been getting the puck and making a play in less than two seconds. Like it’s got to happen right now. That’s not the right kind of mentality, [but] We’re starting to see that change. We’re starting to see guys with more composure, holding onto the puck, moving their feet, and getting open. That buys time for the forwards, and it loosens things up for your top end, and now you can get pucks through from the blue line.”
Breaking out of their own zone against the Ducks on December 6 provided another example of the Kings not executing on some shifts.
“We pull the puck back, and they [drop four back to their blue line], pulling the puck back is probably not the best idea,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown.
“[The Ducks] did a good job in the first [period], being over the top of us,” said center Jarret Stoll. “Right from the first shift, I noticed that it was going to be tough getting through the neutral zone. We just had to chip pucks in.”
“They had that 1-4, like a lot of teams do nowadays,” added Stoll. “You’ve just got to tip pucks in with support. If you don’t have support, then it’s an easy breakout [going the other way].”
For the Kings to create offense, their forecheck has to be effective.
“I think we did it a couple of times, where we [move the puck up ice quickly] with speed,” Brown noted. “[When] you make a team like [the Ducks] skate backwards into their zone—we started [to force turnovers]. In the third period, we got some pucks back, and it was the result of getting in behind them, and pressuring the puck.”
Poor spacing on the forecheck and on breakout plays are examples of the players failing to execute their game plan. Another is getting too cute with the puck, constantly looking for the extra pass, and passing up golden opportunities to shoot and score.
“When you’re getting pucks to the net, and getting some pressure on them, they feel it, and the momentum turns in our favor,” said Doughty. “If we can continue to do that, teams will panic, and we’ll be able to capitalize on our scoring chances.”
“Terry’s always harping on it, as are all the coaches,” added Doughty. “But, as players, we know that we have to get pucks to the net. If we don’t, nothing’s going to go in. We’re definitely harping on each and every one of us to do that more often.”
Another problem has been slow starts.
“I don’t really have a reason that we come out slow, but it’s something we’ve got to fix,” Doughty emphasized. “The first period is such an important part of the game. It can show the outcome of a game. If a team is really dominating the first period, [chances are], they’re going to dominate in the second and the third periods, unless the other team really starts pushing back.”
“We have to take ownership, each and every one of us, get prepared, mentally and physically,” Doughty added. “If we do that, we have no excuse but to play well in the first period, and play the right style of game.”
The Kings are working on some other things to generate more offense.
“We’re working on a lot of things off the rush in practice every day to try and help our scoring,” said Doughty. “So, I wouldn’t say that [our] system has anything to do with us not creating offense.”
But execution of the existing game plan is what they need most to generate more scoring.
“We’ve just got to create chances and bear down on’em,” Kopitar stressed. “It’s not rocket science. We’ve got to get [the puck into] the areas where goals are scored, in front of the net, around the net. We’ve got to get some good bounces in there, too, once in awhile. That’s going to help us get some more wins.”
“We’ve got the players to do it,” said Brown. “We’ve just got to find ways. We’ve got to get more pucks to the net, get around the net. We don’t have enough guys staying in and around the net right now.”
Contrary to popular belief, players share a large part of the burden…or blame.
“It is pretty much up to [the players],” Doughty stressed. “We all in the NHL for a reason, because we have the capability to make plays. All of our offensive guys need to pick it up, and find ways to create chances.”
“I think we’ve done a lot better lately, but we still have a lot of room for improvement,” Doughty added.
“You can call it execution, support, or whatever you want to call it,” said Kopitar. “The bottom line is we’ve got to do it.”
As noted earlier, although the Kings are struggling to score goals and to win games, they are just three points out of first place in their division, and from third place in their conference.
In other words, and again, contrary to popular belief, the sky is not falling.
“If you take a look, and go back through statistics, we’re only a couple of points behind last year’s pace at this time,” said Murray. “We’re actually better in goals against [than they were last season] at this time. We’re four less than what we were last year at this time, and we’re fourth in the league in goals against this year.”
“The area we need to be better at is what we’ve been talking about, the offensive part of the game. Statistically five-on-five, we want to get that number higher. We’ll keep pushing it.”
Terry Murray may not be the coach who can take the Kings to the Promised Land—a Stanley Cup championship, something I wrote back when he was hired, based on his previous record. Nevertheless, calls for his termination are still rather premature.
Stick tap to Dennis Bernstein of The Fourth Period for “contributing” to this story.
Raw Audio Interviews From Los Angeles Kings vs. Anaheim Ducks, December 6, 2011
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Dustin Brown (2:06)
Jarret Stoll (2:06)
Terry Murray (3:44)
Raw Audio Interviews From Los Angeles Kings practice, December 7, 2011
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed):
Drew Doughty (4:39)
Dustin Penner (2:12)
Anze Kopitar (3:47)
Terry Murray (14:00)
Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming games against the Washington Capitals (January 9, 2012, 7:30 PM – Capitals vs. Kings), the Dallas Stars (January 12, 7:30 PM – Stars vs. Kings), as well as for other games on their schedule, are available from Barry’s Tickets, an official partner of the Los Angeles Kings. Use the code, “Royalty010” to get a 10 percent discount on their “Best Value” tickets.
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