UNIONDALE NY - DECEMBER 02: Matt Moulson #26 (R) of the New York Islanders celebrates his goal at 9:18 of the second period against the New York Rangers and is joined by John Tavares #91 (L) at the Nassau Coliseum on December 2 2010 in Uniondale New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Dean Lombardi used Terry Murray's system to evaluate Brian Boyle, Matt Moulson and Teddy Purcell, each of whom was dismissed because they couldn't do what they had always been able to do well (score goals) while also doing what Murray wanted them to do (play the system). Moulson was never Mr Defense; Boyle tried hard to fit in a 4th line role, and never really got it (while providing some good comedy by looking grief-stricken while punching people); Purcell was defensively pretty good in his final Kings season. But none of them could score while playing D, so now they're somewhere else. To some extent, the issue of why they didn't stick with the Kings is irrelevant since there wasn't really room in the top-six for them anyway. The path to the top-six would have included a lengthy sojourn on the third line, a la Wayne Simmonds, and none of those guys was really suited to that task. So I am not grinding my teeth over the fact that these guys moved on. But I am interested in the idea that in order to get to the top-six you essentially have to prove yourself by playing on a line that plays all-defense-all-the-time. Or else we're talking about the fourth line -- the enforcers, energy guys and AHL snipers line -- where your outlook is even less hopeful.
Purcell is an interesting case in that regard, because he actually played well on the defensive side of the puck, but ultimately was undone by his inability to score while doing so. He was given some opportunities to play with the big boys, but just as (or more?) often he was playing on the fourth line with fists of ham and just about zero chance to get any offense going. The Terry Murray credo -- which we saw applied to Alexei Ponikarovsky this year, Frolov in years past, Purcell in his last year -- seemed to be "just score anyway." As in, play defense against tougher opposition and score like you did in the minors with no linemates to work with.
That's a pretty tall order, but that doesn't mean it's not the right call by Murray. After all, these are grown-ups and professionals. A high degree of execution is in order, isn't it? This got me thinking about the assumptions built into Murray's expectations of his players. And I kept coming back to the same question:
Should every player be required to pass the same defensive "aptitude tests"?
Well, I guess that depends on how the team is built. A team built for speed plays a different defense than one built for size. Murray's philosophy is pretty firmly rooted in the blue-paint/blue-collar style of bruising, soffocating, "pucks to the net" hockey; and Lombardi's philosophy?
I don't know.
These are not all "Philly West" type players
Lombardi talks as though he subscribes 100% to the blue-collar credo, yet his picks and acquisitions don't always support that. Purcell, Moulson, Patrick O`Sullivan, Oscar Moller, Andrei Loktionov, Tyler Toffoli, Viatcheslav Voynov, Alec Martinez, Brandon Kozun, Justin Azevedo, Jordan Weal... these are not "Philly West"-type players. They are mostly fast, mostly small-ish, soft-handed, high-skilled top-six forwards or offensive defensemen. A couple are decent defensively, but it's not the strong suit for most of them. Why is Lombardi expending so many resources to develop players that at first glance don't seem to fit with the system he and Murray are selling? Why go after Ilya Kovalchuk, who -- as the joke goes -- sees his own zone twice a night, once during warm-ups and once to high-five his goalie at the end of the game.
Certainly part of the reason Lombardi drafted those players is that, after the first round, super-high-skilled players just get smaller (a 6'3" Loktionov would have gone in the top 10). Part of it is the "best player available" strategy (Lombardi knows he can deal the assets that don't fit in LA, bringing in pieces that fit).
The problem with that is the cap. Post-lockout, you have to "ladder" your prospects so that they become NHL-ready just as the players ahead of them in the depth chart are set to get their new contracts. That way you have a steady influx of prospects "coming due" every year, and you can keep the team's cap number down. If Johnson wants too much (he didn't, luckily), you have Voynov or Hickey; if Quick or Bernier want too much in two years, you have Jones and Berube. In that context, it makes no sense to draft assets that don't fit your system, because you're actually counting on them to be ready to play within a certain window. And you can't just go out and trade for other people's prospects (the ones who would be a better fit), because by definition those prospects have panned out in someone else's system and those other GMs are not going to be dealing them.
"That Dean Lombardi. He's quite a character."
So, back to Lombardi's philosophy. I get the feeling he's conservative (or maybe "old-fashioned" is the better label) in some things, but not all. He's old-school in the way he likes to nurture his prospects, in his attitude re character and effort, paying your dues, valuing the team over the individual -- and each of those things is reflected in Terry Murray. But he's also a bit of a populist/intellectual, fan of Sabermetrics and Moneyball, believer (at least in part) in so-called micro-stats, a guy who references Hamburger Hill in his Big Game speeches, who reads Tolstoy in an effort to understand his Russian players, who loves to go off-the-board in his draft picks, who has, for lack of a better way to put it, the gift of gab.
In short, he's a character. I mean that the way my grandmother would have meant it. "That Dean Lombardi, he's quite a character." I know this sounds like it's utterly off-topic, but I don't think it is. I'm working on a half-baked theory that Lombardi subscribes to Terry Murray's watching-paint-dry defensive system out of necessity (lacking the firepower to play an uptempo game, especially during a rebuild) but only up to a point. According to this half-baked thought, there will come a tipping point -- when the prospects mature to level x, when UFA so-and-so finally signs -- when Lombardi will opt for a game-plan with a little more personality.
What exactly does personality mean when talking about hockey strategy?
Who knows? I'm weaving a metaphor that may not work. But let's pretend it does. I'll define it as having to do with being able to have different kinds of "conversations" with a variety of opponents, having a spectrum (Flyer pun!) of responses to select from, depending on what the opponent "says." Not just having essentially the same stock response no matter what anyone is actually saying to you.
An example of "having the same stock response" would be requiring every player to pass the same defensive "aptitude tests". Personally, I like "systems," believe in the value of defensive responsibility, and would (as a coach) expect that everyone achieve (my definition of) basic competency.
Yes, everyone has to be defensively responsible. The question is, does everyone have to be defensively responsible in the same way?
I don't think they do.
Take Alex Frolov. Just by hanging onto the puck like he does, he's playing good defense. Even if he doesn't get off a shot, even if he loses the puck ultimately and the other team escapes their defensive zone.
I'm not saying that there aren't subtle differences in the way each line plays. I'm saying: I wonder if the system requires lines that are more alike than different, and as a result are easier to defend against.
Murray's Interchangeable parts
We're all familiar with Murray's penchant for changing up his lines. We have seen that he likes to work with forwards in pairs, and then rotate the third members of the line in and out to suit the circumstance. In general I've always liked this scheme. It gives the impression of a dizzying array of line combos, when in fact the variations are much more simple. Handzus and Simmonds (usually) stay together. Brown and Kopitar. Stoll and Smyth. Or is it Stoll and Williams. Okay, so he changes the pairs around, too. But a nice side-effect of that is that everyone has played with everyone else, and everyone has a pretty high degree of comfort with whomever their linemates happen to be.
But, for that to work, every line has to be interchangeably similar.
Whereas, if the lines are stable, the system can work in different ways for different units. One line can trap; the next can be all speed and run-and-gun. Opponents can't get their bearings long enough to be able to solve the system, because the system shifts beneath their feet. What works against one line will be fatal against the next one.
That requires an extremely nimble and creative leadership. Lots of audibles. Lots of adjusting on the fly.
I wonder if one of the flaws in Murray's system is that, because it requires (near?) perfection to be effective, it demands so much of the player's focus that two things happen: (1) he has no room left in his brain to maintain a Plan B, because his whole brain is fixed on Plan A, and (2) the player is stuck almost entirely in his "left brain."
Oh, crap. "Left brain." That's like neuroscience!
You should probably consider the possibility that I have no idea what I'm talking about. But here's the thing: the left hemisphere of the brain handles the analytical, the logical, the concrete, the literal. It's the part of your brain that is on line when you're following directions to a place you've never been before. It's the part of your brain that's on-line when you're trying to stick to a system that isn't second nature. The right hemisphere is the instinctive, artistic, creative, metaphorical, unconscious. It's the part of your brain that's on-line when you're driving home and suddenly you're in your driveway and you don't remember all the turns you made. It's the part of your brain that's on-line when you are inspired. When you're acting on instinct. When everything is flowing "naturally", thoughtlessly, effortlessly. Your right brain is where the Zone is. Your left brain is what comes on-line at the first sign of trouble.
Anyway, I wonder if Murray's system requires flawless execution to the degree that the players are always in a left-brain/analytical mode, and so, rarely get into The Zone, rarely get into that right brain flow when things "just happen."
I shouldn't say "requires flawless execution" without explaining: every system requires that you follow the system. That goes without saying. But some systems have more redundancy built in than others, so that if someone makes a mistake, there's a stop-gap, and it takes two or three compounded mistakes to cause a goal-against (in theory) -- while with other systems, one screw up and the puck's in your goal. Like being a tight-rope walker without a net.
I worry that Murray's system has no net.
The other kind of trust
A system requires obeisance. That's what trust means, when people talk about trusting the system. It's the trust borne of "do what I say because it works." But there's another kind of trust, which would be the coach's faith in the abilities of his players.
There is an undercurrent of, yes you've scored a lot of goals in those other lesser leagues but in the NHL you aren't any good unless you can play defense too. You have to learn what it means to be an NHL player.
And of course that's true. As far as that goes. Players do need to learn how to adjust to the speed and the intelligence of the NHL game. But it's also total bullshit. Because we all know there are players who don't have to play a lick of defense. Because they score. Lots. Of. Goals. Seriously, if the Kings had one player who could score on the powerplay this year, that would have been worth its weight in defensive breakdowns. Especially in the playoffs, like when you have a five minute power-play that goes into OT in the series deciding game.
The Dickhead Exception
Maybe if you just built the need for one dickhead into the system, there wouldn't be any resentment from the rest of the team that this one guy is "above the system." Just like nobody expects linemen to be able to sprint like safeties, or the kicker to be able to catch passes, players can say, "oh, he's the dickhead, the dickhead doesn't backcheck under the system, he just scores 50 goals." Maybe even make it a designation like F3. "In this situation, Heatley is dickhead," etc.
It's always a good idea to pack for both kinds of weather
Before the playoffs, I kept reading how Murray's style is playoff style, that teams like Washington have come around to playing defense first, playing a Murray-like system. And we all know that defense wins championships. It says so in the cliche manual.
And then the playoffs started, and we saw many high-scoring games, 6-5, 5-4, 7-4, all over the league. Run and gun. Track meets. And I started to hear that this was the new way.
The truth is, we've seen a lot of both. Shut outs, defensive battles, goal fests, blow-outs, blow-out/shut-outs. It seems to me that would be advantageous to play both ways. Another way to say that: you need a system, but the system has to be flexible. Not just that one line is more defensive than others because it's players are better defensively; the lines need to play different styles and need to be able to change styles depending on context. Because there is no one kind of playoff hockey.
And if, as a team, you can only do one thing,
all the opponent has to do is stop that one thing. And then you're stopped. It doesn't do any good to try extra really super hard to execute your same schematic 100% flawlessly. Because the code has been cracked. And there had better be a new code.
Just look at the fact that the new meme in Kingsland is that Anze Kopitar is the team's best defensive forward. Built into that is that the Kings' defense fell apart in the first round because Kopitar wasn't there. Now, it's great that Kopitar has learned how to play defense. It's huge, especially in terms of his personal maturity as a "complete player." The problem is that Kopitar is not getting $7MM a year to be our best defensive player. Teams like Nashville, that thrive under a rigid defensive system, are working on a budget, and are using the system to correct for a lack of skill. The system rounds their skills up. The Kings system rounds their skills down.
No Plan B?
People say that offense wasn't a problem in the playoffs. But I think it was. The argument goes something like this: if they had only stuck to the system, they wouldn't have needed more offense. The counter-argument is: but if the system can't sustain itself, and the Kings find a game getting away from them...there is no Plan B.
A team that scores a lot of goals is not even necessarily "off its game" if it finds itself behind 3-0. If the Kings are behind 3-0, and they self-identify as a defensive team that doesn't score a lot of goals, it's a crisis of identity. They can't score and apparently they aren't that good at defense either.
REVEALED: The Secret to Why the Kings Give Up Goals Right After Scoring
All Kings fans are familiar with their team's delightful habit of "inexplicably" giving up goals right after having scored. This was usually chocked up to discipline or youth or nerves or something. Mental breakdowns.
But what if the reason that happened so much is because the Kings simply did not have an effective sequence of lines to put on the ice after a goal, to keep control of momentum, to -- in effect -- make the goal count.
Why would this be?
Maybe because all of the Kings lines were essentially the same line running the same ruts in the same ice. Some with more skill than others. But otherwise the same.
Look at it mathematically. Assume that all Kings lines run essentially the same system, but with varying degrees of skill. Now, we arrive at a situation where the Kings score a goal. Just in terms of the law of averages, who do you think is likely to have been on the ice for the goal?
Odds are, it was the first line or the second line. Because those are the lines that score most. But we have already heard that Kopitar is our best defensive forward. If that's true, it would be a pretty f-ing good idea to put him out after the Kings score a goal whenever that is possible. The problem is, we can't, because in many situations his line scored the goal and is tired.
That's why you have a defensive stopper line. But we have one, you say? Yes, but not one that worked in those situations. It worked the season before, but that line was Handzus, Simmonds and Alex Frolov. And what does Frolov do? He hangs onto the f-ing puck. He may not score, but no-one else is going to score either.
At which point, I go back to the other point, that the Kings have essentially only one kind of line, running one kind of system, which requires only one kind of counter-measure, which means that an opponent -- who has redoubled its efforts in the wake of giving up a goal -- only has to do one thing right, the thing they've worked out to beat the Kings' system, which is the same system no matter who is out there. And that's infinitely easier than solving a defensive system that shifts its strategy depending on context. Especially when, odds are, its best defensive forward -- also its best offensive forward -- is sitting on the bench because his line just scored.