Management makes decision to go in different direction for floundering squad
BY LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- A coach of the year candidate in July, Andy Murray is without a job today.
The Blues fired Murray Saturday morning after the team labored near the .500 mark for much of the season in what has been deemed an underachieving season so far.
Murray was replaced by Davis Payne, the head coach of the Blues' American Hockey League in Peoria the last two seasons. Payne, 39, will be the interim coach and stay on until at least the end of this season.
Assistant coaches Brad Shaw, who Davidson said was the other candidate considered for the position, and Ray Bennett will remain in their current positions. Assistant coach/goaltending coach Rick Wamsley has been named to replace Payne as Peoria's head coach.
Murray, 58, took over the Blues in 2006 and compiled a 118-102-32, including 17-17-6 in 40 games this season. He led the charge last season that sprung the Blues into the playoffs for the first time post-lockout and qualified him as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, but the team went into its game with the Chicago Blackhawks Saturday night in 12th place in the Western Conference and with the NHL's worst home record at 6-13-3 (5-13-3 at Scottrade Center).
"We decided that with myself, and with our hockey operations people here in St. Louis with the blessing of ownership -- led by Dave Checketts -- to make this change and to bring in Davis Payne as the interim head coach for the rest of the season here with the Blues," Blues President John Davidson said Saturday morning. "Our goal as of right now, is to get back winning, especially on home ice and to make the playoffs and to improve as we march along here with all players in our lineup."
The move seemed inevitable, particularly in the last week or so as the Blues continue to labor at home (1-7-2 in their last 10) after sweeping the western Canada swing prior to that.
The last straw came in Thursday's 4-3 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks in which the Blues blew their second 3-0 lead in six home games.
"I don't know," Davidson said when asked if that was the final straw. "It's kind of maybe the way we lost, if anything else. It's such a mental game at times. This league is so close. In the old days, there were a lot of 6-1 wins and 6-1 losses. You don't see many of those, and if you do, it's probably because of exhaustion where teams had to travel because teams had to play so many games with the Olympics here. But every night, it's such a fine line. You need to be there with your mindset as much as anything else, and we just haven't been there consistently anyway."
Murray took the news with class, according to Davidson. He got word early Saturday morning, packed his things and even left a note to the new coach on the coach's desk.
"It's tough news to get, but that's the nature of our business," Murray said. "Ultimately, I am the one that's responsible. They gave me every opportunity, they backed me up, and I'm appreciative of the support they gave me ... so I have no ill will whatsoever. I thanked them for the opportunity they gave me and I wished them luck."
Murray feels like there was fine line between winning and losing games, and they lost too many games they were in on a nightly basis.
"We just lost too many games we were in a position to win," Murray said. "Early in the year, we had difficult scoring. Recently, the defensive play hasn't been as good. Way too many losses at home, too many games we were leading.
"I really believe in this group of players, really believe they're going to get it done. I'm convinced of that. But we're a .500 team and we haven't played good enough. I'm responsible for the record. Ultimately, that's what I'm judged on."
Players had mixed reactions, some good and one particular player that felt the move was necessary.
"Somehow, everything kind of hit a wall," enforcer Cam Janssen said. "I don't think he was on the same page with everybody, I think that guys didn't know where they stood with him and that's not a good thing to have, especially the older guys. When you've been in the league for 5-10 years, in that range there and even more than that and you don't know where you stand with your coach, then that's not a good thing to have. That's a big deal, and it's a big deal with me because I had no idea where I was with him. I couldn't understand what he was trying to tell me. That's a very bizarre situation, but now I've got to regroup with a new coach and go from there.
"This was the best thing that happened," Janssen continued. "What do you do? You either get rid of him, or you start changing up the team. We got a good group of guys in here, everybody believes in us and the next guy to go I guess would be him. That's the way it is. It's hockey. He's going to find a job somewhere and he'll still have a good career."
Murray, who fans have been pining for his ouster for some time, was criticized for not being able to have a proactive relationship with the Blues' younger core of players.
"He was hard on us," defenseman Erik Johnson said of Murray, who scratched Johnson in a recent game. "Every coach that's hard on you, wants the best out of you and he certainly wanted the best out of all of us. He gave me a shot to play in the NHL as a rookie. He's a really terrific guy, I think, a really detailed coach, a hard-working coach. Every coach has their different ways, and that's just how it goes."
Payne was 62-44-3-6 in two seasons behind the Rivermen bench, including 19-13-1-2. He was the 2006-07 East Coast Hockey League coach of the year after guiding the Alaska Aces to the ECHL championship. He also guided them to three trips to the conference finals.
Payne got word Friday afternoon of the organizational changes and was obviously thrilled.
"I'm absolutely thrilled to be standing where I am," Payne said. "It's been a quick turnaround and an interesting start to a new year and a new challenge.
"I asked these guys to work hard for each other, I asked them to trust each other and I asked them to play with passion. That's our starting point for (Saturday's game). There's a lot of ground to cover structurally, there's a lot ground to cover philosophically, but we feel that if we trust each other and work hard and play with passion, we're going to take steps in the right direction. Tonight is obviously that first step."
Murray can leave with his head high, even though the finishing product of hoisting a Stanley Cup here did not come during his tenure.
"I'll take pride in the fact that the building is full all the time," Murray said. "You look at the development of the young players. Look at some of the guys and the (Olympic) recognition they've gotten recently. I've enjoyed every minute of my job. It's a tough job to lose, but I'm appreciative. I don't blame the players. It's my job to get wins. I didn't get enough of them."