Do the Kings Have a Problem, and if so, what is it? (Or is everything actually great?)
Terry Murray has been very successful by most if not all of the yardsticks we use to measure coaches. His winning percentage is the highest in franchise history (though the numbers are skewed a bit because of shoot-outs). He has taken an inexperienced, bottom-feeding team and got them to buy-in to a team concept etc etc, resulting in two visits to the playoffs and two of the best regular seasons in franchise history.
I'm not selling any of that short.
I'm glad he was hired -- I thought Marc Crawford was temperamentally wrong for this team -- and I am certainly grateful for the two playoff series, not to mention the somewhat miraculous recoveries during the regular season, without which we wouldn't have made the post-season to begin with.
I do wish, however, that those recoveries hadn't been necessary, since the slumps that preceded them were largely self-inflicted.
The January slump -- when you take into account the fact that there were no extenuating circumstances to explain it -- was essentially unprecedented in franchise history. As I laid out in a previous post, every other time the Kings have managed a slump as bad as that one, there was something horrible going on: trading key players away in 2002, trading franchise players away in 1996, ownership troubles. One such slump was in 1997, which didn't have a specific crisis other than that they were one of the worst Kings teams ever.
Therefore, a slump of that magnitude, absent the "usual" causes, is a problem that requires an explanation. As Lombardi mentioned at the end of the season, Detroit doesn't go 0-9. They stop the bleeding. Why didn't the 2010-11 team stop the bleeding?
The same question ought to be leveled at the game three meltdown in this year's playoffs. Why weren't they able to stop the bleeding? 4-0, 4-1, 4-2, 4-3, 4-4, 4-5... so many chances to put out the fire (switching metaphors, I know). It seems pretty clear that, in the case of that single game, and in game four also (in which the Kings gave up goals in bunches not once but twice, if memory serves), we're looking at a psychological problem, which tracks back to inexperience and/or a failure of leadership.
In the case of game three, I can't blame the system. Because the players abandoned the system.
But in terms of the month-long slump, I wonder: did opponents simply solve the Kings' system? And, if so, did the Kings just fail to adjust on the fly?
I can't say what I'm about to say with any authority -- without going back and looking at tape of that whole miserable period (no, thanks) -- but my suspicion is that Murray simply doubled-down on the fundamentals, re-emphasizing the crucial details of the system, out of a steadfast (stubborn?) belief that, if you "execute", the system will work. So just execute.
I don't have a problem with this in the abstract. If I were a coach, I would want to be much closer to Terry Murray, Jacques Lemaire or Robbie Ftorek, than to (say) Barry Melrose or Tom Webster. What I have a problem with is that "just execute" is self-validating.
- If we win, it's because the system works and we executed.
- If we lose, it's because the system works and we didn't execute.
- In either case, the system works.
I'm not talking about the truth (or not) of whether the system works if you follow the system. Let's assume it does (work), in general. I'm pointing out the psychological wear-and-tear that comes with doubling-down on a system that (for whatever reason) isn't working for an extended period (a month or so), essentially siding with the system against the players.
The counter-argument would be that Murray was right because eventually the ship righted itself and the team got back on track. Murray was, as Lombardi pointed out, the calm at the eye of the storm, and the team recovered to finish with an excellent 98 points.
My response to that would be, what changed?
It's possible that there were numerous adjustments made to the system that are so far above my ability to perceive them that it's not surprising nobody noticed. It's also possible that I couldn't see them because all I could see was the result (i.e. losing). It's also possible -- the interpretation probably favored by management -- the players finally figured it out. Whatever "it" is.
My guess, though, is that the biggest change was that the Kings drove themselves from the top of the standings to the bottom, from #1 overall in the league to within shouting distance of Columbus if not Edmonton. At which point, they felt more comfortable. Because being on the outside looking in, looking up at the nine teams playing better than you are and knowing you have to claw and scratch your way back in, that's a familiar situation for the Kings. Being #1 in the league freaked them out, I think. And so they crapped out, and, having crapped out, they relaxed. And maybe opponents relaxed, too. In any case, it became possible for the Kings to turn it around. And they did.