YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Ambitious Coach Aside, Kings Are a Real Puzzle

Murray likes strength and speed, but Stumpel holdout, scoring and goaltending raise questions.


The idea was to "Raise the Bar," something to put on a T-shirt and a theme for the Kings' training camp because Coach Andy Murray has to have a theme.

For just about everything.

To "Raise the Bar," Murray said, was to:

"1. Make the playoffs.

"2. Secure home-ice advantage.

"3. Win the Stanley Cup."

Nobody ever accused Murray of lacking ambition--"some coaches worry about being fired; I dream of winning Stanley Cups," he says--and he has told the Kings that, rather than forget the playoff debacle against Detroit last spring, they should build on it. They should take confidence from their achievements.

"A lot of people, most people, predicted that we wouldn't even make the playoffs last year," he said. "I like our team right now. I think that we have the potential to be a better team than last year."

Well, a different team anyway.

Since being swept by the Red Wings in the first round of last season's playoffs, the Kings have been on a two-pronged mission:

* They wanted to develop depth, to spread out the scoring along all four lines to keep opposing teams from ganging up on Luc Robitaille, Jozef Stumpel and Ziggy Palffy.

* And they wanted to get faster, quicker and, if possible, more skillful.

"Yes, Detroit beat us with strength, but [it] also beat us with speed," said Murray, who along with Dave Taylor, the team's senior vice president and general manager, has sized up the future and decided that the days of big, bruising players are in the past.

Depth has been improved, but the problem doesn't come with the roots of the offense. It comes with the branches.

"We need Jozef Stumpel," said Robitaille, who began camp on a line with Bryan Smolinski and Glen Murray, and ended it on a line centered by rookie Eric Belanger and eventually including, when he is healthy, Palffy.

"No doubt about it, we need him."

From the beginning of camp, Stumpel, holding out as a restricted free agent, has been listed as "AWOL" on the board in Murray's office.

In other words, out of sight, out of mind, though Stumpel is hardly out of the Kings' minds.

"You can't ask a rookie to play like [Colorado's] Joe Sakic," Robitaille said. "You can't ask him to play like [Dallas'] Mike Modano. Stumpy might not have Modano's numbers, but he's our Modano."

And for now, Belanger is the Kings' Stumpel.

The oft-injured rookie has played well in camp and hopes that a string of misfortune is behind him. But he did not have 41 assists in the NHL last season.

Stumpel did. Also 17 goals.

"My job is to coach the team I'm given to coach, and the other thing is Dave Taylor's job," Murray said.

So the team he is given to coach is one that is going to use its speed to dog the puck on the forecheck and in the corners. One whose penalty killers are off their leash.

The Kings habitually limited their forwards on the forecheck and kept their penalty killers in front of the goal.

No more.

The catalysts of all of this are found on the third and fourth lines, the so-called "stopper" and "energy" units.

The stoppers--center Bob Corkum and wingers Kelly Buchberger and Ian Laperriere--are no greyhounds, but have come to camp with a newfound quickness and old-time physical presence. They also have demonstrated an ability to score when the opportunity presents itself.

And the fun group, the "energy" line, is centered by rookie Steve Reinprecht, flanked by Jason Blake and Nelson Emerson. They are three-quarters of a sprint relay team, and Emerson, who has 459 points in 652 NHL games, is keeping the kids under control while trying to teach them to finish plays.

The defensemen are strong, with Rob Blake and his new partner, Mathieu Schneider, owning 21 NHL years between them and pairing up to give the power play a new look.

Mattias Norstrom is a veteran with a new partner in Jere Karalahti, and Aki Berg has played well and needs only consistency. Rookie Lubomir Visnovsky has played his way onto the team, with the help of defense partner Jaroslav Modry.

The problem isn't the depth, but the scoring by the players who are paid to be the scorers.

And the people who keep pucks out of the net.

Smolinski had a good late camp, but Glen Murray struggled and he is needed. Robitaille skated with them for most of camp and failed to score.

The Palffy line is supposed to be the offensive linchpin, but without Stumpel, it goes into the season opener Friday at Washington with questions all around. None are about Palffy, though he is nursing a broken fingertip, but without Stumpel, what is the composition of the rest of the line?

Does Robitaille play on that line or with Smolinski and Murray?

And what of highly touted rookie winger Tomas Vlasak, who was to combine with Stumpel and Palffy in a dazzling display of Eastern European hockey?

The goalies are still Stephane Fiset and Jamie Storr, but Fiset is injured and will miss the start of the season. That means Storr gets the first chance to become the goalie the Kings use for 60 games, something that Murray would like.

Steve Passmore is the immediate backup and will try to play either Fiset or Storr into a memory.

The puzzle is still incomplete, even as the season starts, because a piece is still missing.

"We could make it a distraction if we want, but that would be an excuse and we don't want any," Murray said. "I think our competition is going to be better. So many teams in our conference are going to be better that we're going to have to be better to be just as good."

It's the only way to raise the bar.

Los Angeles Times Articles