- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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If the season had ended on Nov. 17, the Kings would have been the third seed in the Western Conference by virtue of their first-place standing in the Pacific Division.
Normally, that's not a big accomplishment six weeks into a six-month regular season. After all, in recent years even the Rangers and Flames have been in first place after six weeks. Though the Kings' 18 points would have placed them no higher than third in any other division in the league, their early-season placement in the Pacific is a reason to be proud, especially considering:
1. Top center Jason Allison and first-line winger Adam Deadmarsh remain out indefinitely due to lingering problems stemming from head injuries suffered last season. Neither player has played in an exhibition or regular-season game in 2003-04.
2. Top defenseman and team captain Mattias Norstrom missed seven games after suffering a shoulder injury on opening night.
3. Veteran defenseman Aaron Miller missed the first eight games of the season after fracturing his wrist in training camp.
4. Second-line center Jozef Stumpel, who moved to the first line to replace Allison, suffered a deep chest bruise against Chicago on Oct. 25. He has missed the last eight games and has yet to be medically cleared for practice.
5. Third-line center Derek Armstrong, who moved up to the top line with the absence of Allison and Stumpel, is expected to miss six to eight weeks after he suffered a broken finger when he was hit with a shot by teammate Zigmund Palffy in the final seconds of last Saturday's 1-0 loss to the Blues.
6. The team's special teams have been anything but special. Through Nov. 17, their power play ranked 19th in the league (15.7 percent). However, the real problem is the club's penalty killing unit, which is dead last. Opponents are scoring on a little more than 25 percent of their man-advantage opportunities against L.A. (18-for-69).
7. The Kings are just 3-5-1 at home. The Sharks and Penguins are the only teams with fewer home-ice wins.
8. Starting goalie Roman Cechmanek, acquired from the Flyers in the offseason, has been inconsistent at best in his first 14 games. His .908 save percentage ranks 22nd among goaltenders who've played 10 or more games.
9. On Oct. 26, police arrested Palffy after a confrontation with his girlfriend. The district attorney dismissed the case a week later.
10. On Oct. 28, the club issued a three-game suspension to rookie defenseman Joe Corvo one day after he received a three-year suspended sentence for assaulting a woman in a Boston restaurant.
So how has coach Andy Murray managed to lead his team to the top of the Pacific?
"We don't really know how we're doing it," Murray joked. "We just want to keep doing it."
Kidding aside, Murray said there are two reasons why his team has been able to stay afloat.
"We've been very efficient at even strength," said Murray, whose team is the only one in the division to score more goals then they've allowed. "And our guys have really worked their butts off. Their work ethic has been great."
The organization's dedication to creating an identity for the club has made it easier to move players into different roles.
"We've had some summer camps where we've had our players come in to work on the system of play we want to use throughout our organization," Murray explained. "Our minor-league team in Manchester plays the same system, so there's no big transition if we have to call them up. I really have to credit (coach) Bruce Boudreau and his staff for doing a great job."
They play what Murray likes to call, "40-second hockey," players working hard on short shifts. That creates a high-tempo pace that allows them to be physical on the forecheck. Also, in his four-plus years in L.A., Murray has maintained the way to create offense is by being strong defensively.
With Allison and Deadmarsh on the sidelines, the Kings have been getting offensive contributions from several sources. First and foremost is Palffy, who, despite his off-ice incident, ranks among the league's top scorers with 17 assists and 22 points. Palffy also leads the club's forwards with a plus-7 rating and an average of 20:34 minutes per game.
Veteran free-agent pickups Luc Robitaille -- in his third stint with the Kings -- and Trent Klatt have helped keep the Kings moving forward through turbulent times. Robitaille, getting first-line minutes in L.A. after a down season in Detroit, has five goals and 15 points in 16 games. Klatt, coming off a strong '02-03 season in Vancouver, has contributed six goals and 10 points.
Robitaille credits Murray for the club's ability to stay on course.
"(Murray) has built a good team structure since he's been here," Robitaille said. "Everybody knows their roles and we can concentrate on just going out and playing hard."
One high-ranking Western Conference exec echoes Robitaille's feelings about Murray.
"Every day, every game, no matter what the circumstance, Murray prepares his team to win," said the exec. "He's not preparing them to weather the storm. He's preparing them to win. I feel his preparation to win is second to none."
While Murray would like to prepare his team to be much better on the penalty kill, Robitaille is quick to point out that it has improved dramatically in recent games. The Kings allowed 12 power-play goals in their first nine games, but have surrendered just six in their last seven. Not great, but definitely better.
"Once we got Norstrom and Miller back in the lineup, that made a big difference on our PK," Robitaille said. "We got in a big hole with that early in the year, but with those guys back playing, we're climbing back up the ladder."
As for some less-heralded Hollywood performers, Murray points to the now-injured Armstrong and fourth-year defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky.
"Game-in, game-out, those guys (Armstrong and Visnovsky) have probably been our two best players," Murray says. "Visnovsky isn't the biggest guy (5-foot-10, 190 pounds), but he really competes."
With Armstrong in injured reserve, Murray will again be forced to shuffle his lines. Eric Belanger becomes the latest King to be inserted into the seemingly cursed No. 1 center slot. He'll work with Palffy and 21-year-old Alexander Frolov, who's off to a good start (6-4-10) in his second season. First-year pivot Esa Pirnes, a 26-year-old veteran of the Finnish Elite League, moves onto the second line, where he'll center Robitaille and Klatt.
Hard-to-play-against wingers Ian Laperriere and Sean Avery and center Brad Chartrand will work on the club's third line; while Murray will look for energy from players like rookie Dustin Brown, Jon Sim, Mike Cammalleri and Kip Brennan on the fourth line.
Despite the favorable start in a suddenly weak division, Murray said he's not ready to toss any bouquets around his dressing room. He knows there's a long way to go, but after missing the playoffs last year, he and his team want back in.
"The guys know we've had some tough luck," Murray said. "But they also know we can't change the schedule or wait for someone to ride in on a white horse and save us. So, they're just coming to the rink to work hard every day. They know if we play hard and play our game we'll have a chance to succeed."
Around the Hrink
Now that veteran forwards Steve Thomas (Red Wings) and Adam Oates (Oilers) have signed on for another NHL season, one has to wonder if some club looking for a little offensive help will make a play for speedy pivot Cliff Ronning. The 38-year-old Ronning totaled 17 goals and 48 points for the defensive-minded Wild last year. He added two goals and nine points in the club's surprising run to the conference finals. Because of his skating skill, Ronning has been pegged for the Western Conference, where he's played all of his 16 NHL seasons. That said, he might be a nice short-term fit for the Thrashers, who are trying to stay afloat without All-Star winger Dany Heatley (knee; out indefinitely) and center Marc Savard (torn ankle ligament; projected to be out until January). Ronning's agent, Ron Perrick, said he's been in communication with a few teams. "Right now, a lot of clubs are .500, so they don't know if they want to make a move. Cliff has been skating and staying in shape. He definitely wants to play." Perrick, who, like Ronning, is based in Vancouver, said his client isn't ruling out any club.
Goal scoring has become a big issue in Montreal. How big? Defenseman Sheldon Souray, who entered the season with 13 career goals and never scored more than three in a single season, leads the club with six. He's also tied for the team lead with three power-play goals, thanks to his strong shot from the left point, and has one of the team's two short-handed goals. He's eclipsing more likely goal-scoring candidates like Donald Audette (3), Richard Zednik (4) and Yanic Perreault (5) despite missing all of last season with a wrist injury. If the goal-scoring woes continue, GM Bob Gainey might be well advised to scout some of the ex-Habs playing in the old-timers game before Saturday's Heritage Classic in Edmonton.
Wondering what happened to former Islanders coach Peter Laviolette, who was canned by the club in the offseason after back-to-back playoff appearances? He recently coached the U.S. National Select team to the Deutschland Cup Championship in Germany. The Massachusetts-native's USA Hockey roots date back to his Olympic appearances in 1988 and '94. Laviolette says he enjoyed the opportunity to coach for his country and would like to do it again. He might be a good choice as an assistant for Team USA at the 2004 World Cup.
Hockeytown is to octopi as Music Town is to ... catfish? Yes, just when you thought you'd heard it all, Predators fans have taken to tossing catfish onto the Gaylord Entertainment Center ice after the home team scores its first goal. This slimy new tradition began during an Oct. 30 game against -- who else -- the Red Wings. Since then, the fish toss has taken place at every game. The club isn't encouraging the unusual behavior. In fact, they've ejected fans they've identified as fish-throwers. Club VP of communications Gerry Helper said the club searches the bags of fans as they enter the building, "but we don't frisk people." For the record, the club is 3-3 since the fans started getting fishy.
Power-play time with ...
NHLPA president and Canucks center Trevor Linden
Q: As president of the NHLPA, how optimistic are you that there will be a new labor agreement without a work stoppage?
A: I'm always optimistic. Certainly, from a player's standpoint, we would love for the game to continue to be played. So we're going to do everything we can and try to address their problems, and try to work as hard as we can to get something done before there's a stoppage.
Q: What is your most important duty as president of the NHLPA?
A: I think that the executive committee has to represent the 30 player reps, which represent the 700 players. In my role, I feel I'm there to represent the players and feel I have to be in constant contact with the guys. And if guys have questions or concerns they can talk to a fellow player and hopefully get some answers.
Q: This is your second stint in Vancouver. How is your role different this time around?
A: I think with the offensive-type people we have now, I'm not counted on to be a scorer. With Markus (Naslund), Todd (Bertuzzi) and Brendan (Morrison), we've got a very offensive team. Daniel and Henrik (Sedin) have really stepped up this year and Jason King has really been an influence offensively. For me, I've always been a type of player who tries to be good in both ends of the rink. Basically, that's what I'm doing right now.
Q: What does this year's team have to do to get to the next level in the postseason?
A: We've taken significant steps in the last two years. I think we've been able to learn from our mistakes. We've got a group that has really taken our knocks and learned from them and become a better team. We're a better defensive team than we were last year and that is part of the area we want to continue to be good at. We're a young team and we're just learning what it takes. We made a big step last year and we want to build on that.
Q: If you could change one thing about the current state of the game, what would it be?
A: I'm a traditionalist. I think we have to respect the rules of the game. This game has a great history. I don't think there's a lot you can do. Teams understand it's important to be good defensively. But I've seen a lot of 2-1 games that have been extremely exciting with physical contact and speed of the play. Goals don't necessarily equal an exciting game, but it's definitely tougher to score these days. I don't know if there's a simple answer to that. I certainly don't think it's a matter of taking the red line away. I don't think the goaltender equipment makes any difference at all. You can talk about all things you want, but any rule you make, teams are going to work around it.
This week's bargain/bust
BUST: Alexander Karpovtsev, D, Blackhawks ($3.1 million)
He's a solid defender who matches up nicely against an opponent's top players when he's healthy. Unfortunately, the 33-year-old Karpovtsev can't seem to stay in the lineup. Last season, he missed 41 of 82 games with different injuries. This year, he's been missed five of the club's first 19 games with a bad back. Even Hawks coach Brian Sutter said his 6-3, 220-pound defenseman has a difficult time staying healthy. "He'll always be hurt," Sutter said. "We'll just have to manage it." Even on those rare days when he's healthy, Karpovtsev just isn't worth his $3.1M price tag. Fortunately for the Hawks, he's in the final year of his contract.
Why didn't the Stars buy out Pierre Turgeon during the summer?
-- Adam Johnson, Richardson, Texas
The Stars wanted to buy out Turgeon, but couldn't come to an agreement with his agent, Bob Sauve. Sources close to the negotiations say that Turgeon wanted a lump sum payment, which would have amounted to between $10-11 million, rather than take a deferred deal that would have paid out $13.667M over six years (two-thirds of the total cash over twice the remaining term of the contract). If Turgeon indeed wanted the lump sum, he would have been forfeiting approximately $3M and facing a bigger tax hit.
The Stars were hesitant to buy out Turgeon because they -- like most teams -- feel there will be no season in 2004-05. If the season is lost to a work stoppage, the club figures it won't have to pay Turgeon for that season. The Hurricanes used the same thinking in deciding not to buy out goalie Arturs Irbe, who is currently earning his big paycheck in the ECHL.
How is coach Andy Murray keeping the injury-riddled Kings afloat in the Pacific?