|Los Angeles Kings head coach Terry Murray, with his defense-first mentality, has the Kings thinking playoffs.
At age 58, Terry Murray is having the time of his life.
And why shouldn't he be? The first-year coach of the Los Angeles Kings has taken a young team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2002 and has it squarely in the hunt for a postseason berth after a 4-1-0 Eastern road trip.
The Kings open a three-game homestand against Calgary on Thursday night in 11th place in the West with 55 points -- but they're just four points out of fifth, a huge jump for a team that was last in the conference and 29th in the NHL a year ago.
For Murray, a hockey lifer who's spent well over two decades coaching, it's been a blast.
"This is the best time I've ever had in coaching, and I got into it in 1982 as an assistant," he said after the Kings wrapped up their best road trip in ages with a 4-3 shootout win over the New York Islanders. "This is the most fun I've had. It's a group of young players -- I'm more relaxed, more experienced, have a good handle on what I want to do and how I want to go about it.
"You're basically a teacher, and I've got a bunch of great young students right now."
General Manager Dean Lombardi surprised a lot of people last summer when he fired Marc Crawford and brought in Murray, then an assistant with Philadelphia but the former head man with Washington, the Flyers and Florida. Murray hadn't run a team since being let go by the Panthers in 2000-01, but Lombardi felt he was the right person to deal with his team's youth-oriented roster.
So far, it looks like he was right. After some ups and downs in the early going, the Kings have been getting better as the season progresses. But for a two-minute lapse at the end of the first game of their trip in Montreal, the Kings would have swept the five-game excursion.
Still, eight points out of 10 isn't a bad way to head home.
"I'm very happy," he said. "We went into some very difficult buildings to play in. I like the way we're coming together. We're a very young hockey club. We're trying to figure this game out, digging in every night, and it's a tremendous way of challenging the team when you go on the road like this."
The Kings have had the reputation of being a team that could score some goals but didn't pay much attention to defense. They've been 23rd, 27th and 28th in goals allowed in the past three seasons, and were 28th in the League is shots allowed in 2007-08.
One of the first things Murray did was change the focus to preventing goals instead of scoring them. The Kings' goals-against average is down more than half a goal per game, and they're surrendering just over 27 shots a night -- the second-lowest total in the NHL.
"From day one in training camp, that was our focus," captain Dustin Brown
said of the effort to cut down on goals allowed. "It's really been a team effort. I don't think we've scored nearly as many goals as we did a year ago, but once you learn to play that system, the offensive chances will be created from that, and I think we're starting to see that, now that we've played it for 50 games."
Murray said he knew the first thing he had to do was install a system that would get his players to think defense-first.
"You want your players to learn how to check," he said. "You want to put some responsibility, some rules and regulations about playing in your own zone, to cut back on the quality and number of scoring chances the team was giving up over the last few years here. That's the first step in moving forward. If you're going to be a good team and eventually get to different rounds in the playoffs, you have to know how to check. That's what we're doing right now.
"Every team has a style. Every team puts a style, a system, in place. If you play it the right way, athletes want to play an instinctive game in any sport. They want to react. That's where we're at right now; we're reacting to what's going on out there, and we're reacting in the right way. It's a system that's in place. There's a certain way of playing as to where the puck is. Everybody knows that's the way we have to play in order to have some kind of success, because we're not a top-end, loaded team. When everybody's playing on page, we can play pretty well."
Of course, no team can win without solid goaltending. Over the past couple of seasons, the Kings have changed goaltenders the way most players change their socks. But the performance of rookie Jonathan Quick
has given the Kings the kind of play in goal they haven't had in several seasons.
Quick began the season with the Kings' AHL farm team in Manchester, N.H., and wasn't recalled until injuries hit starter Jason LaBarbera and backup Erik Ersberg. He had shutouts in two of his first four starts -- and is now the No. 1 goaltender, with an 11-6-0 record, a 2.40 goals-against average, three shutouts and a ..919 save percentage.
Brown said Quick's play has had a major effect on the whole team.
"Goalies are probably the most important players on the ice, and he's been playing great," he said. "What that does for the rest of the team is that it builds confidence, knowing that we have him back there. You look at the really good goaltenders in the League, their teams play with that much confidence when they're in the net. He's starting to build that for us, from the net out."
Quick went 3-0-0 and allowed just four goals to win last week's First Star of the Week. Not bad for a guy whose coach didn't even know him before the season started.
"Not a thing," Murray said with a smile when asked if he had any idea who Quick was before camp began. "He's a college player, a New England guy. He was just battling hard with a couple of the other young guys we have. Quick had his opportunity because of an injury; we traded LaBarbera, but Quick got called up because of an injury basically -- and good play down there; you have to earn the right to get called up -- and he took advantage of it."
For all the good things the Kings have done, the toughest part lies ahead. They're still on the outside looking in at the playoffs, have two more long Eastern trips and have to make sure they generate enough offense to go along with their improved defense.
"Bringing the offensive part of the game to it," is Murray's answer when asked about the next part of putting together a winning team. "The one thing you do with offensive players who are skilled players when you demand checking -- that's their total focus. They forget about what's going on down there at the other end. It takes a lot of time. It's a process, and they're starting to figure out how to get the puck to the other end and bring the offensive part to that checking game."
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist