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THE NHL : Murray's Plan Is for Kings to Read the Signs of Success

September 08, 1999|HELENE ELLIOTT

It's so easy, while watching the Kings go through their training-camp paces at Iceoplex, to be optimistic about the season.

Seeing a newly muscular Aki Berg skate beside Sean O'Donnell inspires thoughts of opposing forwards being challenged when they enter the Kings' zone, not creating plays at will and camping out in front of the net. Hearing Ziggy Palffy chat with Slovakian compatriot Jozef Stumpel and joke that linemate Luc Robitaille will soon speak their language sparks visions of the trio executing dazzling, crisscross passes at a tempo and skill level that haven't been seen here since Wayne Gretzky departed.

It's intriguing to imagine what could happen if Glen Murrray regains the fitness, timing and assertiveness that helped him score a team-high 29 goals two seasons ago, and if Donald Audette makes a smooth transition to left wing, one of Coach Andy Murray's training camp experiments. And if Bryan Smolinski appreciates being rescued from the New York Islanders enough to capably fill the vital second-line center role, and right wing Pavel Rosa displays the quickness small players must have to survive in the NHL.

A lot of ifs, but not so many as to be impossible.

Hope is as much a part of training camp as blue line-to-blue line sprints and daily weigh-ins, and it has been plentiful among the Kings this week. With good reason: they haven't lost a game yet.

Of course, they haven't played a game yet.

Still, it's difficult not to feel a flicker of optimism as Andy Murray lectures his players about how to play his aggressive forechecking system and the need to create offense--he pronounces it the Canadian way, oh-fense--from defense, rather than playing defense as a negative tactic. The strategy is new and so is the voice. The Kings had tuned out Larry Robinson long before their 32-45-5 season stumbled to a close, and the new medium is as welcome as the message.

"We've got to try new things," Glen Murray said. "Nothing really worked last year. So, the way we look at it, trying new things is good."

New isn't always better, but the Kings can't get much worse than they were last season. The question is, how much better will they be.

That can't be answered now, not while they're one of 30 teams enjoying the flush of optimism that colors the early days of camp and makes every forward a potential scoring champion and every goaltender resemble Georges Vezina incarnate. Not for a month or so, when the hits are real and the stakes for botching a defensive assignment are higher than being ordered to skate an extra lap around the rink, will the Kings' measure be apparent.

But it is clear they are starting with better personnel and a more solid foundation than they finished with last spring. They can build on that, together, or collapse into the same pile of rubble they were. Another collapse would surely be disastrous for a team whose hold on the Los Angeles sports market has grown tenuous and can't rely for long on the euphoria that will accompany its move next month to the Staples Center.

Many things must go right for the Kings to improve significantly this season. Before anything else, Andy Murray must prove he can translate his technical knowledge into terms players can easily grasp.

So far, he has seemed able to do that. He makes his points firmly, in a voice that has already grown hoarse from the effort of making himself heard in the cavernous practice rink, and he has shown himself to be a stickler for detail. Little escapes his eye, and he hasn't been afraid to tell top-line players their efforts weren't top-notch. That's to his credit; he must assert his authority and stop bad habits now, while players' minds are open and they know jobs are there to be won--and to be lost.

What may be tougher for Murray is to stay on the right side of the narrow line that separates rallying cries from cliches that players tire of and dismiss with eye-rolling contempt.

Murray has posted signs around the locker room that bear messages such as "Tough to play against" and urging players to work as a team for the team, and those sentiments are admirable. But these are professional athletes who play long and grueling seasons, not high school kids whose emotions can easily be manipulated, or national team players whose patriotism can be played upon throughout the short span of the World Championships or Olympics.

Murray's points are well-intended, but he may have to find a better way to instill pride and fight in a team that often lacked those qualities last season. His words alone won't turn the Kings around and push them into playoff contention. But if his system is credible--and credibly explained--players will buy into it. If they succeed, they will believe in each other and play for each other. No placard in the world, sincere though it may be, will produce that result.

In the first week of his first training camp as an NHL head coach, Murray is finding his way through a maze of practices, meetings and personnel decisions. He may take some missteps, but so may his players.

If they can emerge with a genuine sense of purpose and unity, the Kings may find their way back to the playoffs. If they are fractured or misled, no sign in the locker room will point them back to respectability.

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