THE NHL : Kurri, Kings, Try to Straighten Out Season

NEWSDAY

With the Edmonton Oilers, Jari Kurri and Wayne Gretzky were the NHL's most productive linemates of the 1980s. When they were reunited with the Kings in the offseason many observers (including this one) made them this year's favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

Instead, Kurri appears to have lost his scoring touch after spending last season playing just 30 games for Milan of Italy, and the Kings (14-16-7 before last night) are playing like Clowns. According to Rick Sadowski of the Los Angeles Daily News, Kurri, 31, a Finnish right wing, looks more like he is Finished. Before Thursday night's home game against the Oilers, he had 13 goals and 14 assists for the season. Los Angeles was 3-9-1 in its past 13 games.

"It's been frustrating," Kurri told Sadowski. "Sure, I've been struggling a bit. Sometimes, maybe you try too hard. But I've been around long enough to know that every player goes through tough times. ... There's no easy way out of this. I can't put pressure on myself or it will just get worse."

This season Kurri finds himself a step behind and recently was shifted to left wing on a line with Gretzky and Marty McSorley.

"It's hard to speculate what it takes away from you when you're gone for a year," Kurri said, adding, "Everybody expected a lot of things to happen this year."

The same can be said for the Kings, but here are some reasons for their slide:

Lack of a power-play point man. They gave up defenseman Steve Duchesne to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Kurri deal and now their power play ranks 19th.

Tomas Sandstrom's off year. Was last year's 45-44-89 season a fluke? Sandstrom, suspended for five games for high-sticking Buffalo Sabres defenseman Kevin Haller in a Nov. 14 game, is 10-16-26. He will miss the next three weeks with a partially dislocated right shoulder.

Bad goaltending. Kelly Hrudey and Daniel Berthiaume each won 20 games last season and the Kings were fourth defensively. Both have struggled this season. The team is 19th in goals-against average.

Injuries to defensemen. Jeff Chychrun missed the first 25 games after wrist surgery. Charlie Huddy missed 13 with a groin problem. Rob Blake missed 17 with shoulder and knee trouble. All now are healthy.

Gretzky's back trouble and his father's surgery. Gretzky has played with back pain since he was checked from behind by Gary Suter in a Canada Cup game. Gretzky also missed five games to be with his father, who is recovering from brain surgery.

Lack of depth at center. The Kings traded Steve Kasper, their best checking center, in the Kurri deal, and sent Todd Elik to the Minnesota North Stars for Huddy's rights. They have used converted right wing Bob Kudelski and 22-year-old John McIntyre at center. Corey Millen, obtained last week from the New York Rangers, now is centering for Mike Donnelly and Kudelski. Tony Granato is being tried at center between Luc Robitaille and Dave Taylor.

The absence of Coach Tom Webster. After he hurled a stick like a javelin, hitting referee Kerry Fraser's skates in a Nov. 16 game, Webster was suspended for 12 games. He returned Tuesday. The Kings were 3-8-1 while he was out.

A fat-cat syndrome. Before or during the season, Kings General Manger Rogie Vachon signed Robitaille, Sandstrom, Kurri, Hrudey, Huddy, Kudelski and Granato to contracts of at least three years. Only Granato (18 goals) and Donnelly (16) have exceeded expectations offensively. Robitaille, who averaged 48 goals a year the past five years, has 18.

When Chicago Blackhawks GM Mike Keenan made out his protected list for the 1990 NHL waiver draft, his last decision was whether to protect center Bob Bassen or right wing Brian Noonan. Keenan chose Noonan, who had scored just 14 goals in 130 games. It's taken a while, but it looks like a good move.

In Chicago's first 27 games, Noonan got only three goals. But he had 12 goals in his past 13 games before Thursday night, including all seven Chicago goals in consecutive games against the Winnipeg Jets (3-3) and Detroit Red Wings (a 6-4 loss) last week.

"I've gotten every chance in the world here," Noonan said. "I have to produce. I'm getting a lot of good chances and a lot of them are going in."

The development of Quebec Nordiques right wing Owen Nolan is one of the most amazing stories in the NHL. Nolan, the first player chosen in the 1990 entry draft, was 3-10-13 in 59 games last season. This season he was 25-12-37 before last night.

Nolan, 19, playing on a line with Joe Sakic, began the season with 12 goals in his first 11 games. "I now know what it takes to play here," said Nolan, who reported in better shape. "I'm comfortable around the guys."

Referring to last season, he said, "My biggest problem was the frustration. ... Last year, I didn't get a lot of ice time and I was seldom on the power play."

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