The Kings, who improved by 23 points last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 1982, will open their 1985-86 National Hockey League season tonight against the Vancouver Canucks at the Forum at 7:30.
"It seems like we're a lot more confident this year," King defenseman Mark Hardy said. "Physically, I think we're in great shape. The mental part is the hard part."
Because of the team's modest success last season under first-year Coach Pat Quinn and General Manager Rogie Vachon, King fans will probably expect more than last season's fourth-place finish in the Smythe Division.
The Kings, however, have a roller-coaster history, slumping after good seasons. For example, after finishing with 99 points in 1981, they tailed off to 66 in 1982.
"We made a lot of progress last season," said center Marcel Dionne. "But we have got to stay up to that level and that's tougher to do."
After what could have been a disheartening start--they were still winless after nine games--almost everything went right for the Kings last season. They didn't have any serious injuries, for one thing. An injury to a key player like Dionne, center Bernie Nicholls or right wing Dave Taylor would be a big blow this season.
During training camp, Quinn said he would like to challenge the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames for second place behind the Edmonton Oilers, two-time defending Stanley Cup champion. Last season, the Kings were tied for second place with the Jets and Flames in late February, but faded a bit in the last six weeks.
The Kings played the Oilers tough in the first round of the playoffs, however, and although the Oilers swept the three-game series, two of the games went into overtime.
"Edmonton is the best team in hockey," Quinn said. "I'd like to think we'll be able to challenge for second. Last year I was a little more apprehensive because I didn't know what to expect going into the first game. I was concerned with how our two rookie goaltenders would react.
"The only question now is: Are we ready to start the season and take advantage of our schedule? We have four straight home games, but we play some tough teams right off the bat. We could rationalize our start last year, but it will be hard to do this year."
This year, for instance, the Kings will play six of their first seven games at the Forum.
The Kings will be a young team, with six rookies--defensemen Ken Hammond and Dean Kennedy, centers Brian Wilks and Dave Gans and left wings Lyle Phair and Dan Brennan.
Gans, 21, has been one of the big surprises of training camp. He was the club's second-leading scorer in the exhibition season with nine points. Gans was drafted by the Kings in the fourth round in 1982, and scored 105 points for the Kings' farm team in Toledo, Ohio, last season.
Phair, a 24-year-old free agent from Michigan State, was signed by Vachon this summer and also played well in training camp.
In addition, there are five players with just one year of experience, goalies Bob Janecyk and Darren Eliot, defensemen Craig Redmond and Garry Galley and left wing Phil Sykes.
"It's never easy when you go through this type of change," Quinn said. "But you've got to bite the bullet and try to bring new guys in. It took the mighty Oilers about four years to get respectable and they started with (Wayne) Gretzky and some top draft picks as a nucleus."
The Kings will start with four lines at the start of the season, only one of which was together last season.
Dionne will team with right wing Taylor and left wing Brian MacLellan for the second straight season. Dionne finished fourth in the NHL scoring race with 46 goals and 80 assists last season. Taylor had 41 goals and 51 assists, and MacLellan had 31 goals and 54 assists.
Dionne, 34, doesn't seem to be slowing down. He recently signed a one-year contract extension which will carry him through 1988.
Nicholls, the Kings' second-leading scorer with 46 goals and 54 assists last season, will play on a line with right wing Jim Fox and left wing Dave (Tiger) Williams.
Center Doug Smith, who missed 18 games because of an injury last season, will be teamed with Sykes and Phair. The Kings' other line will consist of rookie center Gans, left wing J.P. Kelly and right wing Anders Hakansson.
The Kings are carrying eight defensemen this season--Brian Engblom, Jay Wells, Rick LaPointe, Redmond, Galley, Kennedy, Hammond and Hardy.
Quinn said that one of his aims is to lower goals allowed. Last season the Kings gave up 326, sixth-most in the NHL.
"Our defense was something that we weren't going to change in three weeks of training camp," Quinn said. "It's something we've got to work on all season."
Goaltending has long been a problem for the Kings, but Janecyk and Eliot played well last season. Janecyk had a 22-21-8 record with a 3.66 goals-against average, and Eliot was 12-11-6 with a 4.37 goals-against average.