Winging along Murray's stamp may postmark Detroit for playoffs


PHILADELPHIA -- All of the names have changed and the uniforms are missing more than a little bit of blue while sporting a totally different logo.

However, one thing was distinctly the same about the team on the ice last Saturday afternoon at the Spectrum -- it had the trademark defensive stamp of Bryan Murray all over it.

Surely, before this season, no one ever would have mistaken the Detroit Red Wings for the Washington Capitals.

Before Murray took over as general manager and head coach during the offseason -- replacing the affable Jacques Demers -- the Wings were a free-wheeling bunch of offense-minded individuals who posted big stats but few victories.

Now, with the former Caps coach in charge, the Wings play the defensive zone the only way a Murray team knows how -- "responsibly."

The result Saturday and again at Joe Louis Arena Tuesday night were 3-1 victories over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Other teams have been handled "responsibly" as well.

The Red Wings, who last year finished in the Norris Division basement with a 28-38-14 record (8-24-8 on the road), are 17-14-4 and sitting in third place with plenty of time to make a title run.

"Whenever you coach a team for a period of time, like I did the Caps, you're bound to get a reputation," said Murray, 48, who spent 10 years in the Washington organization, 8 1/2 as the head coach of the Caps. "Mine was for defense. But actually, before I got to Washington, I always had teams that were fond of scoring goals. When I got to Washington we evaluated the talent we had and most of it was on defense. We more or less used what we had."

The situation was almost reversed this summer when Murray walked into the Red Wings' camp along with assistant coach Doug MacLean, who was his assistant in Washington and moved to lead the Skipjacks after Murray was fired on Jan. 15.

According to MacLean, who spent much of the summer viewing film on the '89-90 Wings, "the defense gave up way too many bad goals and had breakdowns all over the place." To be exact, the Wings gave up 323 goals in 80 games last year (4.04 GAA).

No surprise, then, that heads turned when Murray was named the new coach.

"The word around here was that he was a defensive coach and he was going to clear house," said center Steve Yzerman, who finished third in the NHL last year with 62 goals and 65 assists.

Murray did make plenty of changes in the defensive system, and even handed the goalie job to Tim Cheveldae, who spent most of last season with Adirondack of the AHL.

It took some time for the new style to click, as the Wings allowed 81 goals in the first 20 games. But in the last 15 the Wings have improved to meet Murray's demands, surrendering just 43 goals (2.87 GAA).

The one thing Murray never tampered with was the offense.

"He's been a lot looser than we thought he'd be," said Yzerman, who has 45 points in 34 games this year. "Last year our forwards didn't check well at all and he's taught us how to put the whole picture together. Good defense only helps the offense."

Murray said it's been a case of allowing the players to do what they do best.

"I only had two rules when I came in -- work hard and be responsible on defense," Murray said. "We have a lot more offense here than we had in Washington and I think if you have the ability to be creative then you do things to compliment that. For instance, most of our practices emphasize skill activities."

The bottom line, Murray said, is that "going into the third period down a few goals or tied we feel we have the ability to win. That wasn't always the case in Washington because we constantly had trouble scoring."

It will certainly take excellent play on both ends of the ice for the Red Wings to be successful in the Norris. Chicago leads the division and the NHL with 50 points and just 93 goals against. St. Louis, which acquired the best team that money could buy over the summer, has 44 points and has surrendered but 90 goals.

"There's no question that we're going to need superior play from everyone to stay competitive in this division," MacLean said.

Murray said the changes in his own life have been almost as drastic as the ones that have taken place on the ice for the Wings.

"We left an area that we had been in for 10 years and one where we were very happy," said Murray, who is married and has two daughters. "It was hard at first, but the best part of the situation here is that I'm the GM and I can do whatever I want as long as the owners agree. The organization is very classy and very wealthy and they'll do whatever it takes to bring a winner to Detroit."

Asked if he ever had major differences with Caps GM David Poile, Murray said, "No, we usually agreed. The only thing that bothered me was the lack of quality goaltending and he finally went out and got some kids through the draft the last few years."

MacLean, who chose the job as Murray's assistant over the head coaching job with Hershey in the AHL, also said that things have worked out for the best after being fired by Poile once the Jacks were eliminated in the semifinals of the Calder Cup playoffs.

"With Bryan having the extra GM responsibilities, a lot of the weight has fallen on me as his assistant," MacLean said. "I'm learning a lot and we've been pretty successful so far. The best part is that I know we're only going to get better."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad