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Without Gretzky, Kings Rely on Youth, Intensity : Hockey: After a dull season, new coach Melrose works to instill up-tempo play and enthusiasm.


All the Kings' men walked past Wayne Gretzky, who was standing with a cup of coffee near the team's dressing room at the Forum on Monday morning.

Goodbys were exchanged as the Kings left for their regular-season opener tonight in Calgary. Gretzky was offering encouragement, which is about all he has to offer these days.

His back injury--a herniated disk--has cast a long shadow over the Kings' prospects for the 1992-93 season. Gretzky's own future is uncertain. He was scheduled for another cortisone shot on Monday afternoon and a meeting with Dr. Robert Watkins later this week. Gretzky said he is in phone contact with Watkins about every three days.

For the first time, though, Gretzky was speaking in terms of when he might return. Nothing is definite because of the unpredictable nature of his injury, but. . . .

"At this time of the year, I'm usually thinking about contributing to the team--what I can do to help during the season," Gretzky said. "Now my focus is that I'm going to try and be back in full stride in time for the playoffs.

"Anything before that would seem to be a bonus. . . . I'm not going to be much of a factor in the 84-game schedule."

So now comes the hard part.

The Kings have to make the playoffs.

Even before Gretzky's injury, they were a team suffering from erosion--old and getting older, the result of a front-office philosophy that seemed to be clipped from a cereal box:

"Former members of the great Edmonton Oiler dynasty! Collect 'em all!"

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the Gretzky-Jari Kurri reunion. Kurri was a shadow of himself last season, scoring only 20 goals after his opening-night hat trick and finishing with a career-low 60 points.

That wasn't the only baffling development. Despite all the Stanley Cup talk, emotion in the Kings' dressing room was barely palpable.

"There were a lot of expectations last year," goaltender Kelly Hrudey said. "But there was so much turmoil--not in a confrontational way, but we were never together in any way on the ice. It was 20 guys out there playing for 20 different reasons."

Hrudey said that attitude surfaced during training camp and remained--on the ice and in the dressing room--throughout the season. It resulted in a team with no intensity during the playoffs.

Now, the Kings say they have detected a pulse.

"I have seen more emotion in the preseason than we had in the playoffs last year," left winger Luc Robitaille said. "It was more than losing. There was no emotion. And we were in the playoffs."

Added defenseman Rob Blake: "Everything is very up-tempo now, and it's carried over. Guys were treating preseason games like it was a playoff game."

Rookie Coach Barry Melrose is behind the conversion to a hard-driving, force-the-play offensive philosophy. The loss of Gretzky has hastened the Kings' transition to a younger, swifter lineup.

There are six new faces on the Kings' 26-man roster--Ukranian defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, centers Pat Conacher and Robert Lang and forwards Jim Hiller, Warren Rychel and Ed Kastelic, who is out with a sprained knee. That doesn't include three others with limited NHL experience--goaltender Robb Stauber, two games; and defensemen Darryl Sydor, one game, and Brent Thompson, 27 games.

There are 10 players on the roster 25 or younger. Eight are older than 30, but that includes Dave Taylor and Tim Watters. Watters, for now, figures to be an extra defenseman, and Taylor is expected to get spot duty.

Melrose, who had intended to keep three goaltenders for the first part of the season, changed his mind and sent rookie David Goverde to the Kings' top farm club at Phoenix on Monday, along with defenseman Dave Tretowicz and center Mike Vukonich.

"I don't want kids not playing," Melrose said. "I'm not going to keep Goverde or Stauber here and not play them. Goverde will be playing just about every game in Phoenix. I don't believe in people sitting. We won't have a lot of extra guys here. People have to play in order to improve."

Steady improvement has been a trademark of Melrose's teams. So have changes. The opening-day roster probably won't match the one at season's end. Melrose likes to tinker with the lines, which will be necessary during this season of rebuilding.

At the moment, the top line is Robitaille-Lang-Hiller, an effective unit during the exhibition season. Kurri has been converted to center in Gretzky's absence and may play with Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom.

Robitaille, 26, will be trying to provide the leadership, with Gretzky on the sideline. Melrose named Robitaille captain on Monday, replacing Gretzky. Granato and Paul Coffey are the assistant captains.

"I'm a big instinct guy, a hunch guy," Melrose said. "(Robitaille) is intriguing, the way he plays. It's his time. It's Luc Robitaille's time with the L.A. Kings."

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