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Blues ax coach Andy Murray

by Dan Rosen
Andy Murray won't get a chance for a second straight magical turnaround in St. Louis.

Blues President John Davidson announced Saturday morning that Murray has been relieved of his duties as head coach and is being replaced on an interim basis by Davis Payne, who was coaching the Blues' AHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen.

Assistant coaches Brad Shaw and Ray Bennett are staying on the staff while assistant/goalie coach Rick Wamsley will take over for Payne in Peoria.

Murray was told by Davidson and GM Larry Pleau just before 7 a.m. CT Saturday morning. Payne said he got the call late Friday afternoon.

"It was about 4 or 4:30, somewhere in that timeframe, and I just got done watching the Winter Classic and was contemplating my next move," Payne said. "I had some video pulled up on the Rivermen game from New Year's Eve and I was about halfway through the first period when I got the phone call. The house got stirred up, and we packed as fast as we could."

Payne, 39, hopes to follow in the same footsteps as coaches like Dan Bylsma and Bruce Boudreau, who in recent years jumped from the AHL to the NHL during the season and managed to turn their teams around in dramatic style.

Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon during the 2007-08 season and transformed the Capitals from a last place team into a playoff team in just 61 games. He won the Jack Adams Award in 2008 and now the Capitals are one of the top teams in the NHL.

Bylsma did even better.

He took over the sinking Penguins with 25 games left last season and not only managed to get them in the playoffs, but Pittsburgh went on to win the Stanley Cup and are now fighting with Washington and New Jersey for first place in the Eastern Conference.

The Islanders' Scott Gordon, Colorado's Joe Sacco, Ottawa's Cory Clouston and Atlanta's John Anderson have also recently made the jump from being an AHL head coach to being an NHL head coach.

"I have been coaching for 10 years now and 8 1/2 have been as a head coach," Payne said after putting the team through the morning skate in preparation for Saturday night's game against Chicago. "It felt the same when I got on the ice this morning as it did two days ago in Peoria for a pregame skate. It's hockey. Obviously the buildings are bigger and there is lots of star power on the ice, but it's the same game."

Murray was hired by Davidson on Dec. 11, 2006, replacing Mike Kitchen 28 games into the 2006-07 season. He finished his tenure in St. Louis with a 118-102-38 record.

He led the Blues on a miraculous second half run last season as they went 25-9-7 over the last 41 games to jump from 15th in the Western Conference to sixth, earning their first playoff berth in five years. Murray was runner-up for the Jack Adams Award.

However, after a positive start to this season that included a pair of wins in Stockholm against Detroit, the underachieving Blues woke up Saturday morning fourth in the Central Division and 12th in the Conference with 40 points (17-17-6).

The Blues own the NHL's worst home record at 6-13-3 and Murray's last game behind the bench was one of their biggest meltdowns. St. Louis led Vancouver 3-0 at home Thursday night, but gave up four unanswered goals and lost, 4-3, in overtime.

Davidson harped on the Blues' failures at Scottrade Center. It was a key in the decision to fire Murray, who, by the way, did leave a hand written note for Payne that the new coach said was very touching.

"Andy is a class guy and he handled it very well," Davidson said. "My intuition tells me he knew something was coming because of our home record primarily. Andy couldn't have been more professional. He talked about the future. He's going to see his kids play hockey. He thanked us for his time here in St. Louis. I think he thoroughly enjoyed his time here. He's a big part of why we have a full house here, why things have changed for the Blues on the positive side of the ledger."

Murray, though, struggled to relate to the younger players in the Blues' lineup such as T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund. Payne may be the tonic the Blues are looking for to get all the young players in the organization playing up to their potential.

Forwards like Oshie, Perron, Berglund and Lars Eller as well as blue-liners Erik Johnson, Alex Pietrangelo, Roman Polak and Jonas Junland represent the future core of this franchise. Payne has at one point or another coached all of them, be it in Peoria or during the Traverse City Prospects Tournament.

"We've been in battles before," Payne said. "Certainly not a regular season NHL game, but we've been under fire before. We have had communication and the familiarity I think is fantastic. We can have a conversation and ask each other how it's going, and it just adds to the comfort level."

Payne, though, understands the value of having the veterans on his side. He said guys like Brad Boyes, Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya, Barrett Jackman, Eric Brewer and Andy McDonald are going to have to set the tone in this coaching transition.

"They have carried teams through tough times and they know what it takes," Payne said. "They are going to carry a lot of that early message and part of that is them understanding the passion we expect them to show."

Payne's teams have historically been aggressive on the forecheck. He said his philosophy starts in the defensive end, but his ultimate desire is for his team to get the puck and go.

"We feel he's our coach and he might be our coach long term. We're going to evaluate it as it goes on. We feel comfortable about the experience level Davis has going into this position. It'll be an adjustment and a whirlwind for him, but we feel confident about it."
-- John Davidson

"Your ultimate invincibility is created by your ability to defend, and the intensity and the speed we do that with is going to be based on skating, angles and support, but it's also based on how quickly we want to retreat the puck and get it going back the other way," Payne said. "I believe our style is one that is going to force you to deal with us. We're going to force you to deal with pace. I don't want to spend a lot of time picking our way through the offensive zone. We're going to get there as quick as possible and force the teams to deal with us in that area."

Payne was named the coach in Peoria on July 8, 2008 after serving one season as an assistant with the AHL club. Peoria is 19-13-1-2 this season after going 43-31-2-4 last season, giving Payne an AHL record 62-44-3-6 for a .578 winning percentage.

Peoria ended a two-year playoff drought by going to the Calder Cup Playoffs last season.

Payne also spent seven seasons coaching in the ECHL, including his final four with the Alaska Aces, the Blues' affiliate. The Aces won the Kelly Cup in 2006 and went to three Conference Finals. Payne owns a 289-142-45 record in seven ECHL seasons.

"We feel he's our coach and he might be our coach long term," Davidson said. "We're going to evaluate it as it goes on. We feel comfortable about the experience level Davis has going into this position. It'll be an adjustment and a whirlwind for him, but we feel confident about it."

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