The Los Angeles Kings became the fourth team in the past two weeks to make a coaching change, firing Terry Murray on Monday and replacing him on an interim basis with assistant coach John Stevens.
Entering this season, the Kings were considered Stanley Cup contenders, but their recent poor performance led to considerable speculation over what GM Dean Lombardi would do to stop the skid.
Since center Mike Richards was sidelined by a head injury Dec. 1, the Kings lost four straight games, sinking to fourth in the Pacific Division and into the lower third of the Western Conference standings.
Defensively, the Kings are among the better teams in the league, giving up the seventh-fewest goals, ranking 13th overall in shots-against per game (29.9) and possessing the eighth-best penalty kill.
Their goaltending was also solid. Starter Jonathan Quick entered this week tied for the league lead in shutouts (four), ranked eighth overall in goals-against average (2.10) and tied for eighth in save percentage (.931) with Detroit’s Jimmy Howard.
The Kings were still buying into Murray’s “defense-first” system, but they weren’t getting it done at the other end of the rink.
Prior to Murray’s firing, the Kings had scored the second-fewest goals in the league (64), sitting 19th overall in shots on goal per game (29.7) with a power play ranked 21st overall.
For a team with scoring forwards such as center Anze Kopitar, right wingers Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, left wingers Simon Gagne and Dustin Penner, plus puck-moving blueliners Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, those offensive numbers were quite troubling.
It’s easy to blame the performance on Richards’ absence, but the Kings were struggling offensively before he was sidelined.
In fact, their scoring woes stretched back to last season, when they were 25th in the league with 209 goals. Of the 16 teams qualifying for the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, only the Montreal Canadiens (216) scored fewer goals. The Kings’ shots per game average (28.8) was marginally lower compared to this season, while their power play was also ranked 21st overall.
Twenty-nine games into this season, the Kings managed to score more than three goals in a game only five times, the last being a 5-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 17.
Almost all their best offensive players were struggling to score.
Doughty missed training camp to a contract holdout and with only eight points in 24 games, is on pace for 25 points, the lowest of his young NHL career.
Johnson’s production (12 points in 29 games) is also down, putting him on pace for 25 points as well, much lower than last season’s 42.
Penner, brought in at last season’s trade deadline to be a power forward on the left side, has been a major disappointment.
While he’s shown some recent signs of improvement, his five points in 18 games this season fall far below expectations and has led to rumors management would love to trade him.
Over the past three seasons, Brown has averaged around 24 goals and 55 points, but his stats are also down this season (15 points in 29 games), putting him on track for a 42-point performance.
Williams, who scored 22 goals last season, currently has only four.
Veteran left winger Simon Gagne was signed last summer as a free agent to provide additional scoring depth, but since mid-November has managed only four points.
Kopitar, their best forward and leading scorer with 28 points in 29 games, hadn’t had a multi-point game since Nov. 17.
Little wonder there’s been so much talk of a coaching change or trade.
With the Kings in Boston to face the Bruins on Tuesday, CBC’s Elliotte Friedman speculated that report may be why Lombardi flew to Boston on Monday to break the news to Murray personally.
Friedman also reported Lombardi met with the players and blamed them for Murray’s firing.
Bloggers and pundits who follow the Kings believed the problem lay with Murray, but the firing may have been the team’s only option because of limited cap space to make player personnel changes.
Penner is often mentioned in trade rumors, but his value is considerably lower than it was a year ago, when the Kings parted with prospect Colten Teubert, a first round pick in 2011 and a conditional third-rounder in 2012, to pry him out of Edmonton.
Backup Jonathan Bernier is considered a valuable trade chip, but Lombardi won’t part with him unless he can be assured of landing a solid return and having a suitable backup for Quick.
Lombardi might test the trade market later in the season, but for now don’t expect any significant roster shake-ups.
The priority now is a permanent replacement for Murray. The Los Angeles Times speculated it will be former Calgary Flames coach and GM Darryl Sutter, but he’s also a “defense-first” coach, so his hiring wouldn’t represent a significant change from their current style of play.
Whoever Lombardi brings in, it’ll have to be someone who can maintain the Kings’ solid defensive play, but also find a way to unlock their offensive potential.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.