The Kings are dead. Long live the Kings. Though Wayne Gretzky's
eight-year reign in Los Angeles ended in February 1996, the
Kings only now are emerging from the Great One's grip. Night
after disappointing night, players and fans would leave the
Great Western Forum, gaze longingly into their rearview mirrors
and reminisce about the Gretzky-led run to the Stanley Cup
finals in 1993. "I believe that's over," says general manager
Dave Taylor. "We finally have a new identity."
What's changed? The Kings went 38-33-11 last season, their best
record in five years. They did it behind defenseman Rob Blake,
Los Angeles's first post-Gretzky superstar. Blake dominated
games en route to winning the Norris Trophy and also cut a fine
public image. He's a genial blue-eyed blond (sound familiar?)
whose seaside ubiquity has locals calling him the Mayor of
As they await their move to a new downtown arena next year, the
Kings already have a new look. They have changed their logo from
a crown to a coat of arms and have added purple sleeves to their
home jerseys. In that fancy garb Los Angeles will send out a
tough, able defense. Mattias Norstrom has developed a nasty hip
check, and the off-season signings of 14-year veteran Doug
Bodger and premier puck-mover Steve Duchesne provides strong
blueliners for the power play. However, the Kings need another
scorer before they can contend with the NHL elite. Center Jozef
Stumpel, though, is a precise passer who elevates the play of
solid wingers Glen Murray and Vladimir Tsyplakov. The Kings also
have more young talent--notably 19-year-old center Olli
Jokinen--than they've had since they mortgaged their future in a
vain attempt to assemble a championship team around Gretzky.
Says Luc Robitaille, who has played 10 years with the Kings,
"Gretzky was what the Kings were about for a long time. But this
is a new team. And we're good."
Last season Stephane Fiset led the league in a dubious category:
He allowed five players (Erik Andersson, Shawn Bates, Daniel
Briere, Mike Crowley and Alexei Morozov) to score their first
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--With the addition of superb puck-moving defenseman Steve
Duchesne, the Kings must improve on a power play that finished
17th in the league last year.
--Jozef Stumpel, who had a breakout season in 1997-98, needs a
repeat performance because L.A. is suspect in the middle.