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Optimistic Kings Will Face Islanders in Opener : L.A. Believes It Has Talent to Finish Second Behind Edmonton This Season

October 08, 1987|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

Optimism runs deep among the Kings, who believe they have the talent to challenge for second place in the National Hockey League's Smythe Division.

They may be excited about this team, but they're not delirious.

They've conceded first place to the Edmonton Oilers.

That still leaves a pretty steep climb for the Kings, who in six years in the Smythe have never finished higher than fourth, which is where they wound up last season.

The teams that finished between the Oilers and the Kings, Calgary and Winnipeg, had the third- and sixth-best records in the NHL.

But the Kings, who finished 18 points behind Winnipeg with a 31-41-8 record, contend that they're in position to join the elite.

They believe they have an enviable combination of youthful exuberance--they put Luc Robitaille, Jimmy Carson and Steve Duchesne on the all-rookie team last season and will start this season with six more first-year players--and experience.

"If I was a young kid, I'd want to be part of what's happening here," said goaltender Rollie Melanson, who at 27 is older than more than half of his teammates. "We're definitely on the rise and we're going to surprise some people."

In order to do that, the Kings will have to be more defensive-minded. Improving their defense is an urgent priority, said Coach Mike Murphy, who stressed that point during training camp.

Only New Jersey allowed more goals than the Kings last season, though the Kings' yield of 341 was actually an improvement over the club-record 389 they gave up the previous season. And the Kings' 73.7% penalty-killing efficiency ranked last in the NHL.

The addition of Bobby Carpenter, Tom Laidlaw and rookies Wayne McBean and Petr Prajsler should help in that area, Murphy said.

Carpenter and Laidlaw were obtained in the trade last March that sent Marcel Dionne to the New York Rangers. McBean, 18, was the No. 4 pick in the draft last June after leading his junior team, Medicine Hat, to the Western Hockey League championship. Prajsler joined the Kings after defecting from Czechoslovakia.

Murphy, beginning his first full season as head coach after taking over for Pat Quinn last January, wants the usually offensive-minded Kings to become a more physical, hard-checking team.

"We're a good offensive team but we're not a team that can continue to give up 341 goals a season," he said. "We've got to be willing to play the 3-2 games, the 2-1 games right to the hilt. We've got to become the kind of team that can grit its teeth halfway through the third period and say to the other team, 'That's it, boys. You get nothing else.' "

If they do, nobody will be happier than Melanson, who survived an onslaught of shots last season and whose confidence soared because of it. General Manager Rogie Vachon, himself a former shot blocker, said that Melanson was one of the top two or three goalies in the NHL during the second half of the season.

This season, he has been handed the No. 1 job, and the Kings, who believe he will prosper with the increased workload, would like him to play as many as 60 games.

Rookie Glenn Healy, who outlasted another rookie, highly regarded Mark Fitzpatrick, in training camp, is Melanson's backup.

Offensively, Murphy expects the Kings to retain their explosiveness. Only the Oilers scored more goals last season, and Murphy doesn't expect the Kings to sacrifice much in the way of firepower, although this will be the first time since 1974-75 that they have opened the season without Dionne, their all-time leading scorer.

Robitaille led the Kings last season with 45 goals and 84 points, shot 22.6% from his left wing position and was the NHL Rookie of the Year. And some say Carson, a 19-year-old center who had 37 goals and 79 points and joined his teammate on the all-rookie team, will be even better than Robitaille.

Bernie Nicholls had 81 points, a decrease of 16 from the previous season, and Dave Taylor had 62, about 18 off his career average, so the Kings may get increased production from those two.

They also expect Carpenter, who once scored 53 goals in a season for the Washington Capitals, to flourish in a more settled environment. Carpenter was traded twice last season and had only 9 goals and 27 points in 60 games.

But how can a team maintain its offensive prowess while assuming a more workmanlike stance?

"I'm a firm believer that a guy who is in good defensive position is going to be in good offensive position when the attack is created," Murphy said.

Can they jump two places in the standings? Last season, their 10-19-3 intra-division record was the worst in the Smythe.

In the past, Murphy said, playing well didn't always guarantee success for the outmanned Kings.

But this season should be different, he said. "If we play well, the results will take care of themselves. The players we've got here are good enough to win."

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