TAKING CENTER STAGE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

King center Jozef Stumpel has a wealth of talent and that sometimes makes life tougher for him.

With his size, strength and tenacity, he can control a game with the best two-way centers in the league.

At 6 feet 3 and 208 solid pounds, Stumpel, 25, can be the physical, playmaking center the Kings hoped they were getting when they traded Byron Dafoe and Dimitri Khristich to Boston for Stumpel and Sandy Moger in late August.

"We're very pleased with the type of player [Stumpel] is," Coach Larry Robinson said. "And, we think that he is going to be a better player too."

The only reason Stumpel is not among the game's elite centers is his inconsistency. For all his ability, there are times when he is content to simply blend in. Not that he makes his team worse. He just doesn't make it any better.

In his five seasons in Boston, Stumpel went from a borderline prospect to front-line player. Still, he never shook his reputation for being up and down.

So far with the Kings, Stumpel has been one of the highlights. He began the season with an eight-game scoring streak and still ranks among the league's top scorers with 11 goals and 18 points in 15 games.

In a display of his talents, he almost single-handedly got the Kings their 2-2 tie with Florida last week, making two plays late in the third period that helped the Kings past a horrible night on offense.

With the Kings trailing, 2-0, he started the comeback by winning a face-off against Dave Gagner, then drew the attention of Panther defenders, leaving Sean O'Donnell an open shot from the blue line. Florida's Mark Fitzpatrick made the save but King Craig Johnson crashed the net and scored on a rebound.

Stumpel, then tied the score with his sixth goal of the season when he stood strong in front of the Panther goal and knocked in a centering pass from Luc Robitaille.

But when he has struggled, so have the Kings. When Stumpel was held without a point in four consecutive games, the Kings were only two for 17 in power play opportunities.

"When he's on top of his game, he's a great player who controls the puck and is a force on both ends of the ice," Robinson said. "But then sometimes . . . he does a lot of standing around and tries to do too many fancy plays, instead of just getting the puck on the net. I would like to see him go out and take control of the game more. To step up and be a leader."

Stumpel, a native of Nitra, Slovakia, has not played with a core of great scorers with either Boston or the Kings. Because he normally looks to pass for a score, instead of shooting, he has passed up numerous scoring chances, with dubious results.

In his four-game scoreless streak, for instance, Stumpel's passes frequently gave teammates open shots that somehow failed to make it to the net.

"I am always looking to make a play on the ice," said Stumpel, who admired Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux growing up. "I'm always looking to beat a guy to create outnumber rushes for my team. I [like] to give a guy the big pass for a score."

Unlike some European players, Stumpel has always been a physical, tight-checking player. But his willingness to learn has been questioned since he made his NHL debut with the Bruins in 1992.

Whether it has been from one of the four coaches he has played for in his six-year NHL career or from one of his numerous teammates, Stumpel has always had to listen to others trying to shape his game.

"I like to take something from everyone but you want to be your own person," he said. "You don't want to take everything from someone. You see something good in other players and then you try to figure it out for yourself."

Even Stumpel's critics agree, however, that the talented center has made great strides.

"I don't think there's really a limit on how good Jozef can be," said Don Sweeney, a former teammate at Boston. "He can dominate. I often tell him it's his puck out there. To let anybody else play, they've got to throw another one out there. That's how good he is."

Stumpel, Boston's second-round draft choice in 1991, split time with the Bruins and their minor league Providence affiliate his first two seasons, and scored only 28 points in his first 76 NHL games. He had something of a breakout season in 1995-96, scoring 54 points in 76 games. He led the Bruins with 76 points last season.

When it came time for him to re-sign with Boston during the off-season, however, Stumpel, a restricted free agent who made $450,000 last season, faced criticism of another form when the Bruins balked at his $2-million asking price.

Once Stumpel and his agent began contacting general managers to see if there were other teams interested, the Kings' Dave Taylor jumped at the chance.

In a matter of days, Stumpel was traded to the Kings and a two-year deal was completed calling for $1.4 million the first year and $1.6 million the second. .

"I'm happy here," Stumpel said of the Kings. "In my five years in Boston, every season the team got worse and worse. There were lots of trades and every year I was playing with someone else."

Getting to know his teammates is important for Stumpel, he says, because he is a "feel" type of player. He works hard to know their tendencies so he can make plays accordingly.

The Kings being a young team searching for an identity, Stumpel's development may determine how quickly they improve.

"I know that the last couple of years, the team has not done too well," he said. "But things are looking pretty good. We have a lot of good young players. . . . They're working on a new arena. There are a lot of reasons to look forward. We're only going to get better."

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* THE NHL

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