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NHL PREVIEW: KINGS

Stabilizing Their Kingdom

Hockey: As their opponents added players and changed coaches, Kings go into season with many familiar faces and few changes.

October 08, 2002|JERRY CROWE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andy Murray is aware of the hockey axiom that says a coaching honeymoon in the NHL lasts no longer than three seasons. In the fourth, according to conventional wisdom, his players start tuning him out.

The King coach, who has guided an ever-evolving team to three consecutive 90-point seasons, also is aware of the perception that he has changed his style because of it, that he has eased up on the reins and stopped riding so hard.

He doesn't buy it.

If he has not publicly challenged any players this fall, as he did a year ago with Glen Murray before the winger was traded to the Boston Bruins, he said the reasons have more to do with familiarity and trust than with timidity.

His veterans know what to expect and have adjusted accordingly.

"The players have created a different environment where I haven't had to get after as many guys individually," Murray said. "But I don't think the message has really changed as to how we do business. We stay after it every day....

"We've tried to put the onus on the players, and I think our players know that we're going to be well-prepared for the games. And so, when the puck is dropped, we turn it over to them to let them make the determination for us."

That philosophy has produced three consecutive playoff berths for a franchise that had qualified only once in the six seasons before Murray's arrival in 1999 from Shattuck-St. Mary's Academy in Faribault, Minn., so the coach has spent little time worrying that his players might turn a deaf ear.

"It probably would have been easier to tune the coach out the first year," said Murray, a former NHL assistant and Team Canada coach. "I was a guy coming out of a prep school ... and didn't have a lot of credibility.

"Now we've had three pretty good years. Why should you tune somebody out that has delivered a bit of a message that if we play this way, we can be successful?"

Tuned in or not, the Kings would seem to be facing a crossroads season. Other than a first-round upset of the Detroit Red Wings two seasons ago, their regular-season achievements have not translated into playoff success. They have advanced beyond the second round only once in their 35 seasons.

Last season, they overcame the deaths of scouts Ace Bailey and Mark Bavis in the World Trade Center attacks, Murray's near-fatal auto accident and one of the worst starts in franchise history to put together the NHL's best record over the season's last 4 1/2 months. In Jason Allison, acquired in the October trade that sent Glen Murray and Jozef Stumpel to the Bruins, they added one of the league's dominant centers. They compiled a franchise-best 2.29 goals-against average, led the league in power-play goals and conversion percentage and ranked third in penalty killing.

But they had little to show for it after a 4-0 Game 7 loss to the Colorado Avalanche in the opening round of the playoffs, their second consecutive season-ending Game 7 loss to the Avalanche.

And then, while nearly all their Western Conference rivals strengthened themselves over the summer, the Kings did little to upgrade their roster, failing to address their need for a top-six forward while also losing their top two unrestricted free agents, Philippe Boucher and Kelly Buchberger.

So this could be Murray's most challenging season yet, considering that the success of his first three has raised expectations.

"No one will feel sorry for us if we don't get it done," says Murray, who still suffers memory lapses but otherwise has recovered from his February accident.

The good news is that other than Boucher, an offense-minded defenseman whose absence will be felt even more acutely during the opening month while Aaron Miller rehabs from abdominal surgery, the core of the team remains.

The Kings will again suit up one of the league's most dangerous top lines in Allison, Ziggy Palffy and Adam Deadmarsh. They'll send out a stingy corps of defensemen, led by Miller, captain Mattias Norstrom and Mathieu Schneider, and a dedicated group of defense-minded forwards. And in net most games they'll position a workhorse goaltender in Felix Potvin, whose 71 appearances last season were a club record and 2.31 goals-against average was the best of his career.

It's a strong team, but one with a thin margin for error and a still-glaring need to find secondary scoring to support Allison, Palffy and Deadmarsh.

"Realistically, we're going to have to play our best all year to be where we want to be," said Allison. "If we don't achieve at our highest level, we're going to be in trouble."

Allison, Palffy and Deadmarsh combined for 80 goals last season, nearly 40% of the Kings' total. Steve Heinze, with 15, was the only other King to score more than 13. But Heinze didn't score any after Jan. 15, leading to his demotion Monday to the minors and a possible trade. Bryan Smolinski also slumped during the second half, scoring only two empty-net goals after Jan. 5, and finished with 38 points, the least productive season of his career.

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