"Come on inside," Murray says. "I’ve got a big office."
Inside that windowless office, the walls are bare, except for picture hooks that were left behind by the office’s previous occupant. "I guess I should hang some pictures,” says Murray.
Since landing in Los Angeles, Murray has been more concerned with what lies beneath the surface than with cosmetic appearances. As an NHL head coach, Murray has ascended to one of the 30 highest offices in hockey, but his actual office isn’t big at all. It is, in fact, roughly the size of a typical college professor’s office. Murray looks right at home here, and says that his new gig has left him feeling revitalized.
“I was kidding about the size of the office,” Murray says as he settles in behind his desk, just in case his dry wit eluded any of the trio on hand.
At 58, Murray’s hair has gone gray, and he speaks in the measured tones more suitable for an academician than a hockey coach. In addition to his sense of humor, he still has a desire to teach young players, and wants to help this perennially underachieving franchise come of age.
Murray’s appointment as the 22nd head coach in Kings history in July was met with skepticism. He hadn’t been an NHL head coach in 8 years and, while he was getting older, the Kings were getting younger.
But Murray might turn out to be the right guy at the right time.
The hard-driving style of Marc Crawford had worn thin in Los Angeles, making Murray’s professorial persona and history of turning around flagging franchises a vote for change. When things aren’t going well, you replace a tyrant with a good guy, sure as you replace a Republican with a Democrat.
At his introductory presser last spring, when Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi suggested he had just filled the toughest coaching job in the League, Murray didn’t even flinch.
“Whenever you hear that being said,” Murray says, “You just take it as a greater challenge.”
Murray, who brought a career record of 360-288-89 to Los Angeles, has been referred to as a turnaround specialist, but says he does not see himself in that vein. To do so would place too much emphasis on the results when he’s more concerned with the process.
“I’m just trying to get things going in the right direction and to play the game the right way,” Murray says. “As a result of putting a philosophy, a system, and an attitude in place, things happen. You do start to see change in team play and you start to seen an improvement in the results.”
Murray does not, however, have any qualms about being referred to as a teacher.
“That’s what coaches are,” he says. “They’re teachers who are trying to get athletes to play a certain sport the right way.”
Under Murray, the Kings have gotten off to a 3-6-1 start. They lost defenseman Jack Johnson, expected to be sidelined until after the Jan. 25 All-Star Game with a shoulder injury, but otherwise, a young core that includes Anze Kopitar
, Dustin Brown
, and Alexander Frolov looks ready to take the next step. And Murray is eager to lay the foundation.
A year ago, the Kings shared the NHL’s cellar with Tampa Bay, finishing with 71 points, so there’s only one way for the team to go. There are those inside the Kings’ dressing room who believe the club’s rise could happen sooner than expected.
Winger Kyle Calder points to baseball to illustrate how quickly change can happen.
“Look at the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League and how they turned it around,” Calder says. “Anything can happen. There’s a challenge here and everyone accepts that challenge, we will surprise a lot of people.”
Murray, too, is confident there will be a turnaround in Los Angeles. But he admits there will be challenges first.
“When you have a young team like this, it will be challenging,” Murray says. “There are going to be some difficult nights ahead. There are a lot of things that you have to work through. Most importantly, you have to deal with it emotionally and find a way every day to deal with what’s going on mentally and comeback the next night and start all over again.”
Murray knows he might not be able to get the same quick results he saw in Washington, Philadelphia, and Florida.
“It’s a little more challenging here because we have more young players coming in at the same time,” Murray says. “And that’s the fun part. We know we have a lot of growth in front of us and that’s very exciting for me. We’re going to do it at the right pace.”
Whether or not the Kings’ slow growth initiative will allow Murray to be around when his teachings sink in remains to be seen. But Murray refuses to acknowledge that the notion that by the time the Kings become competitive, he might be long gone.
“I look around sports,” Murray says, “and there are lots of veteran coaches out there having great success. I want to be a part of this for a long time. I want to see this thing happen and I’m willing to work through it.”
Murray started by making the Kings’ goals-against average a priority. A year ago, Los Angeles had the League’s third-worst defense, allowing 266 goals. Only Tampa Bay and Atlanta gave up more goals.
“The defensive part of the game is where we are focusing,” Murray says.
The Kings have long struggled in net, but Murray says better goaltending won’t be a panacea to Kings’ defensive woes. He is, however, pleased to report that goaltending help is on the way. The organization has three prospects in the pipeline — Jonathan Bernier
, Jeff Zatkoff
, and Jonathan Quick
— but Murray says he wants to see what incumbent Jason LaBarbera can do with a sound defensive system in front of him. Maybe that 17-23-2 record and 2.99 GAA last season wasn’t entirely LaBarbera’s fault.
“We want to be a good defensive team and that’s going to help the goaltending, right off the top,” Murray says. “We have to play the game the right way, then we’ll get an accurate read as to what we have in goal. LaBarbera has done everything he could in the minors. He’s had some success here, but when you look at the tapes, where was the breakdown? Do you hand all the responsibility on the goaltender, or was it the team?”
It won’t be the team’s fault this year. Not if the Kings absorb Murray’s message. The veteran coach and teacher spent all of training camp hammering his new team on the importance of defensive responsibility and cutting down on the 3.24 goals per game they allowed last season.
After 10 games this season, the Kings had given up 30 goals (2.90 per game) to rank 16th in the League in goals against.
“If we can cut down on the number of goals against," Kopitar, the Kings’ No. 1 center, says, practically repeating Murray’s mantra, “I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Under Murray, the Kings have already shown dramatic improvement in their penalty killing. A year ago, their 78.0 success rate on the penalty kill tied them with Toronto for the worst in the NHL. After 10 games this season, the Kings had the League’s sixth ranked penalty killing unit (86.7 percent).
“Cutting down on the goals against is what you have to do if you want to be a top team in the League,” Murray says. “If you look at the top 5 teams in the League, their goals against are always very good. You have to do a good job away from the puck. The offensive end will show up. You have to give your goaltender protection and that’s what we want to see.”
Eventually, Murray says, the Kings will learn how to win. And when they do, it won’t be because of anything he has taught them, but rather because of something they have figured out on their own.
“You ask your young players to come in after a game,” Murray says, “look their teammates in the eye and say, ‘I did everything I could out there. I worked my tail off for you tonight.’ No matter what the outcome of the game was. That’s how you will break through.”
If the Kings can pick up on that message, Murray he might turn out to be the best kind of teacher — one that inspires his students to learn on their own.
Author: Doug Ward | NHL.com Correspondent