JftC re-issue: the more things change...?

This was published originally as "What's Broken Part 3: Mixed Messages", on May 5, 2011. I've trimmed it a bit from the original. Think of it as a warm-up for the season preview. 

Lombardi, Murray discuss impending free agents " LA Kings Insider

MURRAY: "Alexei Ponikarovsky is a] big body. A 6-(foot-)5 guy. I need him to score more, though. [...] this is the reason why (he wasn’t playing). It wasn’t because of poor play. [...] I just need more of what you’ve shown for seven years in your resume, a 20-goal scorer. What happened?"

Here's what happened:

Ponikarovsky played against the third toughest competition (per QUALCOMP) of any Kings forward, behind only Smyth and Stoll, and only behind them by a hair. Tougher than Handzus. Tougher than Brown or Simmonds. And much tougher than he played against last year in Toronto and Pittsburgh. And he did this while playing with the weakest teammates (per QUALTEAM) of any non-rookie except Peter Harrold. (The players who drew weaker teammates than Poni were Harrold, Schenn, Lewis, Clifford, Westgarth and Zeiler.) 

In other words, he had just about the toughest job on the team. 

And how did that effect his play? Well, let's see...

He had the best GA/60 (that's goals-against per 60 minutes ice time) of any forward on the Kings who played more than a handful of games (Parse and Loktionov both had lower/better numbers in their few games). Only Alec Martinez was better on the entire squad. So that's pretty good for Poni. And offense? Well, not very good. His P/60 dropped from 2.64 (2008), and 2.27 (2009) to 1.11 (2010). But his QUALCOMP was -.007 and -.023 in 2008 and 2009; .042 this year. QUALTEAM was .048 and .015; -.026 this year. 

The guy played with much worse players against much better players and his production was cut in half. Shocking. But his defensive play was great and that's what the Kings are all about. 

Aren't they?

I believe Murray's comments about Ponikarovsky are representative of his general attitude, and they embody a degree of schizophrenia in their conflicting messages. Yes, I understand that Poni (like Kopitar and whoever else) is a grown-up and is expected both to be defensively-responsible and to score goals. But how is a player supposed to react to the "constructive" criticism Murray articulates above? We all know that the defensive system takes precedence over everything. And it would seem that Poni (like Alex Frolov before him -- or for that matter Teddy Purcell*, who, let's remember, had good defensive numbers but couldn't get his production going...) did job #1 very well, which is to keep the puck out of his own net. 

*Teddy Purcell, who didn't produce in Terry Murray's system, is currently 3rd in playoff scoring [2011 playoffs] two points behind the leader, and 2nd in playoff assists, one point behind the leader. Teddy Purcell, as I said many many times, has soft hands and skill; I said I thought he would come around, and look, he's come around. Tampa has a pretty suffocating defense, too. Another guy who "couldn't get it together" under Murray's system is another one of my favorite (now ex-King) prospects, Matt Moulson. That would be Matt two-time-30-goal-scorer Moulson, who I F-ING TOLD YOU WAS ONE OF THOSE DORKY GUYS WHO LOOKS LIKE HE CAN'T SKATE BUT HAS THAT UNCANNY KNACK FOR GETTING THE PUCK TO THE BACK OF THE NET. That would be Matt Moulson, who has scored more goals over the last two seasons than (1) everyone on the Kings, and (2) everyone on Detroit, and (3) Marian HossaPatrick KaneJonathan ToewsBrad Richards...a long list, let's just say.

But I digress. Back to Poni. Poni did what was asked of him, except the part that was asked of him that was not reasonable to ask of him. The part where he's supposed to play against tougher opponents, with weaker teammates, and be more defensively responsible, while also scoring like you have done on bad teams, with better players, playing easy minutes. 

How hard is that?

I don't even know what he was supposed to do, in response to such comments (the comments that obviously occurred during the season; the post-season comments are just retroactive justification). Should he try harder? "Keep your feet moving?" Remember: what he's doing on the defensive side of the puck IS WORKING. And he's being asked to change that. In order to score. I assume that Poni (or anyone else) is doing the exact thing he thinks in that moment is required by the defensive system. If there's a fork in the road, and he can choose (1) slightly more risky defense but more offense, or (2) sound defense...

It's a trade-off. Everyone knows it's a trade-off. And Murray's system requires everyone choose (2). Then why the message that everyone should be choosing (1), which is impossible? 

I think it's because the team's offense is suffering and Murray is feeding us the reason for the suffering. The reason is not that his defensive system prevents the Kings from having a more potent offense. The reason is that the players haven't "learned" or aren't "committed" to a "full effort," "every shift." That's very convenient. 

And I am a big believer in defensive systems. I am, for all the cliched reasons. Defense wins championships. But I am not a big believer in "you can have your cake and eat it too." If you're going to win every game 1-0 and 2-1, then do that. But don't send the message that the guys who are making those 1-0 games possible actually need to be scoring more as if that won't affect defense at all. Because it will, and, as we've seen, it does.

Look at Drew Doughty's and Jack Johnson's numbers 

and you will see the same effect. Both players (1) played against tougher competition (2) with weaker teammates and (3) with more defensive zone starts, yet (4) had virtually identical +-/60 as the previous year despite (5) taking a hit in offensive production. Got that? Both players were given a much tougher job this year, with an emphasis on defensive responsibility, and as a result offense suffered. And what was the message we got from Terry Murray?

Lombardi, Murray discuss Drew Doughty " LA Kings Insider

MURRAY: "[...] as coaches we have very high expectations when you come out of the previous year and you won a gold medal with Team Canada and he was one of the premier players on that (team). He’s being mentioned as a Norris Trophy candidate, finalist, and to end up playing well in the playoffs, you want that right away, right now. In my opinion, it wasn’t there, but he certainly came to being that kind of player as we got to the middle of the season. His contribution was tremendous, and we saw it in Game 2. He stepped up. He showed the kind of leadership and the kind of player he is, and that’s what we need all the time."

Be a dominant player on the ice, while playing with weaker teammates against tougher opponents in more defensive situations. Right. Look, Kopitar and Brown both got stronger teammates and weaker opponents this season compared to last season. Is that an accident? I doubt it. 

Here's Murray on Wayne Simmonds' season:

Murray discusses Wayne Simmonds " LA Kings Insider

Question: When you look at Wayne Simmonds’ year, was it a step backward?

MURRAY: "He had a bit of a lull. I don’t know if he took a step backwards. Maybe half a step. 

Simmonds' drop-off in QUALTEAM was highest among forwards by a mile, and was 1/1000th of a QUALTEAM point away from Rob Scuderi's, which was the biggest drop-off on the team. As a reminder, a low QUALTEAM means you're playing with weaker teammates. Nobody had a bigger change for the worse than Simmonds and Scuderi. And, yes, Simmonds' QUALCOMP went up, reflecting tougher defensive assignments, tougher opponents. He already drew a lot of defensive zone starts, and that didn't change.

Among top-nine forwards, Simmonds' QUALTEAM number was nearly as bad as Ponikarovsky's. 

Of course, he lost a fraction of a point in P/60, as did Poni, Doughty and Johnson. But, hey, the numbers (P/60) of Brown and Kopitar, who had better teammates and weaker opponents, went up, way up in Kopitar's case. Funny out that happens. 

When looking at all these several incidents in which the Kings crapped out in the face of greatness it strikes me that there may be, "in the culture", a pressure applied to the players in the form of the unexamined cliche, "we need our great players to be great." This is, of course, "step up" in sheep's clothing. And the message is the same: it's time for you to do more, take over, be the "history will be made" version of yourself. Whatever. You might score the Bobby Orr OT highlight goal. Or you might pinch when you're not supposed to and give the other team an outnumbered attack.

Don't forget

No one had blown a 4 goal lead in a playoff game in 26 years. The record is the comeback from 5-0 known as the Miracle on Manchester. It's only happened two other times (both from 4 goals down), the last being in 1985. That's a level of historic collapse that you simply can't brush off as a "youthful mistake." And the entire season came down to that second period. I don't know who was supposed to take the reigns there, calm everyone down, slow down the pace, whatever. Should a time-out have been called? I have no idea (but, yes, it should have). Truly, I don't know who was supposed to take over there, but I sure as hell know who did.

Nobody.

Don't forget

this, from back in January...

I looked to the history books to find a worse run of Kings' games - Jewels From The Crown

12-19-1, our current run, is the record to beat. As far as I can tell, and I am pretty bleary-eyed from fatigue and anger, the Kings have not put together 32 games this crappy in eight years. Not during the rebuild, not during Crawford, not during the Andy Murray flame-out of 2006. [...] In 2002-03, they also had a 12-19-1 stretch, in the middle of which they traded Brian Smolinski (for Tim Gleason, good trade) andMathieu Schneider (for Sean Avery, bad trade). In both 1995-96 and 1996-97, the Kings did worse.1996 was the year of the Gretzky fire-sale, so that's expected. It's also one of the darkest periods of crappiness in Kings history.  Then you would have to go back before 1988, at least, to find another one. 

What's mind-boggling to me about that particular streak is, the other streaks I mentioned all had obvious causes:

  • In 2003, the Kings were trading away important assets. 
  • In 1996, the (Burger) Kings traded away that Gretzky guy.
  • 1997, if I recall correctly, there were major ownership issues and was just generally a lousy team in all ways, with no expectations whatsoever, and no prospects (literally and figuratively - Roman Vopat?) for the future. 
But this year's team was distracted by ... nothing? No trades. No distracting contract negotiations. No ownership issues. No injuries even. Everything was just hunky-dory. How can that be?

A historic melt-down with no cause. 

It occurs to me, there is a sense in which "step up" isn't just a tired platitude, and that's when it refers to stepping up as a team. Gelling as a team. Uniting against all outside forces, acting as one. As a team, not as an individual stepping outside of the team. 

But then, you can't act on that instruction, except through a redoubled emphasis on focus. 

And if the Kings had been able to maintain that focus, they wouldn't have followed up goals-for with immediate goals-against about a thousand times this season, nor would they have followed historic winning streaks with historic slumps, nor would they have lost either of their last two playoff series.

And we wouldn't be having this conversation.

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