LOS ANGELES — Having lost nine out of their last eleven games, the Los Angeles Kings are hurtling into an all-to-familiar abyss, one where they get an early summer vacation while the good teams continue on to the National Hockey League’s second season, the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Oh…by the way, the Kings have only been invited to the post-season party twice in the last decade, making it out of the first round in 2002.
With no end in sight to their free fall, and with the Kings facing a brutal February schedule with ten straight games away from Staples Center in Los Angeles, the odds of the media writing an obituary for the 2010-11 Kings by the first week of March are very, very good.
To think, all this comes after a 101-point regular season in 2009-10, and their first playoff appearance since 2002.
To be sure, expectations were higher for this season, with management and the coaching staff expecting their team to not only make the playoffs, but also do some damage once there.
That is quickly becoming a pipe dream. Of course, there is still a lot of hockey left to be played this season, and with the Western Conference standings still very close, the Kings are, by no means, out of contention. Nevertheless, the players are going to have to turn things around on their own.
Indeed, help does not appear to be coming from the front office, at least for the time being, with no trades on the horizon and no coaching change being contemplated.
“I really think, in today’s game, with the cap and the way things are, the overall structure of the league, trades are certainly important, but I really think that in a lot of cases, they’re a smaller part of the job, particularly when you’re trying to build an infrastructure and a culture,” President/General Manager Dean Lombardi said on XM Radio’s NHL Live. “The management of what goes into the day-to-day, when you’re trying to put in a culture of doing things right and establishing an identity, the whole thing about moving pieces around isn’t always the answer.”
“As a practical matter it’s not the answer,” Lombardi added. “I think we have a pretty fair handle on where we are, in terms of our physical ability, what we’re lacking overall in terms of becoming that contender that can control its destiny. But to think you can go out and get it, you don’t have that. When everybody is still in the playoffs, when everyone is all bunched together, it’s harder and harder, in a thirty-team league, to make deals, because people don’t have the depth, where you can fill a hole and not create a hole.”
That so many teams are still in the hunt for a playoff spot severely limits trade options, and not just for the Kings.
“As a practical matter, when everybody is still in it, the only way that you can find a trading partner is with a philosophical change,” said Lombardi. “I did this three or four years ago, where I was trading veteran, proven players for draft picks. That’s a philosophical match. But to find players, to be able to go back and forth, it’s really not a practical option. Then, if you get in that mode, where, `I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to do something,’ 99 times out of 100, it’s stupid.”
“You see all these trade rumors out there on the blogs and everything, and I’ve got to tell you, you talk to the GMs sometimes and you say, ‘Gee, did you hear that one,’ and we’re just going, ‘Where in the world did that come from? So, are you looking?’ Obviously, you continue that part of the job, that you’re always surveying the landscape,” added Lombardi. “But, often times, it’s just not practical, because nothing is really there. Or, because of the cap, even if you find something, it has to fit, cap-wise. That cuts down on a lot of your ability to maneuver.”
Throughout their January slump, the Kings have been plagued by inconsistent play, defensive breakdowns, excessive turnovers and penalties, or just getting outworked. Although they need help up front, again, for the time being, it is up to the current players to get their heads in the game, and that is exactly where their problems lie…between their ears.
“You guys saw the game where we came out in the second period, after a pretty good start in the first, and got away, totally, from everything that was going the right way,” head coach Terry Murray noted following a 3-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Staples Center on January 10. “Turning pucks over the in the neutral zone, not getting [pucks deep], not skating the right way, and our pursuit of the puck, whenever it did get in, was not there with enough support to recover pucks, and they kept coming at us.”
“Emotionally, we just let up on the gas pedal again in the second period.”
Team captain Dustin Brown agreed.
“We start off with a good first period, but then we get away from our game,” said Brown. “We only played desperate the last nine minutes of the game, trying to get back in it. We’ve got to play a full sixty. Tonight, we started good, but we got away from what makes us successful.”
“Something needs to be changed with our attitude, because that’s all it is, an attitude—playing the game right,” said Brown. “We’re halfway through the year. This is a big home stand for us. The playoffs are at stake [right now].”
Murray added that as the slide continues, confidence becomes a greater problem.
“I think it comes down to having confidence in all situations,” he said. “We just have to get onboard with everybody doing the right thing for sixty minutes. That’s the only way we’re going to break through on this thing. We’re making one mistake, and it ends up being the difference in the game.”
“We’re not getting a full sixty,” Smyth lamented. “We’ve got to find a way to keep the momentum we usually gain from the first period into the second. If we can play desperate the whole way through, we’re a tough team to beat.”
“We have to get pucks to the net a little bit more,” added Smyth. “We’ve got to play more desperate through the whole game. We’ve got to stick to our game plan, get the puck in deep. Everyone’s got to do the little things right, and it’s going to make a difference in the long run.”
Smyth, a veteran of 1,033 regular season NHL games, said that the Kings need to simplify things.
“Sometimes you over-analyze things,” he explained. “The best way to do it is just to go out and play, and play with hockey sense. We’ve got to relax and play our type of game. We have to stick to our system. Think the game a little bit, more read and react.”
“Simplify things. Stick to the game plan. Get the puck in deep, communicate with your line mates, communicate with your teammates and stick together. Everybody’s got to look themselves in the mirror, be prepared to come to play, and bring their assets to the table for the hockey club.”
The sticking together part is key.
“We’ll find a way through this together,” Smyth stressed. “Not one or two guys is going to do it. Yes, guys have to step up and raise their level of play, for sure. But it’s going to be from everybody in this locker room.”
As the Kings have continued to plummet in the standings, the calls for Murray’s head have grown louder and more frequent with each passing hour. All one has to do is check the message boards on the World Wide Web where Kings fans congregate to see that a common theme that Murray is an incompetent, dispassionate and ineffectual leader who should be run out of town on a rail, or worse.
But is that really justified?
Indeed, Murray’s record in Los Angeles has been quite solid. One look at his team’s accomplishments last season speak to that. He also brought defense back to a team that had virtually no idea what to do in their own zone under former head coach Marc Crawford.
Many fans are also enraged about the constant juggling of his forward lines and defensive pairs, and they point to that as more evidence of incompetence.
But, in the words of Janet Jackson, the “What Have You Done For Me Lately” syndrome is fueling much of the rage against Murray.
As for the line juggling and the reasons for it, going into the season, the Kings did not have a legitimate threat at left wing on their top line or a legitimate second line center, and they have been unable to acquire players to fill those gaping holes in the roster to this point.
To be sure, the fact that top center Anze Kopitar has played with so many different line mates that they could populate a small country points, not to Murray, but to Lombardi as the responsible party—Murray has been forced to run the ship without the necessary crew.
That said, Murray may not be the coach to get the Kings to the next level, as his previous record as head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers suggests. But, for now, anyway, calls for Murray’s firing are premature.