At a glance, Rob Blake's off-season appeared downright idyllic:
days spent enjoying beach volleyball near his home in Manhattan
Beach, Calif., playing in charity golf tournaments or visiting
his family's Ontario farm. Yet as late as September the Kings'
star defenseman sounded like a man whose team had been eliminated
from the playoffs just yesterday. "The way the season ended is
not something you easily forget," Blake says of the Kings'
getting swept from the playoffs by the Red Wings last April,
which extended the franchise's postseason losing streak to 11
games. "We went into the playoffs believing we had a chance, and
we got wiped out." Again.
That debacle overshadowed a 94-point regular season (fourth best
in franchise history) and the successful coaching debut of Andy
Murray. Fairly or not, much of the blame for the postseason
flameout was directed at Blake, who quarterbacked a power play
that went 0 for 23 against Detroit. Frustrated by his team's
persistent playoff failures and the belief that he might be
traded, Blake forfeited his captaincy shortly after the start of
training camp. Two weeks later, however, Murray--who has focused
on weaning his players from their habit of looking to Blake
first, last and always--convinced the four-time All-Star to take
back the C. "It's important that Rob's teammates not just feel
they're along for the ride," says Murray. "I think that happened
last year, and it put an awful lot of pressure on Rob."
To ease Blake's burden, Murray will depend heavily on the first
line of flashy right wing Ziggy Palffy, underrated center Jozef
Stumpel (who at press time was holding out in a contract dispute)
and still dangerous 34-year-old left wing Luc Robitaille. Despite
missing a combined 52 games last season because of injury, that
trio amassed 198 points. Palffy and Robitaille looked especially
energized in camp. Still, even if the top line stays healthy,
look for the deep-pocketed Kings to make a major personnel move.
One possibility: L.A. has been mentioned as a potential
destination for the Flyers' oft-concussed Eric Lindros. Such a
move would likely prevent yet another early playoff exit, which
is essential if the Kings hope to hold onto Blake, who will be an
unrestricted free agent at season's end. There are only so many
times this captain will go down with his ship. --Josh Elliott
The Kings were the only NHL team last season to have three
players score more than a point per game: forwards Luc Robitaille
(1.04), Zigmund Palffy (1.03) and Jozef Stumpel (1.02).
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 10 Palffy is as pure a scorer as anyone
DEFENSE 12 Neutral-zone system frustrates opposing
GOALTENDING 12 Adding Passmore may mean exit for Storr
SPECIAL TEAMS 15 Signing Schneider will help power play
MANAGEMENT 15 Murray excelled in '99-00, first season