LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi says Terry Murray doesn't deserve the blame for a terrible start to a season of high expectations.
Yet Lombardi decided the head coach had to pay for it anyway.
Los Angeles fired Murray on Monday and replaced him with assistant coach John Stevens, who will be the underachieving club's interim head coach when the Kings open a four-game road trip Tuesday in Boston.
Murray was behind the long-struggling Kings' bench for their best moments in the past decade, leading Los Angeles to consecutive playoff appearances after an eight-year absence while compiling the best winning percentage (.560) of any coach in franchise history.
But Murray clearly has struggled to reach his current club, which is mired in mediocrity after entertaining hopes of contending for the Stanley Cup with several aggressive off-season moves. Los Angeles has lost four straight to drop to 13-12-4, culminating in a lifeless effort in a 2-1 home loss to Dallas last Saturday.
"We hadn't been playing up to the expectations of this team, and I think the last homestand was the end of it," said Lombardi, who flew to Boston on Monday to deliver the news to Murray at the team hotel before an intense meeting with his players. "You're constantly evaluating everything. I don't think you can say (there was) one glaring moment. It just kind of builds up."
After losing in the first round in each of the past two postseasons, the Kings have sunk to 11th place in the Western Conference standings while managing just 65 goals, second-fewest in the NHL. Despite adding forwards Mike Richards and Simon Gagne in the off-season, Los Angeles is scoring an NHL-worst 2.24 goals per game, including just 13 in its last eight games.
"When you have expectations, it's driven more towards results," Lombardi said. "It's harder at times to look for those victories within losses, and it's just the state of the franchise right now. You can look for more of those things three years ago, but we're trying to push to that next level, and it isn't easy. It's a lot easier playing with the house's money. We're at the stage where you're going to be judged on wins and losses and playoff success."
Lombardi said he agonized over the decision to fire the highly respected Murray. The GM also delivered a stern message to his players after making the move.
"Ultimately, the message is that they're accountable," Lombardi said. "Unfortunately, the coach has to pay the price, but make no mistake, they're the ones who are accountable for this."
Stevens, Murray's longtime associate and the Philadelphia Flyers' former coach, joined the Kings' staff before last season. He is the 23rd head coach in Kings history.
Lombardi said he doesn't know how long Stevens will run the Kings, saying he's looking at several options for filling the job. He wouldn't comment on the possibility of a reunion with Darryl Sutter, his longtime coach when both were with the San Jose Sharks.
Although Murray has a deserved reputation as an excellent defensive coach, he lost his job largely because the Kings have struggled to score goals despite boosting their payroll to its highest level in several years.
Just three Kings have scored more than five goals this season, and most of their key skill players are mired in miserable offensive seasons, including Justin Williams (four goals in 29 games), Dustin Penner (five points in 18 games), captain Dustin Brown (five goals in 29 games), Brad Richardson (two points in 20 games), Jarret Stoll (two goals in 29 games) and US$56 million defenceman Drew Doughty (eight points and a minus-4 rating in 24 games).
Murray is the fifth coach to be fired already this season in the always-impatient NHL. He joins St. Louis' Davis Payne, Carolina's Paul Maurice, Washington's Bruce Boudreau and Anaheim's Randy Carlyle, who was replaced by Boudreau on Nov. 30.
Murray went 139-106-30 with the Kings after taking over the club in 2008. Los Angeles earned 46 victories ??? matching the franchise record for wins ??? in each of the past two seasons while racking up 199 total points, the most in any two-year stretch for the club.
Murray is one victory shy of 500 in a coaching career that also included stops with Washington, Florida and Philadelphia. But the 61-year-old's impassive, stone-faced demeanour behind the bench sometimes appeared to be reflected in his Kings, who showed little passion for long stretches of the season.
The Kings entered the season with championship expectations for a club built on a solid defensive system in front of goalie Jonathan Quick. Los Angeles has an impressive corps of defencemen around Doughty, who held out through training camp to get his lavish contract, and Jack Johnson, but that defensive toughness hasn't been bolstered by offensive proficiency, with the Kings acknowledging they frequently play ugly hockey.
Lombardi spread the blame for the Kings' woes equally among their young players and established veterans, saying nobody has performed up to their capabilities.
"This team came in with a very high level of expectation," Lombardi said. "It's unique here in the sense that you have the youngest core in the league, and you're pounding on the young players, but the veterans, the established players as well, have to step up."
Murray was under contract through next season.
Stevens led the Flyers to the Eastern Conference finals in 2008, but Philadelphia fired him the following season. He joined Murray's staff before last season, but might not be a long-term candidate for the job if the Kings are looking for a change of pace from the two coaches' similar styles.