LA KINGS HISTORY: Selecting defenseman Larry Murphy in the first round on the 1980 National Hockey League Entry Draft was a momentous occasion for the Los Angeles Kings. After all, they had a long history of trading away their first round picks and drafting poorly. But Murphy went on to become a star in the NHL, and a four-time Stanley Cup winner. The only problem, from a Kings perspective, was that, like so many others, Murphy went elsewhere to do it.
In the final installment of this series, Frozen Royalty spoke to Murphy about his time with the Kings, the friction with the coaching staff that started his problems with the team, and why he had to leave, a story that probably isn’t what you might expect.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — Defenseman Larry Murphy burst onto the scene with the Los Angeles Kings in the 1980-81 season, making a huge, immediate impact, scoring 16 goals and adding 60 assists for 76 points in 80 games in his rookie season—he finished second in the Calder Memorial Trophy (rookie of the year) to the legendary Peter Stastny that season.
Murphy scored 22 goals and tallied 44 assists for 66 points in the 1981-82 season, followed by 14 goals and 48 assists for 62 points in the 1982-83 season.
As reported in part 1 of this series, Murphy was the Kings’ first true (notable) offensive defenseman. It was obvious right from the start that he would become a star in the National Hockey League, one of the best defensemen in the history of the league. But like so many other former Kings, Murphy would go on to become a huge star elsewhere, making his mark with other teams, winning the Stanley Cup twice with the Pittsburgh Penguins and twice more with the Detroit Red Wings. In 2004, three years after his retirement, Murphy was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
To be sure, the Kings let another big star get away. But after winning two Stanley Cup Championships in the last three years, it is easy to forget the utter disaster that the vast majority of the franchise’s history has been. In fact, aside from their recent success since Dean Lombardi took over as President/General Manager in April 2006, the history of the Kings is littered with player personnel decisions that turned out to be blunders of astronomical proportions.
Tremendous mistakes were made on and off the ice, but one only has to look at some of the Kings trades over the years to illustrate just how bad those errors were.
March 10, 1980: Traded their first round pick in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Jerry Korab. The Sabres used that pick to select future All-Star defenseman Phil Housley, one of the best United States-born players ever to play the game.
March 10, 1981: Sent a third round pick in the 1981 NHL Draft and a first round pick in the 1983 NHL Draft to Buffalo in exchange for Rick Martin, who could barely walk upon arrival in Los Angeles. Martin played only four games for the Kings before being forced to retire because his knees and back were in such bad shape. Adding insult to injury, the Sabres used the 1983 first round pick to select goaltender Tom Barrasso, who was eventually traded to the Penguins. Barrasso went on to backstop the Penguins to two Stanley Cup Championships in 1990-91 and 1991-92.
September 9, 1983: Traded the rights to Kevin Stevens to Pittsburgh in exchange for Anders Hakansson. Stevens went on to become a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins in 1990-91 and 1991-92, while Hakansson had an unremarkable six-year career in the NHL, and was forgotten almost immediately after it ended.
Those are just a few of the horrific trades made by the Kings during their 47-year history. To further illustrate, as reported in this space in January 2009, the Kings “…traded away the likes of Billy Smith, Alexei Zhitnik, Kimmo Timonen, Olli Jokinen—all homegrown players who they gave up on sooner rather than later, and then watched as they went on to become stars elsewhere.”
The Kings were also a miserable failure in the NHL Entry Draft, trading away their high-round draft picks year after year after year. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979, twelve years after the Kings entered the NHL, that their first first round pick played for them.
“I could go into the whole philosophy, but I love reading history and I think that’s the way you learn,” Lombardi said in September 2008. “I’ve just been fascinated [by the Kings history]. It was one of the issues when I decided to come here—why there’s never been a [Stanley] Cup, and then when I got here I talked to people like [Philadelphia Flyers’ Senior Vice President] Bobby Clarke about where that identity comes from. I talked to some of the old [New York] Islanders like Bill Torrey. I just started studying it and I was shocked that the first first-round pick to play for the Kings was [defenseman] Jay Wells, and that’s twelve years after the first draft [for the Kings]. That’s unbelievable. Unprecedented.”
Add to that the fact that since the Kings first season in 1967-68, only 29 players who they drafted and developed have played for them and have contributed significantly, it is easy to see that Kings were, simply put, a comedy of errors for a long, long time, and that’s putting it mildly.
But wait…it gets worse.
Bad Coaches Started The Downhill Slide
Back in 1980, the Kings actually held onto their first round pick in that year’s draft—it was only the fifth time in franchise history up to that point in which they retained their first round pick. They used that pick (fourth overall) to select Murphy.
As reported earlier, Murphy had a great rookie season, but after head coach Bob Berry was fired on May 22, 1981, friction developed between Murphy and the coaching staff.
Replacing Berry was Parker MacDonald, who served as head coach for about six months until Don Perry was hired on January 11, 1982.
Both MacDonald, and especially Perry, expected Murphy to play a much more physical game than he had ever played before, something that was never part of his game.
“He was such a laid back person, and that’s the way he played,” said former Kings left wing Charlie Simmer, a member of the famed Triple Crown Line with Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor. “He was misunderstood. He was a bigger guy, and that was the era of fighting, the Broad Street Bullies [Philadelphia Flyers] and the Big, Bad Bruins [Boston Bruins].”
“They were always trying to get him into that type of mode, but that’s not him,” added Simmer, who played with Murphy throughout the time Murphy was with the Kings. “His game, as we saw through his whole career, was a point-getting, calm defenseman. He didn’t change, other than he just got better and better with confidence and experience.”
Rather than adapt their coaching style and tactics to the players on the roster, MacDonald, and especially Perry, stubbornly and foolishly forced their players into a particular mold and style of play, which included more hitting and fighting. This proved to be a huge mistake, especially with a player of Murphy’s caliber.
“The key for a player is to be effective,” Murphy noted. “There are different ways to skin a cat, right? When Bob Berry was here, that was not the case. He had patience. He expected me to play well in my own zone, be responsible, and cover my man. If I did that, if I was effective, defensively, that’s all he wanted.”
“Different guys bring different things to the table, but it’s consistent throughout the lineup,” Murphy added. “You expect everybody to be able to cover their man, move the puck, don’t give it away, be smart. Beyond that, guys have different ways to be [effective and contribute]. Good coaches see that, and they utilize guys that way. Poor coaches are guys who put you into a mold. Things got crazy here in that sense, and that’s not how I was going to be an effective player out there.”
“Good coaches demand a level of smart play. But they let the player achieve it by utilizing their best skills.”
After 21 NHL seasons, four Stanley Cup Championships and induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Murphy has been vindicated many, many times over.
“Coaches wanted to see him be a little bit more [physical], but that was probably earlier in his career, before they saw how truly effective he could be without it,” said former Kings right wing Jim Fox, now the team’s television color commentator. “Once they saw that, that went away, and they let him play his game.”
“The results speak for themselves, that [physical play and fighting] didn’t need to be part of his game,” added Fox, who was also drafted by the Kings in the first round (tenth overall) of the 1980 NHL Entry Draft, and is ninth on their all-time scoring list. “As we take it to the next era, and Larry ended up playing with him, Nicklas Lidstrom. Not physical, never dropped his gloves. But you’re talking about a generational player. Larry, under the radar, did the same type of thing.”
To be sure, neither MacDonald or Perry were considered to be good coaches around the NHL. To illustrate, their brief stints with the Kings were their only NHL coaching jobs.
“My first year with was Bob Berry,” said Murphy. “He was an excellent coach. It was a big mistake to let him go. Even though we lost in the first round of the [1980-81] playoffs [to the New York Rangers], after Bob left, the coaching went down hill, and the team went downhill with it.”
“I think back to my time here, if Bob had stayed, and if the team had kept on the same course, how high would we have reached, instead of the turmoil that it turned into after he left? That was disappointing,” added Murphy. “What’s sad about it was that we had something, and then we went back to square one. That’s my biggest regret.”
Plain and simple, back then, the Kings were nowhere close to being a shining example of an NHL franchise, the exact opposite of how they operate today.
“Look at how well the organization is run today, from top to bottom,” Murphy said. “It’s by no fluke that this team has won two Stanley Cups. It’s a well-run organization.”
“You win with well-run organizations,” Murphy added. “I played in Detroit, another well-run organization. They’ve won a bunch of Cups for the same reason. You need that to be in place to have success.”
Not Just Another Bad Trade
In addition to the horrendous trades mentioned earlier, what is arguably one of the most lopsided trades in Kings and NHL history came on October 18, 1983, when the Kings sent Murphy to the Washington Capitals in exchange for defensemen Brian Engblom (now a color commenator for NBC Sports/NBCSN) and Ken Houston.
Engblom was a defensive defenseman who won the Stanley Cup three times with the Montreal Canadiens, but was never one of the Canadiens’ top players. By the time he was traded to the Capitals (1982-83), he was on the downside of his career.
Houston put up good offensive numbers with the Atlanta Flames and after they moved to Calgary, the Calgary Flames. He had another good season after being traded to the Capitals, but it was all downhill after that. In fact, after the trade to the Kings, Houston played in just 33 games with the Kings before retiring.
In short, neither Engblom or Houston, or even the combination of the two, came anywhere close to the value of a player of Murphy’s caliber. But as lopsided as the trade was, unlike most bad trades the Kings have made throughout their history, this time, they had little choice.
“I went to salary arbitration, and this was when salary arbitration wasn’t well-defined,” Murphy explained. “It was in its infancy. My agent went in with a number and [former Kings general manager] George Maguire went in with a number. We had a hearing, and we presented our case, then George presented his. But the arbitrator came back with a number that was even less than what George was offering, so I told George, ‘I’m not signing for that. Trade me.’ So George said, ‘OK,’ and I was traded the next day, or maybe two days later, something like that—I was traded right away, and when I got to Washington, I signed a new contract the day I got there.”
Fox’s new contract was also up for arbitration, at that time.
“There were some flaws in the arbitration system,” said Fox. “I went to arbitration after my first contract, which was three years, and Larry did, also. That was very rare back then. Hardly anyone did that. That clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement—I don’t think anyone knew about it.”
“The ruling [in Murphy’s case] was outrageous,” added Fox. “If that happened nowadays, the head of the players association would be fired immediately. I started the season without the ruling being given, and so did Larry. That just shows you how flawed the system was back then.”
Even with the flawed system, Murphy said that he would have accepted the decision if the arbitrator’s ruling matched Maguire’s offer.
“I would’ve understood if the arbitrator said that George’s case was strong, that’s the number we’re going to give you,” Murphy noted. “I would’ve been happy to live with that. But for less? It would’ve burned my [rear end] all year long. If we lost [in arbitration], we lost. But for the arbitrator to slap us in the face like he did? There was no way. I just couldn’t do it.”
“George went in with what he felt was honest,” Murphy added. “He believed in what he thought, and we believed in what we thought. That’s what usually happens in arbitration. Sure, both sides are going to lean towards [their position]. But to have that happen, it was a shock. We got no explanation about where he got his number from. There were no comparisons. No one was making that amount of money.”
“I was very disappointed. I loved playing here. Washington was a good experience for me, and we had a strong team there, so it worked out well. But the day I was traded? I was bummed, because as rough as things were here, I always felt that things were going to get better, that the team was going to be better, and I wanted to be part of it.”
In the end, Murphy wanted to stay, but thanks to a flawed arbitration system, not to mention an obviously flawed arbitrator, Murphy and the Kings were forced to part ways.
“[The salary arbitration system] had to grow a lot, and I think Larry got caught in one of those types of situations where the business part of hockey made it necessary for him to go somewhere else,” said Fox.
“[Murphy] was a fun guy,” said Kings retired head athletic trainer Pete Demers. “I was sad to see him go, and look at the career he had. We all know what a wonderful, productive Hall of Fame career Larry had after he left the Kings, and it’s no secret that given more time, Larry would develop into, not just a good player, but a great player, an asset to every team he played on.”
Onward and Upward
After they traded for Murphy, the Capitals had no qualms about signing him to a contract.
“We worked on a contract right after the trade, and I signed it,” he said.
Murphy played six solid seasons with the Capitals before moving on to the Minnesota North Stars. But he took what would be his biggest step forward, at that point in his career, after being traded to the Penguins midway through the 1990-91 season.
Murphy would help the Penguins win the Stanley Cup that year, and help lead them to another Stanley Cup win the following season. He went on to play three more seasons with the Penguins, followed by two seasons with the Maple Leafs, who traded Murphy to the Red Wings at the trade deadline in the 1996-97 season.
Murphy would be one of the final pieces of the puzzle that put the Red Wings over the top, helping them win the 1997 Stanley Cup Championship. The Red Wings would repeat as Stanley Cup Champions in 1997-98.
“Timing is everything,” said Murphy. “The interesting thing was when I got traded from Toronto to Detroit, I had a no-trade clause. I wasn’t aware of anything going on, but I got the call at 2:45 PM, and I had a clause in my contract stating that I had to waive the no-trade clause by 3:00 PM [Eastern time on the day of the trade deadline] in order for them to make the deal.”
“What if I was off somewhere, without access to a phone? The deal would never have happened,” added Murphy. “I think about that all the time. It would’ve been a huge, missed opportunity for me, but it worked out well. I had a good run in Detroit. Fate made the difference there.”
Murphy reminisced about winning the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings and Penguins.
“Two very comparable teams, Detroit and Pittsburgh,” he recalled. “Puck control. We had the great Bob Johnson [as head coach for his first Stanley Cup] in Pittsburgh, and then I played for [legendary head coach] Scotty Bowman, and he was the same way—puck control. If you have the puck more than the opposition, you’re going to win. Of course, there was more to it than that, but he wanted us to have the puck. That’s the way the game should be played. You’ve got to have control of the puck.”
“We had great teams in both cities,” he added. “I was very fortunate to be there at the right times. We had a lot of depth, long before the days of the salary cap.”
Read Part 1 Of The Larry Murphy Series
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