Analysis : Kings May Have Made a Mistake
Almost from the moment he fired Mike Murphy as coach of the Kings, saying that he was trying to “salvage the season,” it was suggested that what General Manager Rogie Vachon really wanted to salvage was his own job.
It was Vachon who went to owners Jerry Buss and Bruce McNall last summer and told them that, while the Kings posed little threat to the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers, he had put together a team that could climb over everybody else in the Smythe Division.
And it was Vachon who persuaded Buss, who questioned the choice, that Murphy deserved a chance to coach the team after Murphy had taken over under difficult circumstances last January from former Coach Pat Quinn.
So, when the Kings’ typically bad start turned into the National Hockey League’s worst record one-third of the way into the season, Vachon not only looked like a poor evaluator of talent, but an equally poor judge of what made a good coach.
And yet, McNall said this week, “There was never any discussion between Jerry and myself about (replacing) Rogie.”
Said McNall: “Jerry and I have felt, ‘What does the general manager really do?’ His job is to provide the coach with the personnel. And I think we could go down the rosters of every team in the league and find that we have better personnel than half the teams.”
Told of McNall’s remarks, one NHL insider said: “Boy, there’s somebody who grew up in the West. It ain’t so.”
Have the Kings overestimated their talent? Did the success last season of rookies Luc Robitaille, Jimmy Carson and Steve Duchesne delude them into thinking changes were not necessary?
The Kings have basically the same team they had at the end of last season, when they finished only six points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres, who had the worst record in the NHL.
Last season, the Kings gave up more goals than all but the New Jersey Devils, and yet they made no significant moves last summer to shore up their defensive shortcomings.
“I picked them out of the playoffs,” said ESPN analyst Bill Clement, a former NHL player. “I still don’t think they have enough players who are as concerned with keeping the puck out of their net as they are with scoring goals at the other end to ever be a quality defensive team.”
While maintaining a defensive stance to questions regarding their defense, saying that cutting down their goals-against average is their No. 1 priority, the Kings continue to build their team around offensive-minded players.
And Buss, though he said “everyone knows that (championship) rings are won with defense,” is said to favor wide-open games, a kind of Showtime on Ice.
“Every management has its own ideas of what it takes to win,” Clement said, “but it seems, on the surface, as if the Kings were taking a left turn when everybody else in the league was taking a right . . .
“I feel sorry for the Kings in the sense that I’m not so sure they didn’t try to emulate the Oilers. They thought they could win with offense, but hockey isn’t much different than any other sport--you’ve got to play defense.
“You’ve got to be able to check; and to be able to check, you have to want to check.
“They can’t check.”
The feeling around the league is that the Oilers are successful with their approach because in Grant Fuhr they have the league’s best goaltender, a player capable of consistently making game-saving plays.
The Kings, on the other hand, have been unable to find a goaltender around whom they can build their defense, or at least camouflage their deficiencies.
Columnist Al Strachan wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail this month that Vachon, one of the NHL’s all-time best netminders, “has proved to be woefully inept at fulfilling the Kings’ most pressing need, a goaltender.”
And Clement said: “They never know what they’re going to get from Rollie Melanson.”
In training camp, the Kings said they would use Melanson in as many as 60 games this season, Vachon saying that Melanson was one of the league’s two or three best goaltenders during the second half last season. But Melanson is 4-9-4 with a 5.02 goals-against average, one of the worst in the league, and has played only once in the last two weeks.
It is generally believed that if the Kings are going to try to score five or six goals a night in wide-open games, they’ll need a goaltender capable of making at least as many game-saving plays.
“We started the season with a goalie we had a lot of confidence in,” Buss said. “That didn’t work out, but I think that’s more (the fault of) the team than the goalie.”
As for the Kings’ much-maligned defensemen, Clement and others said they have been unfairly criticized at times. They said the Kings have overstocked themselves with one-dimensional forwards.
“I feel bad for a lot of the Kings’ defensemen because they try their rear ends off and get very little support,” Clement said.
Clement, of those contacted for this story one of the few who was willing to speak on the record, said the Kings need to make personnel changes.
“I think the coach can accomplish a lot with the majority of their players,” he said of new Coach Rob Ftorek, “but they have to have the right mix.
“Very many of their forwards were the top scorers on their junior teams, or wherever they came from, and it’s become so ingrained that they are offensive players that it’s difficult to teach an old dog new tricks.
“It’s difficult to turn Jim Fox into a checker, difficult to turn Bernie Nicholls into a checker.
“At least with the young guys, you’ve got a better chance before they develop a one-way attitude.”
But the Kings, Clement said, have put themselves in a difficult position from which to deal.
They are reluctant to trade their top offensive talent, as they showed in turning down a trade with the Oilers, who wanted Nicholls, Jay Wells and a first-round draft choice in exchange for All-Star defenseman Paul Coffey, who was dealt instead to Pittsburgh.
And, Clement said, “the Kings’ secondary offensive talent--if it can’t check--how useful is that going to be to a team that thinks defensive hockey is important in the NHL?”
Were the Kings too hasty, then, in dumping Murphy, a former player and assistant coach with the Kings who was considered a hard worker and was popular with the players?
Buss was said to have instigated the move, and McNall said that Buss was never convinced of Murphy’s ability.
Murphy was in his first full season as head coach after replacing Quinn last January after Quinn signed to become president and general manager of the Vancouver Canucks.
“With the loss of Quinn,” Buss said, “all that we’d been trying to do here for two years was disrupted. I questioned whether Mike could continue what Pat had built.
“And when we saw that we had lost the momentum, we decided it was time for a coaching change.”
McNall said that discussions this month with NHL executives at the league’s Board of Governors meetings in West Palm Beach, Fla., influenced the decision to fire Murphy.
“I think the general view is that we have one of the league’s most talented teams,” McNall said.
But do they?
Among those McNall spoke with was General Manager Harry Sinden of the Boston Bruins, who said this week: “I told Bruce he had some very good players, but I think that’s a statement you could make about most teams in the league.”
So, were the Kings unrealistic in evaluating their talent?
“They might have set their sights a little high, and when you’re not reaching your expectations, you think somebody’s got to go,” an NHL executive said. “And yet, it might have been the expectations that were not in order.”
And another insider said: “They’re reluctant to make any moves. Off the record, Rogie should have gone, not Murphy. The responsibility for building the team falls on the GM’s shoulders.
“What amazes me is that he’s lasted as long as he has.”
Buss, though, remains confident in Vachon and in the Kings.
“I have a team that I feel not only can win, but will win,” he said. “And I think under Rogie’s guidance, we will make an improvement every year and, hopefully, one of these days we’ll take a shot at the big time.”
Not until they make some moves to improve their defense, Clement said.
“Some peoples’ perception of reality, I guess, is a little different than others,” he said.