In the end, it really wasn’t about “system’’ with Terry Murray. Almost any system, delivered from the right coach in the right way, can have success. Players wearing sneakers, using brooms instead of sticks? Well, maybe not, but find the right coach to make the players believe in a system, and it will work. Murray’s system in 2008 looked the same as it did in 2011, and if anything, it got less defensively restrictive.
So while it’s certainly a cliche´ to say the players “tuned out’’ a coach, that doesn’t mean it’s always inaccurate. Upon Murray’s arrival in 2008, the Kings badly needed discipline and structure. In Marc Crawford’s final season, the Kings ranked 14th in goals per game and 28th in goals against. To be fair, Crawford didn’t have a lot to work with, but Crawford’s ability to nurture and guide younger players was also called into doubt, and bringing in the experienced, stately Murray was seen as a move that would greatly improve the Kings’ defense and help bring along the younger players, at a time when the Kings were starting to hand control of the locker room to players such as Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar. Crawford often yelled at players; Murray would talk to them, teach them.
For a while, it worked. Players bought in and the Kings steadily improved. By the end of Murray’s second season had a young core of talent, including Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty, and a trip to the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Then slowly, perhaps even at a glacial rate, it started to slip. Be careful, also, not to drop all of this on Murray’s shoulders. Players should bear a huge responsibility. Even if they have “tuned out’’ a coach, they’re still well-paid professionals who should be giving a full effort under any circumstances. Don’t let Lombardi off the hook, either. Is it possible that some of his recent acquisitions — Simon Gagne and Dustin Penner, at a combined $7.75 million? — deserve a bigger share of the blame?
Ultimately, though, Lombardi wasn’t going to fire himself and there’s only so many in-season roster changes that can be made, so it’s usually the coach who takes the fall. Even if you’re all-in with the idea that players “tuned out’’ Murray, it’s still tough to know when that shark has been jumped. When, exactly, did the players “tune out”? All at once, or one by one? To what extent? That’s only known internally, and it’s never expressed publicly. In the end, though, when a team looks stale and isn’t winning at the expected rate, the coach will take the fall. Some of the criticism of Murray is short-sighted. Blaming him for Matt Moulson’s lack of development? Moulson was in the Kings’ system for three seasons. Moulson spent exactly 24 regular-season days (seven games) playing under Murray, much of which was spent on the first line, before he was assigned back to Manchester by Lombardi.
On the other hand, there’s often a reason why the shelf life for coaches isn’t long these days. Motivating players in today’s game isn’t the same as it used to be, and the right touch must be used. For those who read my interview with Lombardi a few days ago, it’s what I was trying to determine. Were the Kings’ problems “micro’’ or “macro’’? Did they have a dozen different problems, or just one big problem, meaning that the collective attitude in the locker room was wrong? It was ironic that, on his last day on the job, Murray talked about the need for the Kings to avoid “robotic’’ play. Too often this season, that’s exactly what it looked like on the ice. And again, even after watching the Kings for the entire season, I still can’t say, with confidence, who deserves the bulk of the blame for that. The GM, for perhaps building the wrong team? The coach, for not getting through to players? Or the players, for ultimately not being accountable for themselves? There are many different opinions, but only one end result: a new coach.
Just thought I’d share some thoughts. Nothing earth-shattering or even particularly insightful, maybe. The Kings are scheduled for an 11:30 a.m. (local time) morning skate today. Should be an interesting day.