When the New York Rangers traded for Mark Messier of the Edmonton Oilers in 1991, the Rangers renegotiated his contract to reflect his new landscape and lofty expectations: The new deal included a clause allowing Messier to renegotiate his deal again if the Rangers won the Stanley Cup.
Messier joined a team that had finished in first or second place in the Patrick Division in the two previous seasons under NHL coaching innovator Roger Neilson. With Messier in the fold, New York again finished first -- in the entire league this time -- as Messier won the Hart Trophy for the NHL's most valuable player.
But in the 1991-92 playoffs, those Rangers lost in the Patrick Division finals to the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Penguins after needing seven games to get past the New Jersey Devils. Half way through the next season, Neilson was fired and the Rangers missed the playoffs, finishing last in the Patrick Division.
Despite their Presidents' Trophy together, word was that Messier never believed in Neilson, and the MVP player took precedent over the twice division-winning coach. Mike Keenan, with a history of taking teams to the Final, took the helm for 1993-94. (Ironically it was Keenan, who jumped ship to the Blues immediately after winning the Cup, who pushed to trade Hull to get Messier to join the Blues.)
The lesson here is that teams build themselves and raise their own expectations over time, but the coaches who lead them there are still the most disposable part of the equation. All too often, they do the leg work -- like baseball's middle relief setup men -- while a "closer" comes in to finish the job.
It happened to Neilson with the Rangers. It happened to Michel Therrien, who took the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 only to be fired 57 games later. His replacement, Dan Bylsma, won the Cup with the Pens that next season. It happened this year to Bruce Boudreau, the fastest coach to reach 200 NHL wins, whom the Washington Capitals replaced with Dale Hunter.
And if things don't change in Los Angeles, it may happen to Terry Murray of the Kings.
With the Kings losing four in a row and having the lowest-scoring offense in the league through 29 games, there is plenty of speculation the defensive-minded Murray will be the casualty, with the Los Angeles Times and Yahoo's Puck Daddy each probing the topic. A Los Angeles Times report suggests a Murray firing could come this week.
As SB Nation's Kings blog Jewels From The Crown points out, the Kings have added player talent for Murray each season. They're expected to take that proverbial next step yet appear to be stagnating under the same issues and criticisms that have come up about Murray each season; problems that adding yet another talent might not fix:
The Kings added [Dustin] Penner at the deadline, a guy who has scored 20-30 goals a year basically his entire career. Now he's virtually useless. Lombardi traded for Mike Richards, and signed Simon Gagne. They're both playing their asses off, or were, in the case of Richards. And the result is? The Kings suck. Alex Frolov was a 30 goal-scorer before Terry Murray got ahold of him. Teddy Purcell, Matt Moulson, Brian Boyle, all filled the net once they escaped his evil clutches.
Why does anyone think adding another Big Piece is going to make any difference? Since they're all asked to do the same thing, play the same way, and their numbers all plummet? Is anyone going to feel better with Zach Parise instead of Dustin Brown, if Terry Murray is still the coach?
There is a danger in blaming -- or crediting -- the coach, in that every rebuilding team with maturing young stars is both expected to take steps but also expected to have stumbles. But the coach is the easiest target, especially when, as with the Kings and Murray, the roster keeps getting better. With Drew Doughty in his fourth season, captain Brown at age 27, and several playoff-experienced veterans in their late twenties or early thirties, the Kings expect to win now.
The same season the Penguins fired Cup Finalist Therrien and hired Bylsma, there was another coaching change on a growing team with lots of maturing stars: Four games in the Chicago Blackhawks fired Denis Savard, who'd taken them from 55 to 88 points the season before (with a huge assist from new stars like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane).
Under the experienced Joel Quenneville that Blackhawks team made the Conference Finals in 2009, and in 2010, won their first Cup since 1961.
Much like Quenneville (though not at all like Bylsma), Terry Murray has plenty of experience and plenty of wins, too. He's coached over 1,000 NHL games and his next victory will be his 500th. But despite coaching strong teams in Washington and Philadelphia, he doesn't have the reputation of getting teams all the way to the grand prize.
In NHL terms, Murray may be just the setup guy.