There were signs as early as the fourth week of the season that the Kings were curiously flat, strangely “out of sync,” according to their annoyed General Manager Dean Lombardi.
Those subtle signals morphed into a full-scale distress siren by the end of a stretch of four straight losses, three of which came at Staples Center, forcing Lombardi’s hand. He boarded a plane Monday morning in Los Angeles, flew to Boston and fired his old friend Terry Murray, who stood one win away from 500 in his coaching career.
“It wasn’t easy for both of us,” said Lombardi, sounding downcast, on a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon. “I have such respect for the man. This was more than just business. This goes beyond that.”
Lombardi said there was no final straw behind the decision, which was made Sunday. He said it didn’t hit him “like a ton of bricks,” rather the realization had been building and crystallized after 29 games.
It may have been difficult to deliver the message to Murray in his hotel room, but Lombardi had some especially pointed and tough words for his underachieving, flat-lining players, who scored a mere six goals in their recent losing streak.
King assistant John Stevens was named interim coach, and indications are that he is not among the candidates for the permanent position. Nearly all signs are pointing to Darryl Sutter, who once coached for Lombardi in San Jose, and later led the Calgary Flames to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004.
He was the general manager of the Flames until December of last season, leaving behind a legacy of derided trades and salary-cap woes for his successors.
Lombardi made no secret of his continued admiration for Sutter, chatting with a reporter in his office about his former coach. This was years ago and he said he thought the man from the famous hockey family would be the perfect fit to coach the kids in Los Angeles. But Sutter’s Calgary position, at that time, prevented a reunion.
On the conference call, Lombardi was asked specifically about the Sutter option.
“Like I said, there’s no timeline and we’re looking at all options,” Lombardi said. “Right now, I think that’s as far as I can comment.”
Murray, who remains under contract through the 2012-13 season, is the fifth NHL coach to be fired this season and the second in less than two weeks, joining the Ducks’ Randy Carlyle, who was dismissed by Anaheim on Nov. 30.
Carlyle was fired after a Ducks win, and Murray was let go after conducting practice in Boston.
Individuals familiar with the situation and not authorized to comment said that the Kings have not contacted the Ducks for permission to talk to Carlyle, nor have they done so with the Pittsburgh Penguins in regard to assistant coach Tony Granato, a former Kings player.
“When you’re in this situation, it is a very short list,” Lombardi said.
The urgency for change has been building and only increased after the Kings slipped to 12th in the Western Conference standings as they dropped below .500 at home. They sit last in the NHL in goals per game, at 2.24, a disappointing output considering their summer spending spree on talent.
Murray’s record with the Kings was 139-106-30, and he twice guided the Kings to the playoffs, losing in the first round both times, and is third all-time in wins among Kings coaches. He instilled a strong defensive philosophy and stabilized the Kings with a calm professional demeanor, following the stormy Marc Crawford era.
This midseason firing is not a typical Lombardi move.
He didn’t fire Crawford when the Kings were stumbling in the midst of an eight-game losing streak in December of the 2007-08 season. Nor did he do so when they were officially eliminated from the playoff race in March that season.
In fact, the last major midseason coaching change by Lombardi came when he was still the general manager with the Sharks, firing Sutter on Dec. 1 after a slow start in 2002.
Nine years later, oddly enough, another midseason firing could very well end up reuniting Lombardi and Sutter.