Thursday, June 18, 2015

Murray departs Phantoms, touches down in Buffalo

News out of Buffalo this afternoon: Terry Murray has been tabbed as an assistant with Dan Byslma and the Sabres, which means an additional task ahead for Ron Hextall will be to find a suitable replacement as head coach for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

Murray guided the club for two seasons in Glens Falls, NY and this past campaign in Allentown, PA, but despite the new surroundings -- a brand-new arena which housed state-of-the-art training equipment -- he wasn't able to both develop talent and reach the postseason.

He finished with a record of 94-111-23, concluding his third separate stint with the Philadelphia organization.

“We’d like to thank Terry for his years of loyal service to the Philadelphia Flyers organization and wish him nothing but the best in Buffalo. Moving forward, we will take our time in deciding what’s best for the Phantoms and will address this further tomorrow," Hextall noted in a brief statement issued later in the day.

Simply put, the  64-year-old  native of Quebec was itching to get back to the NHL. Towards the end of the season, he strongly hinted at that fact, and then, following a 4-1 season-concluding loss to the Baby Penguins on April 19, indicated that he'd be open to a job at the top level of North American hockey.

Though it was assumed that Murray would be a natural fit to help new Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol acclimate himself to a new league and the mechanisms of the organization, an elevation to Philly was not in the cards.

When pressed on his future plans, Murray did not strongly hint Philadelphia would be a prime choice. In addition, Murray's older brother, Bryan, now the Senators' GM, has been battling cancer, and the Sabres' GM is Terry's nephew, so a move to Western New York presents both a new challenge and some comfort that he's closer to a sibling in a time of need. 

Murray also  served as head coach for the Capitals (1990-94),   Flyers  (1994-97),  Panthers  (1998-2001)  and  Kings  (2008-12), compiling  a 499-383-89-41 record along with an appearance in the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals and a huge assist for guiding the Los Angeles club which eventually won the Cup in 2012 after his dismissal. He began his NHL coaching career in 1983 as an assistant alongside brother Bryan when the latter was head coach in Washington.

Behind the scenes, indications throughout the season were that Murray was not enamored with the way certain facets of roster decisions were made or presented. The prime example of a potential rift was the miscommunication over defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere's recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in early November, and subsequent surgery.

Hextall had publicly stated he expected the Union College product to be ready in 3-to-4 months despite a longer timetable for similar injuries across the spectrum of professional sports. Things came to a brief head in early March, with Hextall refuting Murray's insistence that Gostisbehere would be shut down for the remainder of the season.The young, cornerstone blueliner was eventually declared unfit to return several weeks later, after Hextall made one final consultation with doctors.

Plus, according to Phantoms broadcaster Bob Rotruck, several weeks ago, Flyers President Paul Holmgren said there was uncertainty in the position without elaborating further.

In any event, the next person chosen to corral the Phantoms will be the fifth man to do so since the franchise was uprooted from the Spectrum in 2009. The lone head coach without prior ties to the Flyers organization was former Islanders and Blackhakws forward Greg Gilbert, who was ousted early in the 2010-11 season after a year-plus in charge.

Given his sharp turn away from the old boys' network in choosing Hakstol, Hextall may be looking elsewhere to put his stamp on the next generation of potential Flyers.

Rumors were floated, though all off the record and unsubstantiated, that Murray might have seen the writing on the wall that biding his time in Allentown wouldn't automatically mean a promotion to the Orange and Black. Murray had been an assistant in Philadelphia under Ken Hitchcock and John Stevens from 2003-08 before taking the Kings' job. There were also unsubstantiated rumblings of displeasure with the way call-ups were handled.

To that end, check out a column from two weeks back, where I speculated on the pros and cons of some likely candidates to fill Murray's role.

Ultimately, it was likely a change had to occur and would be best in order to develop well and win more. In three seasons, with three completely different rosters, Murray's teams suffered similar fates: hot and cold streaks on offense, and scorching defensive streaks when offense was virtually ignored; early season bursts into the playoff picture followed by late-mid-season slumps which were never able to be overcome. The stars, for lack of a better term, were never aligned to keep offense and defense clicking at a rate where success was maintained.

While call-ups for top performers are part and parcel of the process, it didn't prevent negative runs of 4-9-0 from mid-January into February and 4-11-1 to end the year. Likewise, last season, a 9-3-0 run in November and December was obliterated by a 2-13-1- stretch from mid-January through the end of February.
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