Wednesday, August 18, 2004
L.A.'s world of hurt
By Tom Wheatley
Special to ESPN.com
The Los Angeles Kings were the NHL's magic act. Somehow, despite an almost comically perverse injury epidemic, coach Andy Murray and general manager Dave Taylor kept the team in the playoff hunt for five months.
Attrition finally took its toll. The Kings missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, falling 10 points out of a playoff spot. But they still nearly reached the .500 mark at 28-29-16-9 in the parity stricken Western Conference.
This summer, the Kings -- following an almost league-wide trend -- continued to get younger and cheaper.
They did find over $12 million over four years to sign Craig Conroy, the speedy two-way center from Calgary.
Their other free-agent additions were low-key: Defensemen Stephane Quintal from Montreal and Mike Weaver from Atlanta, plus forward Tom Kostopoulos from Pittsburgh.
Los Angeles parted with concussed forwards Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh, who were unrestricted free agents. And the Kings also lost two other free agents: Ian Laperriere, a popular heart-and-soul forward, to Colorado and defenseman Jaroslav Modry to Atlanta.
Los Angeles did keep defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky and Joe Corvo plus winger Jeff Cowan in the fold.
At the Entry Draft, Taylor obtained his probable goalie of the future -- if not the present -- in a clever three-way deal. First, he sent a draft pick to Ottawa for Radek Bonk, then flipped the under-achieving center to Montreal for talented young goalie Mathieu Garon.
ESPN.com's Tom Wheatley caught up with Taylor for a capsule look at his Kings.
ESPN.com: Can you briefly assess last season?
"We were nine games over .500 and in seventh place with 11 games to play -- and we didn't win in our last 11. That's tough to swallow. But we had a second string of injuries -- Alexander Frolov, Jozef Stumpel, Derek Armstrong -- and we didn't have enough gas to get over the hump.
"It was a disappointing year for us. We suffered through a lot of injuries, but I thought our team competed real hard. We stayed in the playoff race until the last 10 days of the season.
ESPN.com: Which players took the biggest strides?
"On defense, Tim Gleason as a 20-year-old played 47 games for us. At the beginning of the year, we wouldn't have projected that. He was so good in training camp, and he eventually knocked a couple of veterans out of positions. He has excellent skating ability and strength, and he competes. He's a tremendously explosive skater."
"Frolov really stepped up for us as a 21-year-old and second-year pro. He led our team in goals with 24 and was a real force down low. He has size and strength and seemed to gain confidence as the year went on, until he had an ankle sprain near the end of the season. So he was one of the most pleasant surprises up front.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back?
"Martin Straka, same thing about him. When he came over from Pittsburgh, he really helped us offensively, but he had two knee injuries, and each knee had to be scoped for torn cartilage.
"Straka came back near the end of the year, but he didn't have the same jump. Then he played for the Czechs at the World Championships, and he looked like he was starting to get his legs back."
"We need Roman Cechmanek in goal to bounce back a little bit. Not that he played poorly, but he had two injuries that knocked him out of the lineup for awhile.
ESPN.com: Who in your system is ready for the NHL?
"We also have a defenseman, Denis Grebeshkov, who was a first-round pick two years ago. He played his first year as a pro last year, mostly in Manchester in the AHL. He would be pushing to earn a spot. He has excellent mobility and vision and can move the puck real well.
"He has great lateral movement and agility, but he doesn't have the explosive skating as Gleason. And he's not as big and strong -- Gleason is 6-foot-1, 215, and Grebeshkov is 6-foot, 200 -- but he handles the puck better than Gleason."
"Dustin Brown, our first pick last year at 13th overall, is a right winger. He spent all of the season in Los Angeles, but he missed most of the season with injuries (playing 31 games).
ESPN.com: Your top priority to improve the organization?
"And Ziggy Palffy and Stumpel are unrestricted free agents. We did sign Craig Conroy at center. We really like Connie and think he'll be able to play in our top six.
"We feel good about our defense and our goaltending. We have three defensive defensemen. Mattias Norstrom and Aaron Miller are back, and we signed Stephane Quintal, who's a solid defensive guy who can kill penalties.
"We also have three offensive defensemen: Visnovsky, Nathan Dempsey and Joe Corvo. As I said, we think Gleason will push for a spot, and Jason Holland could be a seventh or eighth defenseman.
"So we like that mix of stay-at-home-guys and offensive guys on defense. And we made the trade with Montreal for Garon to go with Cechmanek, so we like our goaltending, too."
"We're looking to improve our forwards, especially our top six. Just because of injuries, we were not able to qualify Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh. They didn't play a game for us last year because of concussions.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment last season?
"I take pride in how hard our team played. We lost over 600 man-games to injury. We lost our entire first line and several of our top defensemen. But our team and our depth guys competed. And I thought our coaches did an outstanding job."
ESPN.com: Your least favorite moment?
"When you play that hard for that long, and then you come up just short in April and you're not able to get into the playoffs, that's not a lot of fun."
ESPN.com: What activity or destination will take you furthest away from hockey this summer?
"I never get too far away. But I'm going back with my wife and daughter to a summer camp we have in New York state, on the upper Saranac Lake near Lake Placid. We'll just relax up there with some family for a week."
Tom Wheatley is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He is the co-author of Bob Plager's "Tales from the Blues Bench" and "The Memoirs of Bing Devine," both available from Sports Publishing LLC.