One of the odd things about me is that I am a nearly life long ice hockey fan, even though I grew up in Southern California, lived here my entire life; and, in the limited opportunities that I have had to actually skate (absent any lessons), I've not been able to master going full speed backwards. But still I love the game and love the Los Angeles Kings.
I had the pleasure of meeting the Kings Hall of Fame play by play man, Bob Miller, at the Barnes and Noble in Valencia a few weeks ago. He was signing copies of his new book, Tales from the Los Angeles Kings. It is a great book, full of interesting stories of some behind the scene stories and behind the mike experiences he has had over the years. Besides being a first rate announcer and genuinely nice person, he also has a great memory. He remembered me, although I had to fill in from where, we met a couple of times at the Forum in 1974 when I was an intern for the Lakers announcer Chick Hearn (I thought I wanted to be a sports writer once). Working that winter for Hearn was quite an experience; let's just say he wasn't the easiest person to work around or for; I would have much preferred working for Miller but I don't think Jack Kent Cooke had much intern money in the Kings budget at the time.
Miller's book is a great read and I highly recommend it to any fan of hockey or of the Kings. Los Angeles I think is unique in that all of the major sports (Dodgers, Kings and Lakers) all had Hall of Fame announcers (and at one time Dick Enberg was the Angels and Rams announcer!). Hearn died a few years ago, but Vin Scully and Bob Miller are going well. Interestingly enough, I can only think of one time that all three were interviewed at the same time, about a year before Hearn died. I do wish Miller had mentioned that encounter in the book. I remember watching that interview and got the distinct impression that Hearn and Scully did not care for one another.
When you have lived in the LA area all of your life and followed the Kings since they came into the league (I remember that some games would be on television back then, KHJ Channel 9 at the time, but they would be replays starting after the late night news was over at 11pm. I would watch as many games as I could) it is remarkable that they have done as well as they have. As Miller's book points out (what anyone who knew sports already was aware of) the first owner Jack Kent Cooke was more of a model for a Dilbert comic strip than a template for executive excellence. I got constant laughs from Miller's stories about the former GM George Maguire, who I remember reading quotes from in the Times or Herald Examiner back then that always gave me the impression that he had no idea what he was doing. To this day I feel badly for former owner Bruce McNall, who seemed to be an owner who actually cared about the team and wanted to make them winners; but was flawed in some other ways. In his own way though McNall changed the NHL, getting Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles opened up a lot of American markets to the game which may not have happened otherwise.
It was good to read about some of my favorite players, Butch Goring (and his old leather helmet), Marcel Dionne, Larry Murphy (why in the world did the Kings trade him?) and others.
You need to get Miller's book and read it.
Now, onto more discouraging matters. The Kings at the moment have the worst record in the NHL. Now, as a fan, I knew full well that it was unlikely that they would compete for a play-off spot this season. They are rebuilding, looking to the future, and I think that Dean Lombardi, the General Manager, has an actual and workable plan for the near future. He has stockpiled draft picks, he has a lot of cap room for salaries, and the players he has drafted seem to be working out (even the interesting #1 pick, Thomas Hickey, an 18 year old defenseman is having a good year at Seattle). However, it is disappointing that the Kings are seemingly worse this year than last year.
Some of the problems are obvious: goaltending has been iffy at best. Their 19 year old goalie prospect who started the seasons with them, and won his first game, was sent back to his junior team (a good and expected move). It may be that he is ready next year. Jason LaBarbara has been good, even great at times. However, the defense in front of him has been poor. Perhaps the most disappointing defensemen, and it hurts to say this since he will undoubtedly be in the Hall of Fame someday, has been the Captain, Rob Blake. Blake is a +/- -10 (and his early partner Lubomir Visnovsky is a -14). Blake is regularly out of position and is getting beaten to the puck far too often. As a result he is, uncharacteristically, leading the Kings in penalty minutes. He is using experience and guile, but he is clearly not a front line defender at this point in his career. He continues on the #1 Power Play team, but has only two goals and 12 assists (Visnosky, his PP partner is 2 and 19). Recently, Blake has been paired with Jack Johnson, which, drove Johnson's +/- up as well.
The most consistent defensive pair has been Brad Stuart and Tom Preissing. Johnson has also played very well and I would like to see more of him on the Power Play and in Penalty Killing.
Offensively the Kings are not in bad shape. The are actually 6th in goals in the Western Conference. They have a core of great offensive players and while the scoring is not as balanced between the lines as would be ideal, there are a lot of good things happening in the opponents end of the ice. There power play has also been strong (despite a the struggles of Blake and Visnosky). They are occasionally too predictable in their up ice passing schemes and I'm still at a los as to why Jack Johnson is not carrying the puck into the attacking zone more.
What I am really concerned about is coaching. Marc Crawford has won the Stanley Cup, but I am beginning to wonder if he is the right guy for a young, developing team. As ESPN Hockey writer Scott Burnside, in response to a hockey chat question I asked about Crawford, stated,
Even teams that are rebuilding and looking to the future as opposed to the present, hate to see themselves beat up, as is happening to the Kings. I think they are, by a wide margin, the worst team in the NHL. They have poor goaltending, and they are far away defensively from where they have to be. Now that has to do with their youth, but it also calls into question Marc Crawford's abilities. Marc Crawford has won and Stanley Cup, but now he has a young team which has not taken any steps forward. I think the last half of this season Crawford's team will have to show signs that they get it; they may not win, but they must show signs of improvement for Crawford to hold onto his job.
I'm afraid I agree with this assessment. As a long time King's fan I wouldn't mind seeing a coach come in and stay for about 10+ years and I thought Crawford might be that guy, but the team really needs to turn it around starting tomorrow night with San Jose.
Regardless of how the Kings do, I think if Lombardi can get some value for Rob Blake, Jaroslav Modry, Scott Thornton or even Brian Willsie, LaBarbara or Aubin; he should make the deadline deal. Bernier and Quick look like future front line goalies, so I wouldn't look for a "big name" goalie right now. They need a couple of front line guys on the blue line; replace Blake on the Power Play with Johnson. Visnosky should come out of his goal slump sometime. Don't split Stuart and Priessing, they are playing too well together. I would pair Blake and Modry for a while and put Johnson and Visnosky together as better combinations.
You hate to say it, but about the best thing to say about the season so far, is that the Kings could get the overall #1 draft choice in 2008. Fans need to see some real improvement, and fairly soon, or we may discover that a coaching change is imminent.