LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — After all but one other player had disappeared from the main dressing room area to shower and change clothes, Los Angeles Kings right wing and team captain Dustin Brown sat dejectedly in his locker, slouched down, probably brooding about his team’s performance, or lack thereof, in a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on December 10, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
This is not a first for Brown, who has been seen doing the exact same thing in seasons past.
But this time, something was different.
Indeed, Brown sat there, unmoving, with the same dejected, disgusted look on his face, for considerably longer than the times I have seen him do that over the past few seasons since he was named as the Kings’ captain.
Sensing that leaving him alone in his thoughts was the wise and appropriate thing to do, especially since the media had already spoken with him, I do not know what was going through his mind. As such, I can only speculate. But an educated guess is that he has had enough of his team not playing the way they are supposed to.
Contrary to popular belief, the Kings’ problems on the ice boil down to execution, as detailed in an earlier story here on Frozen Royalty. In fact, what may not be evident to many is that their problems often start 200 feet from their opponent’s net.
Back in early November, it was already evident that the Kings were losing games and not generating offense when they allowed the gaps between the defensemen and forwards to get too wide on breakout plays, forcing the defensemen to make long clearing passes from their own zone. At the NHL level, such passes are usually broken up, or the defense has time to collapse on the intended recipient of the pass, taking away his time and space at the far blue line.
In those cases, the Kings have no speed on attack, which must be generated in the neutral zone off the breakout. As a result, they cannot carry the puck into the zone. Even if they do get the puck deep, without speed on attack, they either get beaten to the loose puck, or they only get one man in position on the forecheck. That prevents them from recovering the puck, eliminating the possibility of generating offense.
An unnamed NHL scout who sees the Kings regularly confirmed this.
“Generating speed through the neutral zone is critical in today’s NHL,” he said. “But they let their gaps get too wide. There’s no puck support on their breakouts. Without that, they can’t generate that speed.”
“With speed, you’re either going to back the defense off their blue line a bit, maybe enough to allow you to carry the puck into the zone, or you’re going to have a real chance to recover a loose puck dumped into the corner,” he added. “But without that speed, with all the teams lining up four guys across their blue line, there’s no way to carry it in without speed on attack, and even if you dump it in, today’s defensemen skate too well for you to get a forecheck going to get that loose puck.”
As stated in that December 8, 2011 story, the system is not the problem. After all, the Kings are not getting blown out of games, and their defense and goaltending have been sound, overall. To be sure, if the system was the problem, neither would be the case.
Further, head coach Terry Murray does not coach his team to screw up their breakout plays. He does not teach them to be cute with the puck, passing it endlessly without shooting, nor does he teach them to play on the perimeter instead of going to the front of the net to create traffic in front of opposing goaltenders. As such, those blaming him, or his system, need to look elsewhere for something and someone to blame.
To be sure, the players themselves share a great deal of that burden, and their captain admitted it.
“We’re not playing with enough intensity, enough desperation,” said Brown. “We’re a good team, but we’re not playing like one. We need more intensity, more desperation, and that starts with individuals. [No one can] do it alone, but you’ve got to get yourself ready, as a player on this team. Right now, we don’t have enough guys with that desperation in their game.”
Veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi echoed Brown’s comments.
“I think you have to get yourself up, as an individual, to play this game, and you’ve got to be excited to play,” said Scuderi. “You have to want to win. If [you don’t want it], you’re going to get beaten in this league, most nights.”
“You’ve got to make your mind up that you’re not going to get beaten on a loose puck,” added Scuderi. “We have team strategies, and team systems, but if you can’t make your mind up as an individual, you’re not going anywhere as a team.”
But for a team with the talent they have on their roster, the Kings were expected to contend for first place in the Pacific Division, and the top spot in the Western Conference. Nevertheless, even though there is still a lot of time left in the season, and no, the Kings are not hopelessly out of playoff contention, they are certainly heading in the wrong direction at a pretty high rate of speed.
Given that the players are now starting to talk about lacking intensity and desperation, combined with a long-term lack of attention to how they need to play to make their system work, a shake-up is needed to awaken the Kings from their long slumber. A trade or two can often work wonders, and since the Kings need more help up front, if they are considering a trade to bring in a scoring winger, the price will be high—defenseman Jack Johnson and young defenseman Slava Voynov are the only players the Kings can afford to trade for such talent.
For those thinking that the Kings could afford to trade goaltender Jonathan Bernier, consider that number one goalie Jonathan Quick has just one more year on his contract, which pays him $1.8 million per year, becoming eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1, 2014.
If Quick further establishes himself as one of the top netminders in the league, he will command a huge raise, one that is likely to be heavily influenced by the Nashville Predators’ recent signing of goalie Pekka Rinne to a seven-year deal valued at $56 million.
In short, the Kings might not able to afford Quick when his next contract comes up. Given that uncertainty, Bernier is surely not going anywhere for awhile.
A trade invoving Johnson or Voynov would be quite the drastic move, especially with center Mike Richards still sidelined by a concussion. Indeed, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi is not likely to be looking to make that drastic a move. That leaves just one other possibility, leaving Murray as the odd man out—his days with the Kings are numbered, no matter how much of the blame he deserves.
Following the loss to the Stars on December 10, I mentioned on Twitter that the Kings would need to show significant improvement during their current four-game road trip to Boston, Columbus, Detroit and Toronto for Murray to keep his job. But late on December 11, Lisa Dillman reported in the Los Angeles Times that, “…Kings executives are poised to dismiss Coach Terry Murray, hoping to halt a string of disappointing performances… .”
If #lakings don't show improvement on 4-game trip, Murray will be toast, no matter who you want to blame.—
Frozen Royalty (@frozenroyalty) December 11, 2011
As such, it could very well be that by the time the Kings hit the ice for practice today in Boston (they face the Bruins on December 13), Murray will have been replaced.
Regardless of his shaky status, Murray is aware of his team’s issues with intensity and lack of attention to detail.
“I like our team a lot,” he said. “We’ve got good people, and in most every game, we bring the right attitude, with the right compete. But it has to be there for sixty minutes. You have to execute the details. Those things are the difference in games today, because of the parity. Everybody is just so close. The focus you have to have, the attitude you have to have to be ready to go the right way, right from the start, [and] through to the very end.”
“We’re just not [getting off to good] starts, [nor are they paying close enough attention to] those areas of the game, the times in the game that you have to on a consistent basis, and it’s costing us,” he added.
Even though their head coaches’ job hangs in the balance, right over their heads, Brown and Scuderi pointed at themselves (as a team), taking full responsibility.
“I think we have what it takes in this room, regardless of who’s in or out of the lineup,” Brown stressed. “It’s up to the guys in here. This is our team.”
“Guys just need to re-focus,” Brown added. “Like I said, we have a good team. We’ve played good hockey this year. It’s a matter of guys buying in, and doing everything right. It starts with hard work.”
“I truly believe the answer is in here,” said Scuderi. “I’m very optimistic that we’ll come out of it. It’s been a tough stretch, no one’s denying that. As far as if they think a shake-up is necessary, that’s out of our hands.”
“It’s the guys in here who have to make the difference, and who have to make up their minds,” added Scuderi. “If you’re going to live up to expectations, and be a good hockey club, you, as an individual, as a player, when you’re sitting there, that’s where your responsibility is. You have to make that decision.”
In an exclusive interview with Frozen Royalty in early September, Murray talked about the high expectations for his team this season, and the potential consequences, both for the team, and for himself, if they failed to meet them.
“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.”
But Murray’s players are not playing the right way, and no matter whose fault that is, he is a virtual lock to be the one to pay for it, initially, anyway, and that is likely to happen sooner rather than later.
On A Totally Different Note…
On December 9 and 10, the Kings made a young boy’s dream come true.
13-year-old Gabriel Abarca, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, a recessive genetic disease which affects the entire body, causing progressive disability and often early death, was the honored guest at the Toyota Sports Center, the Kings’ practice facility in El Segundo, California.
The Kings and the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Greater Los Angeles, made it all possible for young Gabriel, who was joined by his sister, and his family.
A big fan of the Kings, Gabriel’s wish was to meet center Anze Kopitar. He also wanted to meet the team, watch a game, ride on a Zamboni, meet Bailey, the Kings’ mascot, skate with Kopitar, and have lunch with him.
Gabriel certainly got his wish, as Kopitar and the Kings gave him the royal treatment, both at their practice facility, and at their game against the Stars on December 10.
Gabriel and his sister got to visit with Kopitar in the Kings dressing room in El Segundo, receiving pucks and sticks autographed by Kopitar, along with other gifts from the team (see additional photos below).
“I think it’s great,” Kopitar beamed. “I look back to when I was a kid, hanging around our local team with my Dad around the locker room, was really nice. I got to spend some time with the guys, and, for [Gabriel], I’m sure it was pretty special to come in, meet some of the guys, skating. He’s going to remember this for a long time.”
“I know it’s not easy for him,” Kopitar added. “It’s tough times, but he’s hanging in there. If I met him on the street, I wouldn’t think anything was wrong with him, not that there’s anything wrong. He’s just got a little bump in the road. Hopefully, he’ll get better. He was definitely a trooper out there.”
Raw Audio Interviews From Dallas Stars vs. Los Angeles Kings, December 10, 2011
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Dustin Brown (2:20)
Rob Scuderi (2:23)
Terry Murray (4:38)
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