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King Preview

Kings Hope the Wait Is Over

With influx of new players and a level playing field, L.A. seems confident it can make a playoff run.

October 05, 2005|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

The Kings have waited five years for this day.

Chief Executive Tim Leiweke proudly declared that shortly after the NHL lockout ended in July. The new collective-bargaining agreement, which includes a salary cap, has Leiweke insisting that the Kings can now compete dollar for dollar with the New York Rangers, Toronto, Detroit and the other Daddy Warbucks-type teams sprinkled throughout the NHL.

But after five years of trying to convince fans that financial responsibility was not a euphemism for "cheap," the Kings began August by dusting the cobwebs off the checkbook.

They signed Pavol Demitra and Valeri Bure, re-signed Luc Robitaille, locked up Alexander Frolov for five years and traded for Jeremy Roenick.

"This is the most talent we've seen here since the early 1990s, when we had Wayne [Gretzky]," said Robitaille, who has done three tours of duty with the Kings.

"Any time you got a lot of guys who can put the puck in the net, you're dangerous.

"I think, for the fans, it will be fun watching our team. We have so many guys who can make spectacular plays. They are definitely going to see a lot of goals from us."

Yet, attached to those expectations are questions.

Is Mathieu Garon the goaltender the Kings have waited for -- and waited and waited -- or just another candidate for the red-light brigade?

Can Roenick maintain a clear head -- he suffered the 11th concussion of his career during preseason -- with his sharp tongue?

Will Michael Cammalleri, Dustin Brown, Tim Gleason -- the core of Manchester, the Kings' American Hockey League team -- skate smoothly into NHL careers or trip over the blue line?

The Kings may have waited five years for this day. In seven months, King fans will know if the wait was worth it.

"It is Tim's job to sell tickets; my job is to help him sell tickets by putting a good team on the ice," said Coach Andy Murray when asked about Leiweke's we've-waited-for-five-years statement.

"I expected to win five years ago. When we didn't, I expected to win the next year. To me, the pressure, the expectations have never been any different."

Murray does expect one thing to be different: his goaltending.

A black hole bathed in a red light for many seasons, the Kings go once more into that breach -- this time with Garon, whose NHL experience was as Jose Theodore's backup in Montreal.

"I know some people are questioning me right now, but it doesn't matter," Garon said. "In my mind, there are no doubts."

Garon showed flashes of greatness during the preseason. His post-to-post save on Phoenix's Mike Leclerc last week was the stuff Vezina Trophy dreams are made of. But he has played in only 43 NHL games and did have a postseason fade in Manchester last season. Fellow goalie Jason LaBarbera has played only five NHL games.

"We haven't had a lot of concerns about our goaltending in preseason thus far," Murray said "We're not coming in here for our 7 a.m. meetings and complaining about our goalies. That's a good sign."

Signs appear clearer elsewhere. General Manager Dave Taylor was more active than any of his counterparts in pursing top-shelf talent.

Roenick and his media-savvy personality came from Philadelphia, which needed to dump his salary, giving the Kings two Hall of Fame-bound players, the other one being Robitaille. While both are in the December of their careers, the King scenario has them enjoying another season in the sun rather than a winter of discontent.

Roenick is also expected to help nurture Cammalleri and Frolov into NHL maturity, provided he can avoid another concussion.

The Kings seem deeper than at any time in the last decade. They signed Demitra, who averaged nearly 30 goals over the last seven seasons. Bure produced 22 goals in 2003-04, eight on the power play. Craig Conroy, a gritty center who helped Calgary to the Stanley Cup finals, was signed a year ago.

Those moves made it easy to ignore the ones that got away -- namely Ziggy Palffy -- since there seemed to be more quality coming through the Kings' revolving door than going out during an active August around the NHL.

"The only reason I knew Sean Hill wasn't with Carolina now was I was playing NHL '06 and he came on to the ice with Florida," Roenick said. "I thought, 'What? When did that happen?'

"I hope people understand that the Kings are trying to bring them a top-end team to come watch. Bringing myself, Pavol Demitra here, and a couple other guys, the Kings are making a big push to put a really good team on ice to watch."

With good health -- Bure and team captain Mattias Norstrom start the season on injured reserve and Brown, Gleason and Derek Armstrong all suffered at least minor injuries during training camp -- and good development from young players, the Kings can roll out three lines with offensive capabilities.

"The concern I have is making sure we maintain the same work habits and level of determination that we have always had," Murray said.

But those work habits have led the Kings past the first round of the playoffs only once in Murray's tenure. Now the talent, the Kings hope, is there to end five years of waiting.

"In the past, we have always been trying to make the playoffs," Robitaille said. "For me, this is not about making the playoffs, it's about winning in the playoffs. I believe we have a shot at that."

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