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Inside the NHL | Helene Elliott / ON THE NHL

Kings Finish Way Too Meekly

March 30, 2004|Helene Elliott

It's remarkable that the Kings stayed in the playoff chase as long as they did, so depleted were they even before the first skate lace was knotted at training camp in September.

What's disappointing is how feeble they were in falling out of contention, losing eight consecutive games in ways that exposed key character deficiencies and reopened a goaltending chasm that hasn't been adequately filled since the days of Rogie Vachon.

The Kings' faint playoff hopes were extinguished Monday with a 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. It's the second successive season they've missed the playoffs and the first time since the 1995-96 season they and the Mighty Ducks are both out of postseason play. Curiously, the two teams haven't yet made the playoffs the same season.

Grit and tenacity kept the Kings going for months, while their most talented players fell victim to long-term injuries. They weathered the tension caused by management's misguided or misleading insistence that Adam Deadmarsh and Jason Allison would soon return, when neither player was physically able to play. They even withstood Roman Cechmanek's inconsistency for as long as they could.

While the Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames struggled to find their footing, the Kings maintained a solid work ethic that became their identity. They won even though their power play and penalty killing ranked near the bottom of the NHL. They went 14 games without a win in December and January, yet eked out 11 points.

But when the Stars sorted out their scoring problems and the Oilers were rejuvenated at the trade deadline and the Blues and Flames regained their footing, the Kings stumbled. Anson Carter did nothing to justify the trade that brought him to the place he said he'd always wanted to play. Martin Straka sulked when he wasn't deployed on the top line. Jozef Stumpel was unassertive when the Kings needed someone to assert himself offensively. Aaron Miller wasn't the same physical presence as before he injured a nerve in his neck. There was no leadership.

Who dreamed the Kings would miss Jon Sim?

There's no point reminding club President Tim Leiweke that he promised the Kings would make the playoffs. Just another broken promise for a team that has had 37 seasons end unhappily and has given its fans no reason to believe next season will be different.

Doing the Math

When the Ducks were eliminated from playoff contention last week, they became the second consecutive losing Stanley Cup finalist to miss the playoffs the subsequent season, duplicating the Carolina Hurricanes' fall from runner-up in 2002.

Their failure also means no team that lost the final has won the Cup the next season since Edmonton lost to the New York Islanders in 1983 but came back to defeat the four-time champion Islanders in 1984.

There's no simple explanation for the Ducks' woes beyond the obvious changes in team chemistry and the emotional and physical drain of their Cup run.

Should General Manager Bryan Murray have made the required $10-million qualifying offer to Paul Kariya, even though he didn't think Kariya was worth it in today's defense-first climate? When Kariya and former Duck linemate Teemu Selanne worked out a package deal that sent them to Colorado, Murray had money to spend on replacements. Sergei Fedorov was the best player available. But Fedorov wasn't the Ducks' best player until February and March, when it made little difference. His statistics look good -- he has 30 goals and 64 points -- but he has done nothing to disprove the notion he was a complementary player with great Detroit teams but can't lead when given the opportunity.

Vaclav Prospal, who signed a three-year, $16.5-million contract, didn't produce when it mattered. During his 0-for-17 slump in December and January the Ducks were 4-10-3; five of those losses were by one goal and two were by two goals. A goal from Prospal here or there might have put the Ducks even with -- or ahead of -- the other flawed teams at the bottom of the West race.

The toll of the playoffs last spring showed in injuries that reduced the effectiveness of Steve Rucchin, Rob Niedermayer, Sandis Ozolinsh and Keith Carney. Jean-Sebastien Giguere may never have another spring like 2003, but he wasn't complacent and his success wasn't built on illegal pads. With a worn-down, inconsistent defense in front of him, he never had a chance to gain confidence. Failure fed on itself, as success did a year ago.

Dryden Speaks

If hockey had a poet laureate, it would be Ken Dryden, whose classic 1983 book "The Game" is illuminated by his insights into the sport and his teammates and his understanding of hockey's place in Canadian life.

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