Kings Consider Their Options

Times Staff Writer

It's all Ziggy's fault.

OK, maybe not all his fault.

But if Ziggy Palffy hadn't hoisted the injury-riddled Kings onto his shoulders and carried them back into the playoff race, they wouldn't still be undecided about how to proceed before the NHL trade deadline next Tuesday.

They would be cleaning house.

As they prepare to play the Mighty Ducks tonight at Staples Center, however, they are very much in the race, only four points out of a playoff spot thanks to a 9-5 surge led by Palffy, who has contributed 23 points during the revival.

Seven days before NHL rosters are set through the end of the season, the Kings still have four players eligible for unrestricted free agency -- Aaron Miller, Bryan Smolinski, Craig Johnson and injured goaltender Felix Potvin.

If not re-signed by the Kings, they'll be free to deal with any team starting July 1 and all the Kings will get in return is a compensatory draft pick.

Five weeks ago, on the verge of dropping out of the race, the Kings seemed ready to deal their unrestricted free agents to the highest bidder.

But then came a resurgence, the corresponding collapse of the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks, and the only thing the Kings have decided as of this morning is that they can live without Dmitry Yushkevich.

The Russian defenseman, also eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer, was traded Saturday to the Philadelphia Flyers for two draft picks.

What's next?

"No one's going anywhere if we're in a run here," club President Tim Leiweke declared Monday. "Whether they're going to sign or not sign [with the Kings] at the end of the day, unless there's a strong offer on the table [for the free agents], we're in a run and we want to support this team.

"They've really battled against the odds here and when we get a chance to get some of our [injured] guys back here in the next couple of weeks, we don't want to take the legs out from underneath them."

Leiweke, in fact, said the Kings are searching for help.

General Manager Dave Taylor "has been given the green light to go acquire another piece that would help us in the stretch run and he's out looking," the club's top executive said. "We've told him, 'Whatever it takes.' We're in the hunt here, and we feel good about being in the hunt."

Of course, that could all change before next Tuesday's noon deadline. After tonight, the Kings play the Oilers on Thursday, the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday and the Detroit Red Wings on Monday, all at home.

"If we fall out, it's a different story," Leiweke said. "Could we fall out in a week? Yeah. We could have a bad stretch. We've got four games that are all critical. We know we've got to take it to these guys. We understand what's at stake.

"We could be sitting in eighth place by the end of the week, or we could be eight points out. And if we're eight points out with [13] games left, I'd say that's mathematically a long shot."

At this point, though, the Kings are optimistic. While they've won nine of 14 games since Jan. 29, the Oilers are 2-7-3-2 during the same stretch, the Blackhawks 3-10-1. The Oilers, barely clinging to the eighth playoff position, are winless in their last nine games. The Blackhawks have lost nine of 10.

Of the Kings' four potential unrestricted free agents, all of whom have said they would like to re-sign with the team, Miller and Smolinski are by far the most marketable, Smolinski more so after scoring 11 goals in 15 games. Potvin, sidelined because of a knee injury, won't fetch any trade offers while he's on the injured list and Johnson is not expected to be a coveted free agent.

The Kings are not close to signing any of the four, Taylor said, but he added that it "wouldn't be the end of the world" if none are signed before Tuesday.

"We're not interested in just giving our players away by the deadline just to say we got something back," he said. "We're not interested in decimating our team. Our focus is getting back in the race, so we're not going to do anything drastic with any of our players, including our potential unrestricted players."

If the Kings can sneak into the playoffs, Leiweke said, the potential for success outweighs the possible long-term damage of top players walking away later.

A possible eighth-place finish, he said, is worth the risk.

"At the end of the day," he said, "if we could get into the playoffs and get all our injured guys back, we're not an eighth-place team. Everybody knows that. And I think if you go around the league and ask the upper-echelon teams, 'Who is it you don't want to play?' we're the first one that comes up if we're healthy."

And besides, Taylor said, nothing would stop the Kings from negotiating with their potential unrestricted free agents beyond the trade deadline.

They're not free until July 1.

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