September Saviors: A History of Kings' Preseason Stars
All the hope and promise of the preseason, from Jonathan Bernier to Gary Edwards
What's your oddest Kings' memento?
Recent word of Alexander Frolov's still unconfirmed retirement reminded me of a Frolov .avi that I downloaded in 2002.
(I once spent $65 on an Anson Carter autograph, but that's a whole 'nother story.)
What was so special about this Frozen Fury goal? Besides Patrick Roy bailing on the play like Mrs. Fletcher?
During the summer of '02, McKeen's Hockey ranked Frolov as the fourth-best prospect in the world. Of course, Kings fans weren't used to such blue-chippers. After 35 years of asset mismanagement, we had grown accustomed to Mojave-like farm systems.
As for the occasional blooms? Olli Jokinen was snipped after just parts of two seasons in Southern California. Both Jamie Storr and Aki Berg wilted.
That pretty much summarizes a decade of youth development before Frolov landed in Los Angeles.
So back to why, 12 years ago, I sought to acquire a 2.6 MB exhibition highlight.
Frolov, along with young snipers Mike Cammalleri, Jared Aulin, and Yanick Lehoux, was supposed to rock Staples for the next decade. That preseason was the first time most fans had seen the 20-year-old head to head against NHL competition.
It's no exaggeration to say that we were starving to see Frolov succeed. The birth of the franchise's first homegrown star since Rob Blake, the vanguard of a Kings' golden age, this was all on the table that Las Vegas night.
And wasn't that wraparound a thing of beauty? This was before the league caught on. Before Fro's "signature move" became the equivalent of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football.
This was before "Froloaf" introduced Dean Lombardi to Tolstoy. Before Lombardi signed Frolov to a one-day contract, so the Russian could retire a King.
In those 19 seconds is all the hope and promise and deception of the preseason.
In honor of Fro, let's get a glimpse of other September saviors, from Gary Edwards to Jonathan Bernier.
Gary Edwards was endorsed by no less than Hall of Famer Glenn Hall.
Claimed by Los Angeles in the 1971 Waiver Draft from the Buffalo Sabres, the inexperienced netminder outplayed incumbent Dennis DeJordy that preseason for the opening night nod. Coach Larry Regan beamed:
"We knew we were getting a real good prospect. Glenn Hall had told us Gary was the best prospect in the minors last year. He has been every bit as good as Hall said...We are sure to be stronger in goal." (Hafner, Dan. "Kings Give Edwards First Real Chance and Rookie Accepts It." Los Angeles Times, October 7, 1971.)
LA was stronger between the pipes, but this didn't stop Regan (who was also GM) from freeing Rogie Vachon from the Montreal Canadiens a month later. "Blinky" lasted another decade in the league as a reliable journeyman backup.
Entering training camp in 1977, defenseman Rob Palmer "didn't even rate a thumbnail sketch in the press guide." (Moran, Sheila. "Palmer, Longshot to Make Kings, Is Now Starter." Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1977.)
However, during the preseason, the fifth-round draft choice supplanted veteran starter Neil Komadoski, the franchise's then-career leader in games played as a Kings defender. "Coach Ron Stewart [described] Palmer mostly in superlatives, saying the rangy University of Michigan star [had] played as well as Bob Murdoch, the best defenseman on the team."
Palmer finished the decade with consecutive 40-point seasons. Only 23, he seemed destined for a long career. But mysteriously, he only posted 22 more points in the NHL.
I say "mysteriously" because most of my queries about what happened to Palmer during 1980-81 (he only played 13 games) have been met with "Addicted to Love" jokes. The LA Times archive has been just as helpful.
Brantford centerman Dave Gans grew up about three blocks from Wayne Gretzky. "I've played with him a couple of times in the summer when he's around."
That was pretty much as close as Gans would get to NHL stardom. One of the bigger training camp surprises of 1985, the fourth-round pick made varsity after an eight points in three games exhibition outburst.
That fall, however, he would go scoreless in three games, and would spend the remainder of his professional career bouncing around Switzerland and the AHL.
Jimmy Carson & Luc Robitaille
Before Frolov, Jokinen, and Storr, there was Jimmy Carson.
The second-overall selection of the 1986 NHL Draft delivered, splurging on a record 92 goals before his 20th birthday. Of course, you know what happened next (if you'd like to hear more of Carson's side, read here).
And Luc Robitaille's ragged skating-to-riches tale is Kings' mythology. Ninth-round pick. Zamboni speed, lightning hands.
But back to 1986 training camp. In many ways, Carson and Robitaille, who had yet to make their NHL debuts, were a study in contrast. Their draft positions, of course. And how they reacted to the presence of franchise star Marcel Dionne.
The 20-year-old Robitaille was dazzled. "When I tell people at home that I am in the same room with Marcel Dionne, they will not believe this. It is such an honor."
On the other hand, the 18-year-old Carson had grown up around hockey royalty. As a boy, he had sat on the lap of Dionne's wife, Carol, during Detroit Red Wings' games.
Many years ago, his grandfather had opened a restaurant across from the Red Wings' home, the Olympia. Gordie Howe himself had told Carson that the New Olympia Lounge was where he ate before his first NHL game.
However, Prince Jimmy fled the game at 27. We know what the Pauper is up to.
Barry Melrose could sell water to an ocean.
As Jim Hiller dominated the 1992 preseason alongside linemates Robert Lang and Robitaille, Melrose gushed, "He's for real. He's a player. He scores every night and he scores the same type of goal."
I assume the Mulleted One said "player" with some emphasis.
Despite riding the coattails of Luc's record-breaking 1992-93 campaign for a little ways, the 10th-round draft choice was packaged to the Red Wings at mid-season in the infamous Paul Coffey-Carson deal.
Detroit was so thrilled with their new "player," they waived him that offseason. Hiller starred in Germany for a few years, and he recently joined Mike Babcock's coaching staff.
Between Carson and Jokinen, the most exciting Kings' forward prospect...wasn't Donald MacLean.
It was Pavel Rosa, who had captured the imagination of die-hards after torching the QMJHL for 152 points in 1996-97. But it was MacLean who broke '97 camp with Los Angeles.
"A second-round pick by the Kings in the 1995 draft, [he] began camp overshadowed by Pavel Rosa...But Rosa suffered a concussion in the second exhibition game and MacLean took advantage of his increased playing time by leading the team in preseason scoring."
MacLean scored four goals in his first seven games...and four the rest of his NHL career. The AHL star retired in 2010.
So I didn't get to tell this terrific Andy Murray story earlier.
After Frolov's outstanding preseason, Murray set a goal of 75 goals for the rookie and his linemates...Bryan Smolinski and Eric Belanger.
"Don't I always say you get from people what you expect of them? If I expect Eric Belanger to get 10 goals and Alexander Frolov to get 10 and Bryan Smolinski to get what he got last year, that's what we could be getting, so we've set the standard higher. That's three 25-goal seasons, and all three guys are capable."
The trio finished with 51 goals. If you remember Belanger's mediocrity and Smolinski's protracted scoreless streaks (he once went 30 games without a goal as a King), you might get a chuckle. You can also blame Tim Leiweke or Dave Taylor for foisting that "second line" on the ever-optimistic Murray.
As Jonathan Bernier made calm save after save throughout the 2007 preseason, I had one mounting, overpowering feeling: Dread.
I knew Kings' goaltending history (a tragedy in neverending parts). I remembered rushing Storr.
Bernier was 19. He was drafted in the first round only a year before. The team in front of him was either too young or too old.
This was another "E! True Hollywood Story" in the making.
And yet, he was clearly the best goalie at camp. Of course, Bernier was challenging the likes of Dan Cloutier, Jason LaBarbera, and Jean-Sebastien Aubin. Nobody was shocked when the kid was named opening night starter.
Goaltending coach Bill Ranford didn't exactly inspire much confidence: "You worry about feeding a player to the dogs too early. We all have to wait and see how this plays out."
And as thrilled as I was when Bernier showed well in London, I was equally relieved when management sent him down after three consecutive shellackings. He wasn't ready, and the team wasn't ready for him.
Of course, this book still isn't closed. The 26-year-old Bernier still has years to prove the Kings wrong—or right—for choosing Jonathan Quick over him.