LOS ANGELES — With his team failing to live up to lofty, but well-deserved expectations, Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi made the move that has been all but expected since late Sunday night.
On Monday, he fired head coach Terry Murray, and named assistant coach John Stevens as interim head coach.
Murray, 61, earned a 139-106-30 regular season record with the Kings after joining the team in 2008-09. He ranks third in franchise history in wins, fourth in games coached, and first in winning percentage (.560). He also reached the 100-win mark faster than any head coach in team history, and his 2009-10 and 2010-11 teams tied the franchise record for most wins in a season (46).
In his head coaching career with the Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers, and the Kings, Murray earned a 499-383-130 record, and ranks 17th all-time in National Hockey League history in wins, and is 19th all-time in games coached.
But none of that could save him on Monday, when Lombardi flew to Boston to give him the news.
“We reached the [point] where we had to make this decision [on Sunday],” said Lombardi. “I flew out early this morning, and went right to Murph’s room. I guess it was around 4:00 PM [EST]. I don’t think words can ever describe how hard something like this is. You’re talking about a really good man.”
“It wasn’t easy for both of us,” added Lombardi. “I have such respect for him as a man—if this was just a business relationship, and we always use the cliche, ‘it’s business.’ Well, this was more than business. This goes beyond that. It’s always difficult, even if you’re just using a business approach. But there’s a very good man here, and nobody likes to be the bearer of this type of news.”
Even though he had just dismissed him, Lombardi praised Murray, saying that the players would value his teachings now, and down the road.
“As far as being a coach, when you look at what he’s done for us, he really stabilized this franchise, and pointed it in the right direction,” Lombardi noted. “He taught these players a lot. When they look back, they’re going to realize that they learned a lot from him. The team got younger and better under him. He did a lot for this franchise.”
“This was one of the hardest working coaches that I’ve ever been exposed to, in terms of his commitment to the game, and always searching for ways to get better,” Lombardi added. “The other thing, too, is that, even last year, we had some sketchy periods, as we certainly have had this year. But again, the expectations for this year are even higher, so it gets dicier. But he never quit. That’s not his nature.”
“Like every coach, he gets frustrated. But his work ethic and focus never changed. Right up to having to meet with him today—these are never pleasant, but this one was particularly hard, given the man he is, and knowing how hard he tried. He wouldn’t have stopped trying.”
But with a lineup that should be contending for first place in the Western Conference this season, but is coming up well short so far, a shake-up was needed, and it was not going to come from a trade, at least, not yet.
Indeed, as it usually happens, the head coach is the one to take the fall, no matter how much of the blame he deserves.
As reported in recent stories here on Frozen Royalty, much of the Kings’ problems this season have been in how they execute, or fail to execute, their game plan, and that they certainly aren’t coached to fail, in any regard (see Los Angeles Kings: Players Counter Claims That System, Coach Stifle Offense and Terry Murray Likely To Take Fall Soon For LA Kings’ Failures, No Matter Whose Fault It Is).
As such, the vast majority of the responsibility for the team’s failings to this point in the 2011-12 season lies with the players.
Before speaking to the media, Lombardi reportedly blasted his players loudly during a closed door meeting.
“It’s simple,” said Lombardi. “It sounds cliche, but it’s true. Ultimately, the message is that they’re accountable. Unfortunately, the coach has to pay the price. But make no mistake. They’re the ones who are accountable for this.”
Lombardi also stressed that it is not just a matter of young players like Drew Doughty or Jack Johnson not raising their level of play to expected levels. Rather, the veterans get at least as much of the blame, if not more.
“In the end, it still comes down to the player getting his focus, and being the best he can be,” Lombardi explained. “With young players today, it’s a challenge. But I don’t think it’s just the young players. I think it’s been right across the board, so I’m not just pinning [this on the younger players].”
“They are trying to reach their potential, and there’s always stumbling blocks along the road to reaching their utmost,” Lombardi elaborated. “But then you have players with a specific [mode of operation], and have had a certain level of success in this league—I know players who have established themselves are going to have ups and downs, but they should be in the neighborhood of what they have done in the past. I don’t think we have any guys we consider to be old, or on the down side, so, it’s collective.”
“I’ve been through this before. I saw it with [the San Jose Sharks in Patrick] Marleau, [Brad] Stuart, [and Evgeni] Nabokov, but it’s across the board here. You can’t just say it’s the young players. [Jarret] Stoll, [Justin] Williams, [Matt] Greene—all these guys—[Dustin] Brown. They certainly have to look at themselves as much as the younger players.”
Lombardi called on his veteran players to take charge.
“It’s possible [to turn things around],” he said. “But, in the end, it comes down to the players. I don’t think you’re going to do this unless you think you’re going to get some improvement.”
“It’s unique here, in that you’ve got the youngest core in the league, and you’re counting on these young players,” he added. “But again, the veterans, the established players, have to step up here. But why else, in any sport, would you make this type of change [if you’re not] hoping for improvement?”
Lombardi also noted that the Kings can no longer be as patient as they have been in recent years, now that they are expected to contend for the top spot in the Western Conference and go deeper into the playoffs.
“With the expectations this year, it all becomes more results-oriented,” he stressed. “So it’s harder [now] to look for those victories within losses, and that’s just the state of the franchise right now. You can look for more of those things three years ago, but we’re trying to push to that next level, and it isn’t easy. It’s lot easier playing with the house’s money.”
“I do think we’re at the stage where you’re going to be judged on wins and losses, and playoff rounds,” he added. “That’s what you always strive for. It’s a lot easier when there’s no expectations. But we’re not there right now. Again, it comes down to wins and losses.”
As for Murray’s permanent replacement, one name being mentioned more than any other is Darryl Sutter, most recently, the former head coach and, later, general manager of the Calgary Flames.
Sutter has a strong connection with Lombardi, having coached the Sharks while Lombardi was their general manager.
When asked about the search for a replacement, Lombardi had little to say.
“There’s no timetable,” said Lombardi. “We’re looking at all of our options. It’s fair to say that when you’re in this situation, there’s a very short list. The other thing is that because you’re with your team right in the middle of the fray, you think you have a decent idea of what you think might do it, so the list is pretty short.”
Lombardi Feeling The Heat
With expectations so high this season, no one expected the Kings to be where they are in the standings. To be sure, not only are they supposed to be a winning team, but they are expected to contend for the top spot in the Western Conference, and reach the conference finals, or, at the very least, go down fighting in a lengthy, hard-fought second round playoff series.
Lombardi is undoubtedly taking some heat from above, and this decision just might have been dictated by ownership, even though there has been nothing confirmed towards that end.
Regardless, the pressure from above is palpable, placing tremendous weight on Lombardi’s shoulders regarding Murray’s replacement. After all, the Kings’ next head coach will be tasked with not only righting the ship, but somehow, getting them onto a winning pace that will allow them to attain, at the very least, their post-season goals.
At this point in the season, those goals are not yet out of reach, another reason the move was made sooner rather than later. But, as Lombardi alluded to, no matter who becomes the next head coach, the responsibility still lies primarily with the players, and their excuse just went home to Maine.
Back to Sutter…is he the right candidate? Given that he is another old school NHL coach, he may not be what the Kings need, especially if a dramatically different voice or message is what’s missing.
Perhaps they should look elsewhere.
On A Personal Note…
As some of my colleagues in the local media covering the Los Angeles Kings have expressed, I must also say thank you to Terry Murray for being so accomodating and so generous with his time, despite having such a busy schedule.
Like every NHL head coach, he did his share of using the media to send messages to his players, or anyone else, for that matter. But he was never blatant or arrogant about it, unlike his predecessor, Marc Crawford, who never failed to walk into a post-game media scrum without a message for his players, pushing hard to get his message on radio, television and in print, even if he was not actually answering the questions being asked. Indeed, he proved many times over that answering our questions was not something he was very concerned about.
To his credit, that was something Murray never did during his tenure with the Kings. Unlike Crawford, he treated us with respect, rather than hidden disdain. For that, thank you Terry, and best wishes down the road.
Raw Audio Interview: Telephone Press Conference Call With Dean Lombardi, December 12, 2011
(12:36; Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
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