NEW YORK — For the first time this season, the Kings faced former teammate Wayne Gretzky when they played the New York Rangers on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
It was only 10 months ago that the Kings traded the franchise's most famous player to the St. Louis Blues for three players (Craig Johnson, Roman Vopat and Patrice Tardif), a 1997 No. 1 draft choice and a fifth-round pick in 1996.
Since then, the Kings--who have struggled to a 12-17-4 record this season--have taken a lot of heat from fans who believe the team did not get enough for one of hockey's greatest players.
While Gretzky took the ice as one of the league's leading scorers for the surging Rangers on Wednesday night, none of the players the Kings got in the Feb. 27 trade were in uniform. Is it too early to call the trade a bust for the Kings?
"I think that we have great fans who probably would like to see us do better," King General Manager Sam McMaster said. "But what they don't particularly understand is that we're building a franchise. In two or three seasons, our fans will be extremely pleased."
Most are not now. None of the players are currently playing for the team, which is 3-10-1 in its last 14 games and has failed to make the playoffs the last three seasons.
--Johnson, 24, is a 6-foot-2 left wing who has played in only 16 games this season because of an abdominal injury. He is on injured reserve after having surgery last week.
--Vopat, 20, is a 6-3 center who has spent most of the season playing for the Phoenix Roadrunners, the Kings' International Hockey League affiliate. He is considered the franchise's player of the future but has played only one game with the Kings this season.
--Tardif, 26, is a 6-2 forward who is now on loan to the Detroit Vipers of the IHL. He began the season with the Kings in training camp but was sent to the minors and now does not seem to be in the team's plans.
Gretzky was a total free agent at the end of last season and did not make it a secret he wanted to play with a Stanley Cup contender.
"Because of our new collective bargaining agreement, total free agency for players 32 or older is something totally new to hockey," McMaster said. "Because Wayne fell in that category, it was a situation where at the end of the season there was a very good chance that we would lose an elite player and get nothing in return."
Gretzky finished out last season with St. Louis but in June signed with New York as a free agent.
"St. Louis took a chance that he would re-sign there, but it didn't work out that way," McMaster said. "It just reinforces the reason why we had to make the trade."
The Blues weren't really hurt financially by getting Gretzky, then losing him. They lost three players under contract, had to pay Gretzky only for part of last season and made about $6 million in the playoffs, based on six home games.
The Kings can only hope that Johnson, Vopat and the 1997 No. 1 pick they get from St. Louis develop into the mainstays of their team of the future.
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Where They Are
A look at the three players the Kings acquired from St. Louis in last February's trade that sent Wayne Gretzky to the Blues. None of the three are currently playing for the Kings.
CRAIG JOHNSON, 25
A speedy, aggressive skater who played well the last two months of last season. Has been injured since training camp and has played in only 16 games this season because of an abdominal injury. He had surgery and will be sidelined for at least two months. Has three goals and six points.
ROMAN VOPAT, 20
A key prospect who the Kings hope will develop into a physical checking center. In 29 games playing for IHL Phoenix this season, he has four goals, eight points and 84 penalty minutes.
PATRICE TARDIF, 26
He is 6-2, 202. A late addition in the trade who failed to gain a spot on the Kings' roster in training camp. Currently on loan to the IHL Detroit Vipers.
The Kings also get St. Louis' No. 1 draft choice in 1997.