Trip to the finals changed Kings After 25 years, people believe HOCKEY


INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- A beaming Dave Taylor skated past the distraught Montreal Canadiens goaltender, Patrick Roy, and handed off the Stanley Cup to a teary-eyed Wayne Gretzky, who glided across the Forum ice and gave a thumbs-up sign to owner Bruce McNall. Kelly Hrudey, giddy with exhaustion, wrapped a sweaty bear hug around Barry Melrose. Roy Mlakar patted Nick Beverley on the head.

And they all lived happily ever after. . .

Yes, it could still happen.

After all, the Los Angeles Kings came within three tantalizing games of sipping from Lord Stanley's Cup last June before an illegal stick and one hellacious spell of overtime magic granted the Montreal Canadiens passage through the Cup finals.

The trick facing the Kings in 1993-94 is to close that three-game gap, to return to the finals and go one step beyond.

There has been an attitude change in Los Angeles, which can happen when a franchise bolts to the brink of the league championship after having failed for 25 years to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs.

"With us winning in the playoffs, it was the first time people started believing," Melrose said. "[Players in the past] always looked at L.A. -- instead of thinking about winning -- they thought it was a nice place to die. Now they want to come to a winning club, instead of finishing their careers here."

And, there has been a physical change. This time last year, Gretzky was sidelined with what was considered a career-threatening back injury. He missed the first 39 games because of it, but returned in spectacular form in the playoffs, scoring 40 points in 24 postseason games.

After briefly mulling retirement over the summer, Gretzky is back, fitter and certainly richer. Two weeks ago, he agreed to a $25.5 million contract that will make him the highest-paid player in hockey.

Raises all around seemed to be the prevailing theme during the off-season.

One salary increase, however, was deemed to be too rich for even the Kings' blood. The team matched his $10 million offer sheet, then traded defenseman Marty McSorley to the Pittsburgh Penguins for forward Shawn McEachern.

Otherwise, few significant personnel changes have been made. McEachern, adept at all three forward positions, scored 28 goals and 61 points as a rookie last season.

For now, Gretzky will center a line of McEachern on the left wing and Tomas Sandstrom on the right.

The Kings rarely have had problems scoring, and this season should be no exception.

Among those coming off strong seasons are Luc Robitaille, who had 63 goals and 125 points; Tony Granato, 37 goals and 82 points; Mike Donnelly, 29 goals and 69 points, and defenseman Rob Blake, 16 goals and 59 points.

Instead, the biggest concerns are toughness, defense, goaltending and whether center Jimmy Carson can truly play in Melrose's system.

Without McSorley, the Kings may be faster, but they are much smaller. Rychel and Marc Potvin are willing to fight but are middleweights. Quite often, the mere presence of an enforcer means a team won't have to fight as much.

About the only King with enough moxie to say he wants to try to replace McSorley is 22-year-old defenseman Brent Thompson, who has been slowed by off-season abdominal surgery. It could be anywhere from a few weeks to more than a month before he returns.

"There's a job there for the taking and anyone who doesn't realize that is stupid," said Thompson, who is 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds.

Many Kings say that toughness is more collective quality than a singular one.

"Against San Jose, we lost both our tough guys and we were OK," Blake said. "Toughness is valued more in the way you play. We have Warren and Potsie [Potvin] -- you need that security."

Said Granato, gesturing toward Melrose's office: "Everybody here knows what Barry wants. If you don't play that way, you're out of here. In training camp, you didn't see anyone back down. If you are a team that's going to back down, you might need some toughness. I don't think we'll have that problem."

There is a down side to Melrose's fast-paced aggressive philosophy, however. Last season, the Kings were short-handed more than any team in the league and allowed 114 power-play goals, second-most in the NHL. And McSorley was a fixture on the penalty-killing unit.

The defense, save for McSorley, returns intact. There are the three poised youngsters who have star potential -- Blake, 23; Alexei Zhitnik, 21, and Darryl Sydor, 21. They were given additional responsibilities after the midseason Paul Coffey trade and will shoulder even more of the load now.

Blake is often mentioned as a future Norris Trophy winner. Zhitnik booming slap shot helped make him the second-highest scoring rookie defenseman last season. Sydor improved steadily and had 11 points in the playoffs.

Yet, there is no middle ground between old and young. The other defensemen are a trio of 34-year-olds -- Charlie Huddy, Tim Watters and Mark Hardy. An injury to any of the Kings' top three defensemen could be crucial.

San Jose, Ottawa and Hartford were the only teams that allowed more goals than the Kings' 340, which may be why they are starting the season with three goaltenders, Hrudey, Robb Stauber and Rick Knickle. Hrudey will start in today's season opener and is the clear-cut No. 1.

The way Hrudey coped with his yo-yo season -- losing his starting job after a midseason slump and finishing with the playoff performance of his life -- earned him the admiration of his coaches and teammates.

So who are the real Kings? A group that barely finished over .500 in the regular season or the team that came within three games of winning the Stanley Cup?

"We will prove that last year was not a fluke," Gretzky said. "A lot of people don't think we deserved to be there. So it's good incentive."

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