For several years the Los Angeles Kings were able to stockpile young talent for a resurgence that would come at an undetermined date in the future.
It appears that unlimited patience is not something the Kings can count on any longer.
After years of being allowed to conduct a slow rebuilding process, it seems that Kings general manager Dean Lombardi is finally under some pressure to win. That heat led to the firing of head coach Terry Murray, who was relieved of his duties Monday after getting LA off to an extremely disappointing 13-12-4 start.
Murray led the Kings to the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons after the club had missed out on the previous six postseason tournaments. In 2009-10, he also helped LA record its first 100-point campaign since the days of Wayne Gretzky, but he also failed to get the Kings past the first round in either of the last two springs.
The biggest thing that changed for LA this season was the expectations. The Kings moved the goalposts for Murray and his troops this summer when they acquired center Mike Richards in a blockbuster trade with Philadelphia. The move was supposed to seriously improve LA's depth at center, where Anze Kopitar stood out as the Kings' only offensive threat down the middle.
The funny thing is that before recently suffering a head injury Richards had been exactly the player they had been expecting. It could be even argued that with 11 goals and 20 points in 25 games, he was even better than advertised. Yet, the team still struggled as a whole, especially the offense, which is ranked dead last in the NHL with a pitiful average of 2.21 goals per game.
Richards' old mentor from Philadelphia is now tasked with getting the Kings on the right track, as former Flyers head coach John Stevens is taking over for Murray on an interim basis.
Stevens posted a 120-109-34 record while serving as the Flyers head coach from 2006-2009. His relationship with Richards began at the AHL level in 2005 when Stevens coached Richards and the rest of the Philadelphia Phantoms to a Calder Cup championship.
During his days in Philadelphia, Stevens was not known as a strong X's-and-O's guy. Instead, he attempted to simplify the game by focusing on instilling a strong work ethic in his players. Those are assets that could help the Kings get back on track in the short run, but eventually Lombardi is probably going to want a better strategist behind the bench.
Although, the Kings are only two points out of a playoff spot in the West, qualifying for the postseason should not be LA's immediate focus. The goal for Stevens is to get the Kings competing hard on a consistent basis. If that happens, then a team with the talent level of LA certainly has an excellent shot at getting back to the postseason.
The good news for LA is that it has one of the best young goaltenders in the league, as Jonathan Quick continues to get better between the pipes. However, on the other side of the coin, defenseman Drew Doughty has gotten consistently worse since being picked as a finalist for the Norris Trophy in 2009-10. In many ways, Doughty has become the poster boy for LA's inability to get to the next level, and the blame for that falls largely on his own doorstep.
Doughty has just two goals and six assists in 24 games this year and is also a minus-four for the season. This comes after the 22-year-old enigma showed his lack of maturity all summer long with a contract standoff that lasted well into the preseason. Despite coming off a down year, Doughty wanted to be the top-paid player on the Kings and he achieved that when LA ended his holdout by caving with an eight-year, $56 million contract.
Like the Kings as a whole, Doughty needs to learn that showing the potential to be great is not the same thing as actually achieving greatness. Perhaps, the sacrificing of the team's head coach will get this group of underachievers to understand that.
To his credit, Lombardi realized that this firing is a crossroads for his club and he was wise to issue a challenge to his players in the brief statement that accompanied the announcement of Murray's dismissal.
"I told the players that the coach, who works as hard as any coach I have been around, paid the price and that they are accountable," Lombardi said.
As the often misquoted Shakespeare line says, "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." These young Kings may not have earned their spot on the throne yet, but if they don't start delivering on their vast potential soon, they will have plenty of reasons to feel uneasy.