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Everyone Has Learned How to Beat Kings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They can skate, but they can’t hide.

Welcome to the rapidly deteriorating Kings’ season, a disappointing first-quarter effort that has begun to erode their fond memories of June’s Stanley Cup final against the Montreal Canadiens.

And if that sounds a bit strange, it’s because:

--Wayne Gretzky has carried the momentum from last season’s playoffs into this season and leads the NHL in scoring with 45 points in 23 games. He was on a 36-goal, 164-point pace after the first quarter, which would be his best season since scoring 168 points in 1988-89.

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--Goaltender Kelly Hrudey has started strong, keeping the team afloat despite customarily having to face 30 or more shots on goal. In two games, he faced 52.

That means that the often familiar targets--Gretzky and goaltending--aren’t the reasons the Kings, at 9-12-2, have dropped three games below .500, and have the second-worst road record in the league, 2-10-1.

If the season ended today, the Kings would miss the playoffs. They are 10th in the Western Conference, two points ahead of the expansion Mighty Ducks and nine in front of the hapless Edmonton Oilers.

You can trace the team’s problems to last summer.

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Before their playoff run, the Kings finished only four games above .500 in the regular season and management made no major improvements over the summer. So, the road to mediocrity was plotted long before the first puck was dropped in October.

In fact, the few changes made have backfired. The Kings lost their most inspirational and physical defenseman, Marty McSorley, a player who was the epitome of Coach Barry Melrose’s system. Instead, they concentrated on signing center Jimmy Carson to a three-year, $3.3-million contract. Carson, who has three goals in 17 games, is not a prototypical Melrose player and has difficulty fitting into the up-tempo, gritty system.

The Kings got Shawn McEachern for McSorley. Melrose immediately said that McEachern might score 40 goals some day, but this season he is on a 12-goal, 40-point pace, which is well off his totals of 28 goals and 61 points in Pittsburgh last season.

And for now, there is no replacement for center Corey Millen, who was traded in June to the New Jersey Devils for a fifth-round draft choice. Millen has 16 points, which would put him sixth among the Kings.

Millen was a bargain for the Devils. So was Bob Kudelski last season for Ottawa when the Kings traded him to the Senators for Marc Fortier and Jim Thomson, neither of whom is around today. In fact, after losing Kudelski, Millen, McSorley and Paul Coffey, the Kings have Gary Shuchuk, Carson and McEachern to show for their dealing.

The past trades and current inaction have left the Kings needing a big physical defenseman, a physical forward or both. They are being outmuscled, especially on the road. Melrose’s man-to-man checking system can be fragile. One weak link and it all unravels.

One rival coach said the way his team beat the Kings was by “running them out of the building.”

That philosophy started with a trip earlier this month to Calgary and Vancouver. The Canucks were without their star right wing, Pavel Bure, and had to play more conservatively. They took few calculated gambles, concentrating on physical play. Toronto then played an extremely hard-hitting game against the Kings on Nov. 18, and it gradually took a toll as the Kings were worn down and discouraged.

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Word spreads quickly in the NHL. The book on the Kings: skilled, but small and physically overmatched.

Because Melrose can’t sit around and wait for his bosses to throw him a life preserver--such as a real defenseman--he has had to take matters into his own hands.

He has been in his players’ faces since an opening-season loss to Vancouver, shuttling people into and out of what the team calls “Chateau Bow-Wow.”

His nature is intense. The psychological games might have worked almost every time last season, but that hasn’t been the case in the first 23 games. When Melrose sat down five players after a loss to Washington on Oct. 22, the Kings promptly lost three consecutive games.

Who knows?

It’s starting to look as if the Kings’ front-office mistakes have Melrose’s Midas touch running smack into the Bronze Age.


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