Advertisement

A Great Mistake? : Kings Insist They Still Believe in Grant Fuhr, but the Five-Time Stanley Cup-Winning Goalie Has Bombed, Making a Dubious Deal Much Worse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Grant Fuhr has a goals-against average with the Kings of 6.14, the worst of any NHL goaltender with more than two appearances.

“I still have faith in Grant Fuhr,” General Manager Sam McMaster says.

Fuhr has a save percentage with the Kings of .831, the worst of any goaltender with more than five appearances.

“He’s a wonderful person and I’ve gained a lot of respect for him, to be honest,” McMaster says.

Advertisement

Fuhr has a record of 0-5-1 with the Kings.

“I only want what’s best for Grant Fuhr,” McMaster says. “He has not done one thing to hurt the L.A. Kings.”

But the numbers don’t lie.

Perhaps as the one in the net, Fuhr has a better grip on reality, if not all the shots whizzing past him. He saw his failures in dramatic proportions last Friday after facing 40 shots and giving up seven goals in Calgary, saying it was like being lost at sea on a raft.

Advertisement

Well, at least he’s not on the Titanic, right?

“I’m about two steps away from climbing on it,” he said. “In fact, that’s the lifeboat coming to get me.”

The Fuhr trade--at this point--can be classified as the most catastrophic in a long history of lousy King deals. Capping three days of intense rumors, it was consummated Feb. 14, when the Kings sent defensemen Alexei Zhitnik and Charlie Huddy and goaltender Robb Stauber to Buffalo for Fuhr and defensemen Philippe Boucher and Denis Tsygurov.

Many fans were fooled, having figured that the speculation was nothing more than a trial balloon. Not even the Kings, they believed could trade the 22-year-old Zhitnik, who helped lead them to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993, for a 32-year-old future Hall of Famer, whose best days were long behind him.

Advertisement

Zhitnik’s agent, Ron Salcer, did not take it seriously at first, thinking the rumors were the product of bored hockey writers.

Fuhr made his King debut at the Forum against Vancouver on Feb. 18 and gave up six goals on 30 shots, including a second-period stretch of four goals on nine shots.

The low point, however, was on March 6 in an 8-2 loss to Dallas, where Fuhr was pulled after two periods, giving up seven goals on 24 shots and opening the game by letting in four goals on the Stars’ first nine shots.

Magnifying the blunder of the trade was a season-ending wrist injury to Boucher, who needed surgery, and Tsygurov’s defensive ineptness and lack of spirit.

Advertisement

Although Fuhr’s play has improved, the Kings found themselves in a position where they could no longer afford to play him. And goaltender Kelly Hrudey, proving that his fighting spirit had been grossly underestimated again, started playing some of the best hockey of his career.

“I was overrated with the Islanders and I am underrated here,” said Hrudey, whose save percentage is .908, remarkable considering the number of shots he has faced. From March 9-April 9, he started 16 of 17 games.

Fuhr looked acceptable at times when he appeared in relief, on March 29 in a 5-2 loss at Vancouver and on April 1 in a wild 7-7 tie against Winnipeg at the Forum. In his first start since the Dallas game, Fuhr demonstrated in Calgary he was capable of making the toughest saves. Yet, he was vulnerable on easier ones.

For instance, there was Paul Kruse’s wraparound in the first period. Fuhr had traffic in front, but Kruse’s shot was so slow that it might not have registered on the speed gun.

Advertisement

Are his on-ice struggles bad technique or mental lapses?

“It’s probably a little bit of both,” said King assistant Cap Raeder, who coaches the goaltenders and defense.

“He’s making the great stops, but he’s letting in the ones he should have.”

The trade was not popular with many King players, who believed the team did not get enough in return for Zhitnik, and they have seen nothing since to change their minds. But they do not resent Fuhr, who has handled his difficulties with class and self-deprecating humor and is trying to keep his struggling teammates upbeat.

Advertisement

After all, his hockey problems pale in comparison to the off-ice adversity he has faced in the past. He has had two divorces, an appendectomy, a shoulder operation and a NHL-imposed suspension for the first 59 games of the 1990-91 season for admitted past drug use.

“I’m really a happy guy,” he said. “I’ve learned over the years, it’s just a game. Life goes on. I will get a chance somewhere. If nothing else, I’ve had time to think about where I want to go, time to make a short list.”

An unrestricted free agent after this season, he admitted after a long pause that the Kings are on the list.

“I feel like I’ve only played 30-35 games the last two seasons, I’m used to playing that by January. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly earning a paycheck,” said Fuhr, who is being paid $1.6 million this season.

Advertisement

Fuhr wanted to leave Buffalo because of the dominance of goaltender Dominik Hasek, whose brilliance left virtually no opportunity for playing time. Once Fuhr left the Sabres, however, Hasek was injured and has slipped from his lofty standards.

Although Hrudey is adamant in saying Fuhr’s arrival did not motivate him, the coincidence did not escape perceptive teammates.

Everywhere Fuhr has been since leaving Edmonton, there has been improvement--not from him but the incumbent No. 1 goaltender. Felix Potvin in Toronto, Hasek in Buffalo and now Hrudey in Los Angeles all played noticeably better minutes after Fuhr’s plane touched down.

“I came here and Kelly’s playing great,” Fuhr said, smiling. “It’s another piece to the resume. I’d make a good goalie consultant. Actually, I might be the only playing consultant.”

Advertisement

But five Stanley Cups won’t be erased from Fuhr’s resume. His former greatness is why McMaster still says he has faith in Fuhr and the reason his teammates and some opponents believe the goaltender is not through.

“I think this about all top athletes, you just don’t lose it overnight,” McMaster says.

Calgary forward Theoren Fleury has seen both sides of Fuhr. “At his best there was nobody better,” he said. “I know he’s going through a tough time right now, but he’s been through things like this before and I definitely think he will come out of it.”

Said King wing Tony Granato: “Every player in their career goes through this. This may have been something like one bad bounce that has snowballed. If he could get one (bounce) to go his way, it could change. I know he’s a great goalie.”

Advertisement

Will it be with the Kings?

The chances for a lot of action are slim because there are only 10 games remaining and the Kings find themselves in a fight with the San Jose Sharks for the final Western Conference playoff spot.

The lockout and shortened season also worked against Fuhr.

“For me to play well, I’ve got to play a lot,” Fuhr said.

Advertisement

True, Raeder said, but that is impossible because of the schedule.

“If we had an 84-game schedule, I’d stick him in there for 10 games,” he said. “I’d have no problem doing that. But right now we don’t have the luxury of time.”

Fuhr may not like his role, but he understands it by now.

“I’ve got the pom-poms,” he said.

Advertisement

WHAT’S THE DEAL?

The Kings have traded away some fine players over the years, including high-scoring Paul Coffey (left). Lisa Dillman rates the 10 worst King trades. C3


Advertisement
Advertisement