The hiring of anonymous rookie coach Andy Murray to replace Hall
of Famer Larry Robinson is a curious case of casting, especially
by Hollywood's standards. Just how low-profile is the new king
of the Kings? Last season Murray coached a prep school team in
Fairbault, Minn. "Since we're sharing the same training facility
as the Lakers, some friends asked how they would know which side
the Kings were on," says Murray, who was an NHL assistant for
seven seasons and coach of the Canadian national team for two
years. "I told them you'll see Phil Jackson's Rolls-Royce on one
side. My pickup will be on the other side."
With the opening of the Staples Center this month, L.A., which
was a dreadful 32-45-5 last season, needed a marquee name to
promote. Six days after hiring Murray, the Kings acquired
27-year-old star right wing Zigmund Palffy and 29-year-old
enigmatic center Bryan Smolinski from the Islanders for three
top prospects and a No. 1 draft choice. For a team that had two
goals or less in 48 games last season, Palffy's goal-scoring (a
combined 93 in 1996-97 and 1997-98) is a welcome addition. Only
time will tell whether the Kings mortgaged their future to
simply return to mediocrity. Center Jozef Stumpel and Luc
Robitaille round out a potent first line.
Defenseman Rob Blake, the Norris Trophy winner two seasons ago,
will lead a defensive unit that has undergone a makeover.
Finland's Aki Berg, the third pick in the 1995 draft, and
25-year-old Czech star Frantisek Kaberle will replace the aged
legs of Doug Bodger and Dave Babych. Los Angeles is also banking
on 24-year-old Jere Karalahti, one of the best defensemen in
Europe, who will join the Kings when he obtains a visa. Mattias
Norstrom, who has missed training camp because of a contract
holdout, is a steady stay-at-home blueliner. Goalies Stephane
Fiset (2.60 goals-against average last season) and Jamie Storr
(2.40) form a competent duo, though neither will remind anyone
of Dominik Hasek.
Murray logged more miles than Gulliver in the off-season to meet
his players, even traveling to Vienna to dine with Palffy and
Stumpel. After Palffy polished off his pizza and Stumpel
finished his schnitzel, Murray picked up the tab. "The check was
about 10 percent of my salary," he laughs, "and about one
millionth of theirs."
Call it a good investment. If Palffy gets 50 goals this season,
Murray's pickup may feel like a Rolls.
The Kings' seven shutouts last season (four by Jamie Storr and
three by Stephane Fiset) were their most since 1976-77, when
Rogie Vachon blanked the opposition eight times.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
OFFENSE 19 Palffy and Smolinski should boost weak
DEFENSE 17 Addition of Aki Berg will enhance backline
GOALTENDING 24 Fiset and Storr still battling for the No. 1
SPECIAL TEAMS 21 Power play should have bite, but penalty
killing is soft
COACHING 23 Murray, a rookie, is big on preparation