PITTSBURGH — A year ago, Glen Murray began the NHL season playing right wing for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tonight, he will line up with the Kings against his former teammates in the opener for both teams.
Asked about the Penguins, Murray said his former team will have a different personality without soon-to-be Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, who retired at the end of last season.
"It's going to be a different team. . . . I've heard that they don't have a country club [atmosphere] there any more," said Murray, who played with Pittsburgh for two seasons before being traded to the Kings for Eddie Olczyk in March. "They're going to be a little more organized maybe without Lemieux. It's not like they didn't play together before, but Mario is gone now and they'll need everyone else to step up."
Even with all-stars such as Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis still in the Penguin lineup, the post-Lemieux era under new Coach Kevin Constantine figures to be difficult for the Penguins, who have been led by Lemieux since the 1984-85 season.
It's not easy replacing a superstar. Just ask the Kings, who traded Wayne Gretzky 19 months ago and are still searching for an identity.
To turn things around, first-year King General Manager Dave Taylor has quietly changed the makeup of the team with an eye on chemistry, which was nearly nonexistent last season.
"When you go on the ice you want to know that the guy beside you is going to give 100% to get the win," said King captain Rob Blake, who plans to be more outspoken this season. "[Your teammate] is going to stand up for you and do whatever he can to help the team win. He's not doing anything for himself. When you have that feeling, you can get a lot more success out of the team."
Taylor acquired offensive-minded former teammates Luc Robitaille and Garry Galley, two players he believed were good leaders on and off the ice.
Taylor also got rid of Dimitri Khristich, a talented forward but not known for his team play, and Kevin Stevens, a hard-working winger who failed to find his scoring touch with the Kings.
To help with the Kings' lack of size and speed, Taylor added Jozef Stumpel, Olli Jokinen, Sandy Moger and Donald MacLean, four big forwards with solid skating ability and versatility.
"I definitely think that this team is ahead of schedule with its rebuilding," said Murray, who was the last acquisition of former King general manager Sam McMaster. "I think that this is the season that the Kings make the playoffs again. It's going to be a challenge."
The Kings have been a close-knit group since the first day of training camp. Whenever a skirmish developed during an exhibition game, the Kings were quick to come to the aide of a teammate.
"There's a definite difference with this year's team" center Ray Ferraro said. "The attitude of the players in how we get along is completely different from last year. Much better. There were some problems in the locker room [last season] and they are no longer here. And it wasn't Eddie [Olczyk] or Kevin [Stevens] or anything like that. But there were some problems and they were dealt with."
Coach Larry Robinson has made the Kings an aggressive forechecking team.
Instead of playing it safe to protect the Kings' once-porous defense, Robinson now has two forwards attacking whenever the puck is deep in an opponent's zone.
"We are being more aggressive with our forechecking, and that is creating more scoring opportunities," right wing Brad Smyth said. "We've become a good team to play for now. Everybody is together working together."
A major area of concern for the Kings will be their special teams. Last season, their penalty-killing unit was among the best in the NHL, but their power play was easily one of the worst.
In exhibition games, the Kings scored 12 power-play goals in 49 opportunities, but Robinson knows that getting the same results in the regular season will be harder.
"We have to keep getting a commitment from the players to go hard in front of the net," he said. "We really haven't had that before. Galley gives us someone who can run the point [in the power play]. That's a key because it allows Blake to be a shooter while Galley takes over as the quarterback."
Last season, the Kings were in the playoff hunt with six weeks remaining on the schedule before fading. They have not reached the playoffs since the 1992-93 season.
"You can really tell that everything is geared toward winning around here now," Ferraro said. "You can see it with the coaches. They are less tolerant than they were last year, and because the organization is gaining depth with talented players in the system, everyone knows that they may not play if they aren't doing the job. That's going to make for a better team."
Only time will tell if the Kings have really improved, starting tonight at Pittsburgh, where they've won only once since 1992.
* Teams: Kings at Pittsburgh
* Time: 4 p.m.
* TV: Fox Sports WEest
* Radio: XTRA (690)