Assistant coach John Stevens will take over for fired Terry Murray on an… (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images )
On a fine summer day in 2008, shortly after Terry Murray was appointed the 22nd coach in the Kings' rocky history, he predicted the course of the team's latest rebuilding process.
"You're going to have to go through a lot," he said. "A lot of pain. Hard nights, long nights, pain."
He was right. The under-talented Kings winced through much of Murray's first season while he stabilized the defense and instilled a sense of purpose, but they reaped the rewards by making the playoffs the next two seasons.
The reason he was fired Monday and that John Stevens will become No. 23 in a line of failed Stanley Cup seekers is that the Kings were enduring hard, long, painful nights again — this time with a high-salaried team whose skill level promised more than it was delivering.
Four straight losses in which the uninspired Kings scored six goals proved the tipping point for General Manager Dean Lombardi. He had tried to avoid this in deference to Murray's conscientious nature and unwavering class but on Sunday, with the Kings 12th in the West and averaging a league-low 2.24 goals per game despite the highest payroll in their history, he had no choice but to dismiss Murray and put Stevens in charge on an interim basis. Read that as until Darryl Sutter can take over.
For the first time in Lombardi's tenure the Kings faced pressure to win. They responded by finding ways to lose, and Murray's praise of one or two aspects of their game was ringing hollow. They anticipated making a big leap this season but were giving no indication they were capable of it.
"The challenge for a coach as well as players when you have expectations it's driven more to results. It's harder, at times, to look for those victories within losses. That's just the state of the franchise right now," Lombardi said from Boston, where he flew Monday to deliver the news to Murray at the team's hotel.
"You could look for more of those things three years ago, but we're trying to push to the next level…. I do think we're at the stage of the franchise where you're going to be judged on wins and losses and playoff rounds. And that's where you strive to be. It's a lot easier when there's no expectations and with every win you can get a parade. We're not there right now, so it comes down to wins and losses."
As it should. In 2010 they were happy to make the playoffs for the first time in eight years and considered their six-game loss to Vancouver a learning experience. They believed they could beat San Jose last spring but were again eliminated in six games, a lateral move after a season of statistical stagnation.
They had big dreams this season after they acquired Mike Richards and signed Simon Gagne, but the promised flow of goals never materialized. Players felt stifled, frustrated, taking needless penalties and losing their prized discipline.
Married to a conservative style that didn't capitalize on the little speed he had up front and valued safety above creativity, Murray had taken the Kings as far as he could but not as far as Lombardi thinks they can go. It's entirely possible Lombardi has overestimated his assets but he's not ready to concede that. And with a payroll that brushes the salary-cap limit, importing an impact player wasn't an option.
As Kings governor Tim Leiweke noted before the season, parent company AEG has committed to paying Richards, Gagne and Drew Doughty $114.6 million, about $1.3 million more than it paid for the franchise in 1995. A tedious, predictable, cycle-the-puck-til-the-rubber-wears-out strategy and non-playoff standing wasn't the return AEG envisioned.
If Leiweke or anyone else pressured Lombardi into making this move, that's perfectly fine. Stevens will be the third coach to work for Lombardi following the too-impatient Marc Crawford and the noble but incomplete Murray. Lombardi has to get this coaching decision right or the next dismissal visit will be paid to his hotel room or office.
There is plenty of blame to be heaped on players, too. Doughty isn't nearly the player he was two seasons ago and isn't contributing enough offensively. Dustin Penner should have more than two goals and Justin Williams more than four. Anze Kopitar should have outgrown his streakiness. The third and fourth lines need to establish identities. And it's long past time to hear from Jarret Stoll.
Lombardi didn't mince words Monday in telling players they bore as much responsibility as Murray.
"It's simple. It sounds cliche-like but it's true. Ultimately the message is that they're accountable, and unfortunately the coach has to pay the price," Lombardi said. "But make no mistake that they're the ones who are accountable for this."
So is he, and it's time for him to live up to expectations with the right coaching pick and a season-saving turnaround. To fans so patiently waiting for the Kings to win the Cup, the alternative is simply unthinkable.