The Great One is ailing and so are the Los Angeles King
INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) _ The Great One is ailing and so are the Los Angeles Kings.
The Kings will be without superstar Wayne Gretzky for the season’s first two months and probably longer because of his ailing back. But that’s just the first of the team’s many problems.
Already aging, the Kings made only one off-season trade, adding 33-year-old winger Pat Conacher.
There are but three natural centers on the team’s starting roster.
First-year coach Barry Melrose, the sixth Kings coach in six years, has never coached in the NHL.
And before the first face-off, the Kings say they need to make trades.
This is either a team in transition or a folly on skates. Owner Bruce McNall even has suspended the players’ use of his private jet until the Kings show they can win.
″It’s going to be tough,″ said Marty McSorley, a defenseman who was pushed into the forward ranks last year. ″But we have a lot of guys who are really mature.″
The maturity that McSorley hopes will bond the team in captain Gretzky’s absence could ultimately be the team’s undoing as well. Melrose has installed an aggressive, tight-checking style that may wear down the Kings’ antique and small lineup, especially over the new 84-game season.
Paul Coffey is 31, Jari Kurri is 32, Charlie Huddy is 33, Dave Taylor is 36 and Tim Watters is 33.
The biggest immediate challenge isn’t age, though. It’s leadership without Gretzky, both on the ice and in the locker room. Kings’ management also fears the departure of the game’s best player yet may hurt the team attendance-wise.
″Whenever you lose a Wayne Gretzky, nothing works to your advantage,″ said Melrose, the former coach of the AHL’s Adirondack Red Wings. ″The guys now have to look a lot closer at themselves. We’ll have to win as a team.
″What’s great for us is everyone’s writing us off. That’s perfect for us. We can show everybody they were wrong.″
Melrose believes a variety of Kings rookies could lift the team. Robert Lang, the star of Czechoslovakia’s Olympic team, is a 21-year-old center with much promise. He’s been skating with all-star left wing Luc Robitaille and rookie right wing Jim Hiller, who leads the Kings in pre-season scoring.
Alexei Zhitnik, a defenseman from the Commonwealth of Independent States Olympic team, has been among the best new players. The small (5-10, 178-pound) 19-year-old says he’s rapidly adapting to the NHL’s rough-and-tumble style.
″I’m going to try to stay out of the mayhem and the punching,″ he said through an interpreter. ″But if somebody messes with me, I won’t back down.″
Other new faces include goalies Robb Stauber and David Goverde, forwards Mike Vukonich, Warren Rychel and Ed Kastelic, and defenseman Dave Tretowicz. All but Kastelic have limited or no professional experience.
Returning players include goalie Kelly Hrudey, forwards Robitaille, Tomas Sandstrom, Mike Donnelly, Kurri, Tony Granato, Corey Millen, Bob Kudelski and John McIntyre and defensemen Darryl Sydor, Peter Ahola, Brent Thompson and Rob Blake.
Granato, Kurri and Kudelski, all natural wings, are expected to play center in the absence of Gretzky, who has a herniated thoracic disk.
″Nobody can ever replace Wayne,″ Robitaille said. ″He’s too big and too great to replace.″
Veteran wing Taylor, whose role on the team is unclear, said the current roster may not be entirely compatible with Melrose’s ″controlled aggression″ philosophy.
″Everybody has to pick up their play a little bit,″ Taylor said. ″(Melrose) would like to see the team a little bigger and a little more physical. There could be some trades very early in the season.″
Last year, the Kings tied for ninth overall in the NHL standings. But after winning the Smythe division for the first time in 1990-91, they struggled to finish second in 1991-92, allowed more goals than they scored, and were eliminated by Edmonton in the first round of the playoffs.
The Kings have never made it past the second round. Melrose, 36, replaced Tom Webster, best known for throwing sticks at officials. Kings players say Melrose is more intense than Webster, but it remains to be seen what objects he’ll throw off the bench.
Gretzky collected much of the acclaim when the Kings triumphed and the majority of the fault when they faltered.
″Now we have to play better as a team,″ Taylor said. ″Nobody can blame him. When we lose, it’s on the whole team’s shoulders. We have to play as a unit, but a lot of it is going to hinge on our goaltending.″
General Manager Nick Beverley, who replaces Rogie Vachon this year, says the Kings showed no consistency last year.
″The overall work ethic from start to finish will be very evident,″ Beverley said. ″As far as guys playing out of position, in this day and age you have to have players who are capable of it.″
The Kings sold out every home game last year, and there have been no specific indications ticket sales have slumped with Gretzky’s layoff.
″I’m not fearful, but we’re concerned, naturally,″ Beverley said. ″We don’t want to lose a player of that magnitude for an extended period. We want to provide enough excitement and wins to keep the people coming in″ until Gretzky’s return.
″We still have a good lineup,″ Robitaille said. ″It’s going to be speed and hard work - something people are not accustomed to a lot from the L.A. Kings.″
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