Here’s a cold, hard fact that anyone who has ever had a job clearly understands: things get messy when someone is fired.
At the end of the day, management decides that it’s best to remove someone from the office because things would be better if someone else was doing their job. Think about how tough that decision can be for management. Think about how tough it can be if you are the person that is being removed. Your employer thinks the office would be a better, more productive place if you weren’t there.
As usual, hockey has a way of mirroring real life. Coaching changes are usually messy. There is no one, magic bullet that explains all of the reasons that a leader was forced onto his own sword. Instead, it’s usually some toxic elixir that combines losses, doubt, unrealized expectations, and underperformance. It’s like asking a player why the team is struggling: if they knew what was wrong, they’d do something to fix it.
Just like in our everyday lives, telling (or hearing) that someone is fired is never easy. Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi explained that things weren’t any easier when he was firing his coach of the past three seasons, Terry Murray: “If this was just a business relationship… we always use the cliche, `This is business.’ But this was more than business. This goes beyond that. It’s always difficult even if you’re using the business approach. There’s a very good man here and nobody likes to be the bearer of this type of news.’’
Again, reality bites.
Why was Terry Murray fired?
It’s pretty simple—the Kings are sitting in 12th place in the Western Conference and they’re the lowest scoring team in the league. People on the opposite coast, in different time zones, and in the 300 level will throw out things like “losing the room” or “needing a new voice.” There are a time and place for each of those arguments when a coach is fired—but now is not the time and Los Angeles is not the place. This season the Kings’ management, fans, and ownership expected to win. And they expected to win a lot. When the wins weren’t piling up like most people thought they should be, it was only a matter of time before changes headed the Kings way.
Dean Lombardi said as much in his conference call:
“…I think it’s safe to say that with the expectations this year it becomes more result orientated. This goes back to—every situation is different and the challenge for a coach as well as players, when you have expectations, it’s driven more to results. It’s harder, at times, to look for those victories within losses. That’s just the state of the franchise right now. You could look for more of those things 3 years ago. But we’re trying to push to the next level. And it isn’t easy.
It’s a lot easier playing with the house’s money… I do think we’re at the stage of the franchise where you’re going to be judged on wins and losses and playoff rounds. And that’s where you strive to be. It’s a lot easier when there are no expectations and with every win you can get a parade. We’re not there right now, so it comes down to wins and losses.”
When a team isn’t performing and the GM feels like a change needs to be made, they have two choices. They can either go out and make a major trade to shake things up or make a head coaching move. With the acquisition of Dustin Penner at the deadline last season, the trade for Mike Richards in the offseason, and the Simon Gagne signing during free agency, the organization has made a commitment to bring in players that are proven scorers to help push the team from “playoff contender” to “Stanley Cup contender.”
When the team was underachieving, Lombardi felt that there was only one way to go.
It’s important to note that Lombardi must believe in the team or he would have made some kind of change to the roster. (No, waiving Ethan Moreau doesn’t count.) But Ducks GM Bob Murray summed it up only a couple of weeks ago in Anaheim when he made the decision to make a coaching change of his own: “If I didn’t believe that they could do it, I would have gone a totally different direction and blown things up and started all over.”
But why? Why have the Kings struggled with this roster this season? Is it the coach’s system? For every fan that complains that the Kings are the worst scoring team in the league, they need to acknowledge the fact that the Kings have been one of the best defensive teams in the league over the last handful of years. This year is no different.
The common line of thinking is that offensive can be effected by systems, but by and large scoring is created by talent. Defense? Defense is primary successful when the team buys into the coaches strategy and gives incredible effort. A guy like Alex Semin can wake up and score 30 goals in his sleep. But to have a team that keeps the puck out of the net for three consecutive years, there needs to be a certain level of heart, dedication, and passion from the players willing to sacrifice for the team. From that point of view, the Kings are as good as they’ve ever been.
Lost his job, but never lost the team
Here’s the tough part for Terry Murray—he hadn’t lost the team. Over and over, we hear about how a coach has “lost the team” and someone new needs to come in to gather the troops with a newfound focus. That’s not the case in the Kings locker room. As early as last week, guys like Kopitar and Williams said they believed that they could come back from a deficit. Confidence is a huge part of today’s NHL; and the team believed that they could make a comeback. That’s not the sign of a team that had lost all hope.
The players have been playing with just as much dedication and passion for Terry Murray than they have for the last three seasons. Players that give up on their coach wouldn’t be willing to make those kinds of sacrifices.
Offensively, on the other hand, the Kings have been a dumpster fire for the better part of two months. Over the last week, the team knew they needed to score more goals and it was obvious that certain guys were gripping their sticks a little tighter than usual. Will coaching change the fates of each and every one of the struggling offensive players? Fans and the GM are betting on it.
But make no mistake about it. The Kings didn’t quit on this coach. The teams focus was always there—even until the bitter end.
I can’t say the same for the coach in Anaheim. That was a case of a team that had tuned out their coach and was ready to hear a new voice. Both Randy Carlyle and Terry Murray are good, successful NHL coaches, but both were fired for different reasons. Even though the losses were piling up for the Ducks, the main reason that Carlyle was fired was because the GM felt that the team had given up on the coach. He wasn’t alone in his assessment.
Some of us were there in the locker room. We were there at practice. We saw the games. We know what a team looks like when they quit on their coach because we just saw it in Anaheim two weeks ago.
Murray this week: “We’re in good shape.”
In Los Angeles, no one around the organization thinks the team quit on the coach. The only problem—and it’s a huge problem—is that they weren’t winning enough. Just last week, I asked Terry Murray how he felt about the team’s performance through the first third of the season with the increased expectations:
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Murray shared. “I think we’re in good shape. We made a lot of changes over the year. We brought in new players, veteran players and it takes them time. We were hoping that Scott Parse would be able to come in and really contribute to the team and that broke down. He’s out and probably done for the year. Penner’s starting to get going; he’s been through a lot through the summer time (and) getting himself to the level that we want. [He’s had] a couple of injuries right from the start—groin injuries and he broke his hand, so there’s a lot of that happening. Doughty comes in late to training camp, or after the training camp, misses the early part. There have been a lot of things, and I think that overall the team’s come through with an incredible amount of confidence. We’re in pretty good shape.”
Unfortunately for Murray, it will be another coach reaping the benefits of all the early season character building. He continued:
“You want to go back through statistics; we’re only a couple of points behind last year’s pace at this time. We’re actually better on the goals against [average] at this time—we’re four less than we were at this time, and we’re fourth in the league in goals against overall this year. Pretty good.”
After the offseason moves (and expenditures) the Kings made this summer, “pretty good” isn’t going to get it done. When a team is shooting for the NHL’s elite at the beginning of the season and they’re swimming in mediocre waters after a third of the season, heads are likely to roll:
“Every franchise, don’t forget, has different levels of expectations,” Lombardi said from Boston. “This team came in with a very high level of expectation, so that puts a different perspective in your room—particularly when you’ve got younger players leading that group. So it’s unique here, in the sense that you have the youngest core in the league and you’re counting on these young players. But again, these established players have to step up here.”
Here’s the part that should be a little more worrisome for fans in Los Angeles. There’s no doubt that the pressure of expectations are weighing on everyone in the organization. But when those pressures start dictating personnel moves that the team normally wouldn’t make—there’s a problem. Firing Terry Murray may very well have been the right move at the right time for the Kings, yet Dean Lombardi repeatedly insisted on Monday that it was a move that he didn’t want to make.
Is it a move in response to the expectations? Or is it a move out of desperation? It’s a difficult question that only Dean Lombardi knows the answer to.
Ultimately, most people around the team believe that the blame for the mediocre start lies at the feet of the 25 men in the locker room. According to reports, the GM blasted the team for forcing his hand with their porous play through 29 games. In a letter to fans, Lombardi said: “I told the players that the coach, who works as hard as any coach I have been around, paid the price and that they are accountable.”
Hard work isn’t the issue right now. The team is working as hard as they’ll work for new coach that may lead the team in the future. Murray admitted only a few days that the team wasn’t executing the simple plays for a full 60 minutes and the mistakes were costing the team. And of course, scoring goals is the biggest issue.
The next step is for the Kings to show that they are, in fact, the team that many people expected when they were making their preseason predictions. Is this the type of team that can make the playoffs, win a few rounds and compete with the Blackhawks, Sharks, Canucks, and Red Wings of the Western Conference? Are they capable of becoming that type of team with a new coach that can squeeze a few more goals out of the collective sticks in that locker room? Well, that’s exactly why Lombardi made the move:
“To answer your question, I think every situation is unique, but why else, in any sport, would you make this change unless you’re hoping for improvement?”
Whoever takes over the reins, the mandate is improvement. A point here, a victory there won’t get it done either. This is a team that is built to win. The boss has spoken and he expects better results—now. Like the office politics that we’re all used to, he thinks the group of individuals will thrive under new leadership. Murray walked the plank for the group’s inefficiency.
Now that he’s gone, it’s up to the rest of the guys to show that things will get better.