Jeremy Roenick quickly settled in as the Kings’ top center in training camp. Pavol Demitra finished the preseason with 11 points in six games and Valeri Bure, when healthy, showed a level of speed that could make him quite valuable in the NHL’s new offense-first era. But coach Andy Murray doesn’t care so much about all that. It’s nice, and Murray knows those newcomers will make a difference. But throughout the past three weeks, Murray preached the value of grit over talent. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREThe top 10 theme park moments of 2019 To that end, the Kings added proven winners, as Bure, Craig Conroy, Demtira and Roenick have played a combined 281 playoff games. Even so, the Kings could be battling for a playoff spot, and one national publication has picked them to finish 13th in the 15-team Western Conference. Here’s a look at the areas that will tell the story: OFFENSE This is clearly the best group of forwards the Kings have put together under Murray’s tenure. At the start of training camp, general manager Dave Taylor said the Kings had nine potential 20-goal scorers. That probably is a stretch, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism. As Murray sees it, if the Kings are to break a two-season-long playoff drought – no sure thing given the parity in the Western Conference – they must, in a way, ignore the talk that this is the most talented Kings team in more than a decade and remember that almost every team in the conference also improved. “If there’s a concern I have, it’s making sure we maintain the same work ethic and level of determination that we’ve always had,” Murray said. “We’ve got some players with more skill, but hard work beats skill when skill doesn’t work. We’ve got to make sure our skill is working.” The Kings didn’t acquire one single player to replace the skill of Ziggy Palffy, who rejected the Kings’ offer (three years, $14.5 million) and signed with Pittsburgh for the same money. Instead, they improved their depth and now they have three legitimate scoring lines. Murray’s most deft move of training camp was to pair Roenick, his most experienced and talented center, with two skilled youngsters – Michael Cammalleri and Alexander Frolov. Cammalleri had a great season in the American Hockey League last year and Frolov is a budding star, but both players have room for improvement, and playing with Roenick should give both a boost. DEFENSE Here’s where it gets tricky. This could be a solid unit, but it also could be a major weakness. Aaron Miller, Mattias Norstrom and Lubomir Visnovsky are the Kings’ top three overall defensemen, even though there have been mild concerns about Visnovsky’s consistency. Miller was a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2002, but his health and his ability to adjust to the new rules limiting obstruction will be monitored. The X-factor is second-year defenseman Tim Gleason. Team management raved about Gleason’s play throughout camp and believes he is ready to step into a major role this season. Beyond that, Joe Corvo has the potential to be a top-six defenseman but needs to prove it, and the Kings waited until the last minute to make a decision whether to keep around 21-year-old Denis Grebeshkov. GOALTENDING Another question mark – maybe even a bigger one – considering that Mathieu Garon and Jason LaBarbera enter the season with a combined 48 games of NHL experience. Garon has been in the Kings’ plans since they acquired him from Montreal in June 2004, and even though Garon has never been a No. 1 goalie, the Kings like his skill and temperament and the fact that he succeeded in a backup role in hockey-mad Montreal. The Kings thought so much of Garon that they chose LaBarbera as their backup, passing over a long list of solid veteran backups because they believe LaBarbera has strong long-term potential. Regardless, it can’t be any worse than the last combination of Roman Cechmanek and Cristobal Huet. SPECIAL TEAMS In 2003-04, the Kings were merely average in penalty-kill efficiency (83.3 percent, 15th in the NHL) and below average in power-play efficiency (14.6 percent, 18th in the NHL). Both of those must change. The addition of Conroy, a solid two-way player, will help the penalty-kill unit, and Murray has spent time devising ways to plan for defending the extra four feet of ice that has been added to the offensive zone. The power play will be stronger simply if everyone stays healthy, which rarely happened in 2003-04. Frolov should be the breakout star of this unit. COACHING Murray led the Kings to the playoffs in his first three seasons, but has fallen short in the past two. The team holds an option on his contract for 2006-07, so this is a huge year in regard to his future. This is a team with veteran leadership, which works in Murray’s favor, but it’s also a team with two guys, Roenick and Sean Avery, who are apt to create chaos just by opening their mouths, and it will be interesting to see how Murray deals with the inevitable distractions. At the start of camp, Murray seemed energized by the new rules, noting that they fit with the way he likes to play, but the Kings had trouble generating shots on goal in the preseason. Perhaps some adjustments are in order, but regardless, there won’t be many NHL coaches more prepared than Murray. MAKE OR BREAK If the Kings succeed, it will be because they stay healthy and have the type of offensive firepower that hasn’t been seen since Wayne Gretzky left town. Alexander Frolov will develop into an all-star, Luc Robitaille, likely in his last season, will finish with a flourish, Tim Gleason will start to develop into an elite defenseman and Mathieu Garon will make Montreal wish it gave up Jose Theodore instead. If the Kings don’t succeed, it will be because Roenick takes one too many big hits, Frolov lets his mind wander too often, the Kings’ defense, not the fleetest afoot anyway, has trouble with the new rules and Garon joins a long list of recent Kings goalies who couldn’t get the job done. SCHEDULE Every year, it seems the Kings need to make a strong push sometime around January to raise their playoff hopes. A strong start to the season would be an immeasurable help, and the schedule certainly works in the Kings’ favor. They open at Dallas, but then don’t play another road game for two weeks, with the next five games – and nine of the first 12 altogether – at Staples Center. There are no excuses for a slow start. BREAKOUT PLAYER When last seen in Los Angeles, Dustin Brown was a soft-spoken 18-year-old kid who didn’t really have a defined place on the team. Now, he could be a monster. More mature, Brown has been on the receiving end of countless comparisons to former King Adam Deadmarsh, which is a high compliment on this team, and he potentially has the perfect combination of skill and toughness. BEHIND THE MASK Mathieu Garon has been a King since a June 2004 trade, but because of the lockout he hasn’t played a game for his old/new team. Here’s a question-and-answer glimpse at the new goalie: Q: What is painted on your mask, and what’s the story behind it? A: There’s not really a story behind it. I’ve got a couple knights and a checkerboard, just to try to represent the Kings. And I have the initials of my son on the back. Q: Your favorite hockey memory? A: My first game in the NHL. I had a shutout in Atlanta (for Montreal) and it was great for me, being my first game in the NHL. Q: Your ideal day off from the rink? A: Just spending some time with my family and rest, that’s pretty much it. My son (Charle-Edouard) is 13 months old, he was born just before last season was supposed to start. Q: Best thing about living in L.A. so far? A: The weather, definitely. (laughs) Q: Goals for this season, your first as a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL? A: Personally, I just want to be a good No. 1 goalie and be consistent throughout the season. GOING THREE ROUNDS Ken Belanger, the Kings’ enforcer is one of the best in the game at what he does, and he offered some insight into the world of hockey brawling: Three keys to successful fighting: “Try not to take a punch, don’t punch the other guy’s helmet, because you need to keep your hands fresh, and keep your head up. As soon as you put your head down in a fight, you’re done. You get punched in the head and you don’t know where it’s coming from.” Best guys he’s ever fought: “Bob Probert, Tie Domi and Stu Grimson. That’s quite a lineup. Those guys were mean. Some guys now are big, but they’re not mean. It’s changed a lot in 10 years. Back then, guys weren’t necessarily good players, but they were tough, big and tough.” Does winning the fight matter?: “I don’t ever want to lose a fight, but the point is just to send a message to the other team that you’re not going to run around and hit our guys, or to change the tempo of a game. You obviously never like to lose, but that’s not always what it’s about.” Rich Hammond, (818) 713-3611 firstname.lastname@example.org 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!