1995 NHL PREVIEW : Switch Is On After Off Year : Kings: Melrose optimistic that bigger, stronger players will lead comeback.
The cruelest words spoken about the Kings last season came from themselves. Checking center Pat Conacher, disgusted with the team’s lack of effort, said that they were “lying down like dogs.” Coach Barry Melrose used the phrase fat cats , and some players wondered if he included himself.
Now, with the Kings beginning the lockout-shortened season tonight against Toronto, scathing self-deprecation has given way to reinvention.
Today is another day.
That is especially beneficial when yesterday is so worth forgetting. From top to bottom, the past year has been a nightmare for the Kings. There was divisive infighting between Melrose and General Manager Nick Beverley, who has landed as an executive with the Maple Leafs. Owner Bruce McNall’s legal and financial troubles led to a sale of 72% of the team to telecommunications executives Jeffrey Sudikoff and Joe Cohen. Then there was McNall’s guilty plea in federal court last month to two counts of bank fraud and two other counts.
The Kings (27-45-12) finished 22nd overall last season, five points behind the expansion Mighty Ducks and 17 points behind another newcomer, the Florida Panthers. As a result, the Kings became the first team in 24 years to miss the playoffs one year after reaching the Stanley Cup finals, and Wayne Gretzky missed postseason play for the first time.
With a staggering 322 goals against, only two teams allowed more than the Kings: Winnipeg (344) and Ottawa (397). Despite Melrose’s contention that giving up 40 to 50 shots on goal in a game wasn’t always critical, the Kings yielded a league-high 3,046.
Those statistics aren’t in danger of being eclipsed, thanks to the reconfigured 48-game schedule.
The Kings say that they also have been reconfigured, pointing out there has been a noticeable make-over in height and bulk.
Defenseman/forward Marty McSorley, reacquired from Pittsburgh in a late-season trade, is finally healthy after suffering abdominal problems and will share the fighting responsibilities with Warren Rychel, who struggled with the sole burden in 1993-94. New General Manager Sam McMaster dealt the popular Luc Robitaille to Pittsburgh for power forward Rick Tocchet. Enforcer Troy Crowder, out of the game with back problems since 1991, was signed as a free agent before Training Camp I.
“We’re going to be a different team at home this year,” said Gretzky, who won his 10th NHL scoring title last season with 38 goals and 130 points. “We’re going to play a lot more physical, a lot tougher, a lot bigger. You’ll see a lot of stuff going on at our hockey games.
“It’s going to be a different team than you saw last year, not going to be as fancy. There will be a lot of fighting, probably.”
Said Melrose: “The team is evolving the way the NHL is--big, strong men. We’re finally becoming the team I want it to become. Our smaller skilled people will look around and not have to take abuse.”
The Kings sound convincing. But there is valid concern because of the departures of Robitaille and Tomas Sandstrom. Has the search for muscle left them with enough offensive weapons after Gretzky and Jari Kurri?
Three Kings, in particular, could provide an indication of the team’s offensive fortunes or misfortunes. Robert Lang, who was effective in the Czech Republic during the lockout, is the club’s No. 2 center behind Gretzky and will have the opportunity to show more than brief flashes of offensive talent. Tony Granato endured a bad back and a 15-game suspension that limited him to seven goals after he had scored at least 30 in the previous three seasons. Tocchet sat out 33 games because of back surgery and dropped to 14 goals and 40 points in 51 games last season.
Tocchet and Granato insist their back problems are over and feel certain they can play games on consecutive nights. The Kings have 10 such occasions.
“I’ll never be back to 100%,” Tocchet said. “I’m 99% now, whereas last year I was 80%.”
Gretzky maintains that the defensive mind-set of the Western Conference and the changing league philosophy has forced the Kings to alter their mix.
“You can’t go out and win 8-5,” he said. “Hockey games are not going to be won that way.”
That is the reason the Kings are showing a bit of Duck envy.
“It became very difficult to go into Vancouver, Calgary and Anaheim night after night and get physically pounded,” Gretzky said. “And not so much by the tough guys. . . . You know those guys are always going to hit you. If you don’t have a big team to compete, it’s all the little guys who never hit anybody who start to wear you down.”
“Warren Rychel fought every guy in the league last season, and he’s a middleweight. Now this year, he’s about sixth on the totem pole.”
That is an ideal Melrose team. He now has size and can’t use the lack of it as an issue. Whether this shortened season actually shows which Melrose team was a fluke--the Stanley Cup finalists in 1993 or the underachieving “fat cats” of 1994--remains to be seen. His career record in two seasons is not overwhelming at 66-80-22.
He is conscious of a figurative shadow of an ax hovering over his head.
“I’m sure there is one,” he said. “It’s not a big deal. . . . I didn’t do a good enough job of coaching last season. I was embarrassed by the way I coached. The wins and losses are the only gauges.”
Gretzky, perhaps remembering how he excelled two seasons ago after a career-threatening back injury limited him to 45 games, remains sanguine about the Kings’ prospects.
“As I said to the guys the other day, people have short memories,” he said. “The Rangers missed the playoffs two years ago and (then) won the Stanley Cup.”
The Kings and goaltender Kelly Hrudey reached a tentative contract agreement Thursday, avoiding salary arbitration. The two-year deal, worth about $3 million, includes an opportunity for substantial bonuses. A portion of the money is deferred. “I’m just happy it’s over,” Hrudey said. “It weighs heavily on you because (the negotiations have been going on for) quite a long time, with new management and the lockout.”