By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
The Kings have been one of the best teams in the NHL the past several seasons. Unfortunately, they have run into the Avalanche in the postseason each year. Los Angeles fought Colorado hard before falling victim to the magic of Patrick Roy in a 1-0 decision in Game 7.
Despite an earlier-than-planned postseason exit, the Kings are confident heading into the 2001-02 season. In fact, they are confident to the point of talking about a perfect 82-0-0-0 season.
"I'd say right now going into the season we're looking at 164 points," Kings head coach Andy Murray. "Because if we are playing 82 games, we better expect to win them all right now or there's no sense playing them. If I was to tell you 100 points, then that would mean we are prepared to lose some games, and before the year starts, I'm not prepared to say that."
Murray will surely lower his expectations when he realizes that the Habs hold the single-season points record with 132 in 1976-77, but his subtle motivational messages always seem to get through to his team. They are a big reason why he is one of the top coaches in the game.
The Kings were quiet on the free-agent front again this offseason, signing only reserve defenseman Chris McAlpine from Chicago. Los Angeles' best move was signing Mike Cammalleri to a three-year contract, convincing him to leave the University of Michigan after his junior season. Philippe Boucher signed with Dallas, veteran winger Kelly Buchberger signed with Phoenix and center Cliff Ronning was dealt to Minnesota for a draft pick. Departed depth guys Rich Brennan, Ted Donato, Adam Mair and Rob Valicevic won't be missed much.
The hopes in Hollywood are that the Kings can successfully blend their young talent in with their veterans over the next couple of seasons and remain a perennial 90-plus-point team. Los Angeles is certainly talented enough to contend for the Stanley Cup, however in the incredibly difficult Western Conference, it could also miss the playoffs altogether.
Jason Allison, C -- The Kings overhauled their top two lines in a six-month span, acquiring Adam Deadmarsh from the Avalanche in March, 2001, and getting Allison from the Bruins in October, 2001. The acquisition of these two bruising forwards gave Los Angeles a pair of dominating forecheckers who love to mix it up in the corners and fight for position in front of the net.
"It probably will go down as a really good trade for both teams," Murray said. "A really good trade is one where both teams are happy, and the Bruins got good efforts out of Jozef Stumpel and Glen Murray. Certainly with Jason Allison, we got our guy that can lead us up the middle for a number of years to come."
Though Deadmarsh has rejuvenated his career by getting more ice time with the Kings, Allison quickly emerged as Los Angeles' most indispensible player. After starting slowly with just one assist in the first four games, Allison rounded into shape and exploded with eight goals and 19 assists in the next 24 games. Allison slowed down in the early part of 2002, scoring five goals and nine assists in 19 games between Jan. 2 and Feb. 13, but then finished strongly with six goals and 28 assists in the 24 games after the Olympic break.
"Up front Allison or Ziggy Palffy are the two guys that can really make our offense go," Taylor said. "They bring different dimensions. Ziggy is skill and quickness and finesse, and Jason will try to bull you over and wrap one around from behind the net. He's very good working down low and is strong on the puck."
Allison did his best work on the power play, leading the league with 32 assists. He also led Kings forwards in ice time with 21:47 and won 54.5 percent of his faceoffs. Deadmarsh is good at what he does, but Allison is one of the league's top playmakers and really makes the Kings' offense go.
Depth on defense -- The Kings' worries on defense will be placated somewhat when Aaron Miller returns about a month into the season. But until then, youngsters Andreas Lilja and Joe Corvo are going to have to step in his absence.
The Kings view Miller and Mattias Norstrom as two of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL. Miller had 147 blocked shots and 153 hits, while Norstrom blocked 140 shots and had 157 hits. Miller played 22:20 per game, so either Lilja or Corvo will get significant minutes in the early going while Miller is out.
"We've got some adjusting to do because we don't have Phillipe Boucher," Murray said. "We have good pairs with Modry-Vishnovsky, Schneider-Miller and Norstrom-Lilja. We would like to think that Andreas Lilja would be able to step up and get it done this season."
Boucher had seven goals, 23 assists and was Los Angeles' best all-around defenseman last year. Modry scored more, and Norstrom and Miller defended better, but no one put the total package together better than Boucher last season. His absence may be felt early in the season while the youngsters adjust to the NHL level and more playing time, but Boucher wasn't the spectacular type of player who dominated one facet of the game, so he should be replaceable.
"Phillipe probably played as our No. 4 defenseman last year," Taylor said. "I would expect that Modry will get a few more minutes this season. He had a breakthrough year for us and played in the All-Star Game. Andreas Lilja and Lubomir Vishnovsky will get a little more ice time as well. And our top defenseman in Manchester last year, Joe Corvo, will get a very long look here through training camp and has a chance to crack the lineup."
Los Angeles has more top-level young talent on the way than any other team in the league. But with 95, 92 and 94 points the past three seasons, the Kings run the risk of upsetting their talented, battle-tested lineup that already has proven it can be competitive if they advance too many of the kids too quickly.
Jared Aulin, Alexander Frolov, Yannick Lehoux and Mike Cammalleri are all just 20 years old and possess the talent to be top-six fowards. Aulin is the playmaker, Frolov is the finisher, Lehoux is the flashy one and Cammalleri is a combination of the three.
If the Kings are bold enough to play one of these youngsters on one of their top two lines this season, a Calder Trophy party could be held in Hollywood next June. The problem is choosing which of the four will stick with the big club and which will play in the AHL this season.
"We just have to wait and see how some of these young guys develop," Murray said. "Our young people are fortunately going to be surrounded by some solid veterans. I look at a team like Colorado that integrates quality young players into their lineup every year, and they are able to do it because they are surrounded by Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Adam Foote, Peter Forsberg, Stephane Yelle and guys like that. So that's what we have to hope for."
Cammalleri may be the most NHL ready after starring at Michigan for three years and dominating this year's world junior championships with 11 points to earn the top forward award. Frolov is the biggest and has the best NHL body, but willhave to get used to the North American style. Aulin is the most versatile, thanks to his good defense and hockey sense which could allow him to play on the third line. Lehoux has excellent offensive potential, but needs to work on his strength and defense more than the other three.
While Cammalleri may have the best chance to make the roster this season, Frolov could have the highest ceiling of the Kings' prospect quartet. He scored 18 goals and 12 assists in 41 games with Krylia Sovetov last season.
"Frolov is an offensive-minded guy who is particularly good down low," Taylor said. "With his size and reach, he protects the puck well. He has quick hands around the net. I view him as a finisher more than a playmaker, although his hockey sense and his ice vision are very good."
Frolov could eventually fit in well on a top line with Allison and Palffy to form a line with excellent size, speed, forechecking, passing, everything.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.