October 9th, 1978
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
If one word could describe the Los Angeles Kings on this day, it would be “desperate”. With only two days to go before their opening night game against the Washington Capitals, General Manager George Maguire found himself in a bind. Having lost former starting goaltender Rogie Vachon in free agency, Maguire’s Kings were left with a likely tandem of Gary Simmons, who had played 14 games of poor hockey the previous year as Vachon’s back-up, and Mario Lessard, who would be entering his rookie year in the NHL. For a team that had just made the Preliminary Round of the playoffs in 1978, the Kings looked like a team ready to fall back into the league cellar if they couldn’t upgrade their goaltending immediately.
Enter Ron Grahame. Grahame had just finished his first season with the Boston Bruins, but it was far from his first go-around in professional hockey. Ron had been drafted in the inaugural WHA General Player Draft in 1972 by the New York Raiders, only to have his rights traded a year later to the Houston Aeros. When Grahame finally left the University of Denver, it wouldn’t even take a whole year for him to show up in the WHA, playing five games in the 1974-75 season. He would be the Aeros’ starter for the next three years, winning an Avco World Trophy with the team in his first full campaign, as well as two Ben Hatskin Trophies as the league’s best goaltender (1975, 1977). He would be signed by the Bruins in ’77, and ended up playing 40 games for the team – more than both Gilles Gilbert and future Hall-of-Famer Gerry Cheevers.
Of course, while Grahame did pick up 26 wins with the Bruins, his underlying stats weren’t quite as good; his goals against average of 2.76 was the worst of the three Boston goalies, and his .874 save percentage was 13 points below the league average. But to Los Angeles, none of that seemed to matter, as they just wanted him to win. Unfortunately, he couldn’t even do that, as Grahame would only play 34 games with the Kings the year after the trade, and 66 in total. In that time, he would earn less wins than he did in his one season with the Bruins, while also putting up a dreadful .865 SV%, and never having a GAA of below 4 in any of his seasons.
But the icing on the cake was in what the Kings gave up to get him: a 1979 1st-Round Draft Pick. Now, it’s hard to believe the Kings had any idea that the rules of the Draft were going to change to allow 18-year-olds to enter, but it doesn’t make the eventual Bruins’ pick sting any less. Because of the new rule, Boston would be able to select a defenceman by the name of Ray Bourque, who not only entered the NHL immediately as a teenager, but went on to be the face of the club throughout the next two decades. His 1,579 points in the NHL are still tops among all blue-liners in NHL history, and his record of 1,506 points with Boston may never be eclipsed. The Bruins had given up a goalie with 40 NHL games under his belt, and received a certifiable legend in return.
But what would have happened had the Kings not made that trade at all? Would they have been able to select Ray Bourque themselves? Would Grahame still flame out over the next few years? And probably most importantly, how would the Bruins be able to cope without their franchise player over the course of the ‘80s and ‘90s?
WHAT IF THE LOS ANGELES KINGS NEVER TRADED FOR RON GRAHAME?
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: To start off, it’s worth looking over the events that took place in the few months prior to the Kings making the trade in the first place. As mentioned, Rogie Vachon had left as a restricted free agent, and signed with the Detroit Red Wings on August 8th. Though there was still a compensation battle brewing between the Kings and Wings (one which could see the Wings potentially part with a goalie), the reality remains that Los Angeles would have a goaltending need to address once Vachon left.
Of course, even with the poaching of Vachon, the Kings still had two months to go out and find someone to fill the void. They stood pat throughout August, and declined to make any goaltending changes, instead making a couple of minor trades for skaters. The most likely possibility, then, was that Los Angeles wanted to see what they had with the rest of their goalie core before they made a move. In that case, the change would have to come from within the front office, as the staff may want to get an extended look at Lessard, in order to make sure he was NHL-ready.
As the 1978-79 season arrives, the Los Angeles Kings look to be a team in danger. With former starting goaltender Rogie Vachon now in Detroit, the Kings were forced to go with a tandem of Mario Lessard and Gary Simmons to start the year. (Though rumours of a trade with Boston briefly popped up in early October, no such deal materialized.) The rookie Lessard would get the starting job in the season opener against the Capitals, and while he didn’t embarrass himself, he could not help his side avoid an opening night loss, as the Caps won 4-2. It was considered a poor result for Los Angeles, as Washington was only a few years removed from their opening campaign, which still stood as the worst in NHL history (21 points in 80 games).
FROM LOS ANGELES’ PERSPECTIVE
1978-79: As the first month of the season passes, there is some reason for concern among the goaltending duo for L.A., as the team finishes October with a 4-4 record. Of particular note are the two straight losses against Montreal and Atlanta, in which the Kings would concede a total of 15 goals between the two games. But as time goes on, the picture becomes clearer; Mario Lessard would shake off any rookie jitters to become a reliable starter, recording a solid .892 SV% in 49 games. Gary Simmons did get a good chunk of playing time himself (34 games), but was nowhere near the standard of Lessard, with a dismal .858 SV% in that season.
Lessard’s play managed to keep Los Angeles afloat, as they finished 10th Overall in the NHL with a 34-34-12 record, good for 80 points. This meant that the Kings were to square off with the New York Rangers in the Preliminary Round, in a battle of the big cities. With Phil Esposito and Anders Hedberg leading the way, and the young blue-line duo of Mike McEwen and Ron Greschner both chipping in, the Rangers had many offensive threats to contain, and it was clearly too much for Lessard, who gave up seven goals in his first career post-season start. The rookie would settle down in Game Two, but a 2-1 over-time loss meant that the Kings were out.
The 1979 off-season was, in a word, eventful – especially for the Kings. The biggest change of the summer was the absorption of four WHA teams following the rival league’s dissolution, as the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford (formerly New England) Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, and Quebec Nordiques all migrated to the NHL. Los Angeles would lose four players in the Expansion Draft: Larry Brown (who joined Edmonton), Hartland Monahan (drafted by Quebec), and Mark Heaslip and Dennis Abgrall (both of whom were taken by Winnipeg).
In addition to the new WHA teams to deal with, there was still the matter of compensation for Rogie Vachon’s signing to deal with, and in August 1979, the deal would be sealed. Dale McCourt – who had originally been awarded to the Kings, only for McCourt to refuse to report – would stay a Detroit Red Wing, while the Kings would get Andre St. Laurent, a 1st-Round Pick in 1980, and the option of Detroit’s 2nd-Round Pick that year, or their 1st-Rounder the next. It was a relieving end to the Vachon saga for Los Angeles, even if McCourt’s legal battle did hold things up for a year.
Finally, there was the matter of the re-named 1979 Entry Draft, which had changed much more than the name. In previous seasons, junior players were not eligible for the NHL until 20 years of age; the WHA took advantage of this rule, signing players as young as 17 over the course of their existence. This posed a problem for the NHL, as with four teams from the now-defunct league coming over, it meant that the young players they had would not have been eligible to play in the NHL. After extensive negotiations (and a lawsuit threat from youngster Tom McCarthy), the rules were changed to reduce the minimum playing age to 18, allowing teams a wider selection of available prospects. Los Angeles would have two 1st-Round Picks this year, as they used the 8th Pick on Verdun blue-liner Ray Bourque, then used the 16th Pick (acquired from Montreal) on Kingston D-man Jay Wells.
1979-80: The Los Angeles Kings found themselves in an all-new hockey world. While the WHA teams were not favoured to immediately contend in the new NHL, they could at least cause some havoc for the rest of the league thanks to the resulting changes. One of those team, the Hartford Whalers, would join the Norris Division, taking Washington’s place in a group with Los Angeles, Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. The Kings’ status in the Division was uncertain; while they had solidified their goaltending future thanks to Mario Lessard, and still had one of the best players in the league in Marcel Dionne, they didn’t have too much else going for them, and with Montreal still the team to beat, the best the Kings could hope for in the Norris was second.
Los Angeles didn’t know it at the time, but they had found a revelation in Ray Bourque. The 18-year-old selection in the ’79 Draft would score in his first NHL game against Detroit, and quickly worked his way up the depth chart; by the end of the campaign, he was on the first pairing alongside Doug Halward, and arguably outshone his older teammate. Bourque’s fantastic rise gave opponents an additional threat to deal with, allowing the top line of Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer, and Dave Taylor to bring hell upon other Norris Division goalies. Dionne would tie for the NHL lead with 137 points, level with league rookie Wayne Gretzky. Had it not been for Wayne’s previous professional experience in the WHA, he would have been a shoo-in for the Calder Trophy, which would instead go to Bourque.
The Kings had achieved their goal of finishing second in the Norris, and how. Their total of 88 points set up a first-round re-match with the New York Rangers, and this time, things were much more even. The Kings’ addition of Ray Bourque gave the Blueshirts an extra dynamic to think about when figuring out how best to stop L.A.’s attack, resulting in an explosion of scoring in the first few games. Unfortunately, the effect cut both ways, as Doug Keans got the start in Game One, only to give up 7 goals before getting chased. Mario Lessard kept his team in it for the rest of the series, but a 5-3 loss in Game Five meant that the Kings were out, having lost the short series 3-2.
While they have had a few decent playoff runs here and there, the Kings now looked like a team that could make some noise if things went right. There were still goalie questions to answer, as Mario Lessard had regressed from his rookie year, but the addition of Ray Bourque was more than enough to make up for any deficiencies in goal. The Kings would have an additional 1st-Round Pick for the second-straight year, giving them a chance to add to the prospect cupboard. The 4th Overall Pick, acquired from the Red Wings as part of the Vachon compensation package, would be used on Peterborough Petes defenceman Larry Murphy, while the 14th Pick (the Kings’ natural selection) would be used to select forward Jim Malone from the Toronto Marlboros.
1980-81: As pre-season predictions came in from across the hockey world, the Los Angeles Kings were beginning to make some noise as a potential dark horse. They were no longer considered a warm-up for better teams, but a genuine team to watch out for. They had one of the top lines in the game in Dionne, Simmer, and Taylor, as well as a core of young defence prospects that looked to be NHL-ready. And, of course, there was the reigning Calder winner in Ray Bourque to think about, as the former Verdun product had become a star in just his first year of play. If the Kings could figure out their goaltending situation, they had a legitimate shot of challenging Montreal for top spot in the Norris.
The bad news was that Los Angeles could not repair their goaltending. While Mario Lessard looked better (3.26 GAA and .893 SV% in 64 games), Doug Keans was awful as a back-up, with a horrific .830 SV% in 15 games of work. The good news was that it hardly mattered; not only was the top line firing on all cylinders (with each player scoring over 100 points), but Larry Murphy followed in Ray Bourque’s footsteps, scoring an outstanding 76 points in 80 games. Bourque himself missed some time due to injuries (56 points in 67 games), but with Murphy, Jerry Korab, and Mark Hardy to pick up the slack, Los Angeles had defensive talent to spare.
The scant few that believed Los Angeles could challenge for the Norris title were vindicated. Los Angeles had not only gone toe-to-toe with Montreal, but actually passed them by a four-point margin. The Kings’ 107 points put them in third in the NHL, setting up one of the most anticipated match-ups of the first round. L.A. was pitted against the Edmonton Oilers, they, too, a team brimming with young talent, not the least of which was the league’s leading scorer, Wayne Gretzky; the second-year NHLer had set the single-season point record with 164, and was well-positioned to be the next star of the league. Gretzky’s ability, combined with Los Angeles’ multi-faceted line-up, led to a great back-and-forth series, which the Kings would take for good thanks to a 7-3 win in Game Five.
Los Angeles had cleared the first hurdle, and wouldn’t have to travel too far to face the second. After eliminating the Oilers, the Kings now had to deal with the Calgary Flames, who were powered by a top centre of their own in Kent Nilsson. Calgary, however, had more than just Nilsson, as Guy Chouinard was a great second option, having scored 83 points that year in only 52 games. That one-two punch meant that Los Angeles had a threat to deal with for most of the game, which meant second-year starter Pat Riggin had much less pressure on him. The Flames would win four in a row, knocking out the Kings in a sweep.
The progress had continued for Los Angeles, but there was a belief that Los Angeles wasn’t going to go any further unless they finally addressed their goaltending for good. Mario Lessard was okay as a starter, but it seemed like the team just couldn’t find a reliable back-up to step in when Lessard couldn’t start. They did have some good news in the 1981 Draft, as though they did not have their own 1st-Rounder, they did have Detroit’s pick, as the last part of the Vachon compensation. The Wings’ selection stood at #2, which the Kings would use on Ottawa 67’s centre Doug Smith.
1981-82: For the first time in a while, there was excitement around the Los Angeles Kings. They had a marvelous defensive group that was still a few years away from their prime, and they had a legitimate star in Marcel Dionne, even if he was about to pass 30 years of age. Any enthusiasm fans had, however, would be wiped out in the off-season, as the Kings were moved into the Smythe Division in the 1981 re-alignment. This meant that the Kings would now be grouped with Edmonton, Calgary, Colorado, and Vancouver; sharing a Division with the likes of The Great One and the ‘80s Flames meant that the best Los Angeles could realistically hope for was third place in any given year.
While the Kings, as a whole, were still okay, the goaltending wasn’t just “off” – they were awful. Now faced with more meetings against both Edmonton and Calgary, Mario Lessard’s SV% would plummet to a horrific .851, 20 points below league average. Doug Keans was only marginally better, finishing with a .864 SV% in 31 games. GM George Maguire found himself having to make key moves to keep the team afloat, starting in November with a trade to bring in Ian Turnbull from Toronto to give the blue line some veteran seasoning. When that didn’t help to reverse the team’s fortunes, Maguire pulled the trigger on a head coach firing, sacking Bob Berry in favour of the similarly-named Don Perry in January.
Los Angeles had been badly exposed in the Smythe, but the continued ineptitude of the Colorado Rockies meant that the Kings would finish 4th in the Division with 68 points. By this point, not only had the Divisions been changed, but so, too, had the playoff structure, which meant that L.A. would have to face the 1st-place team in the Smythe: The Edmonton Oilers. Edmonton was out for blood, having lost to the Kings the previous year, and Edmonton was only getting better, thanks to the development of players like Mark Messier and Paul Coffey. Don Perry, seeing that containing the Oilers was useless, instead elected to have his team outscore Edmonton. Somehow, his strategy worked; not only did L.A. win the series in five games, but won Game Three after coming back from a 5-0 deficit to win 6-5 in OT.
Los Angeles was running high off the “Miracle on Manchester”, and had a good feeling about their second-round match-up with the Vancouver Canucks. After all, if the Kings could take down 212-point-scoring Wayne Gretzky, they could take down anybody. But Vancouver was a different kind of challenge; while the Oilers relied on their offensive capabilities, the Canucks’ arguable star was goalie Richard Brodeur, he of a .893 SV% in the regular season. The Canucks exploited the gulf in goalie quality early on, as Brodeur stonewalled the Kings throughout the series. His .920 SV% against L.A. in that round was the difference, as Vancouver would win the series in five games.
On one hand, the Kings’ deficiencies had been laid bare as they entered the Smythe Division, as their goaltending had been dismantled by much stronger teams. On the other hand, they had managed to take down the Oilers again, and did so by beating Edmonton at their own game. Their triumph showed that as long as the Kings could get to the post-season, they had a fighting chance. What they didn’t have, however, was a 1st-Round Pick in the 1982 Entry Draft; they had traded that to Buffalo in 1980 in order to acquire Jerry Korab. The Sabres would use the 6th Overall Pick to select Phil Housley, a defenceman from South St. Paul High School in Minnesota.
1982-83: The road to Cup contention had gotten much tougher for the Kings, and it was about to get even tougher. After being whisked over to the Smythe Division the previous year, Los Angeles were now about to lose their whipping boys in Colorado, who had moved to New Jersey to become the Devils. This meant that the Devils would migrate to the Patrick Division, with Winnipeg moving to the Smythe to fill out the numbers. Winnipeg were no slouches, having finished second in the Norris the previous year, and their inclusion meant that if the Kings could not upgrade their goaltending fast, they were set to end up where the Rockies once were.
So desperate were the Kings for a goalie that they signed undrafted ‘tender Gary Laskoski out of training camp, and immediately made him their number one. As one would expect from a goalie of his profile, Laskoski looked horrible in his rookie year, recording a .857 SV% in 46 games of work. Mario Lessard’s decline continued, as he looked even worse in his 19 games of work, posting a .843 SV% – 30 points below the league average. One of the few pieces of intrigue in such a bad season for the team was that with the debut of Victor Nechayev, the Kings had become the first team to dress a player that was born and trained in the Soviet Union. (Nechayev wouldn’t last long, playing only three games before being waived.)
It was a testament to the work of players like Ray Bourque, Marcel Dionne, and Larry Murphy that the Kings didn’t finish last in the league. In fact, they very nearly snuck into the playoffs, as their 73 points were one away from the fourth-place team in the Smythe, the Winnipeg Jets. But the problems were only set to get worse for L.A.; they once again lacked a 1st-Round Pick in their possession, having traded their 1983 selection two years earlier to – who else? – Buffalo, getting an aging Rick Martin in return. Buffalo would use the Kings’ pick, slotted at 5th Overall, on Massachussetts-based goalie Tom Barrasso.
1983-84: With such horrendous goaltending, and no Colorado/New Jersey to beat up on, the Kings now had to accept their lot. Unless they could upgrade quickly in goal, they were now confined to last place in the Smythe Division for the foreseeable future. By this point, it seems like the departure of Rogie Vachon has left a gaping hole in net, one which Los Angeles has failed to fill ever since. By training camp, the starting job in goal would become a four-way race, with all of Gary Laskoski, Mario Lessard, Mike Blake, and Markus Mattsson all in contention.
George Maguire was a man under pressure, and he knew it. He would make a short-sighted trade early on in the season, sending Larry Murphy to Washington in exchange for Brian Engblom and Ken Houston, neither of whom could compare to Murphy on the ice. By January, owner Jerry Buss had seen enough, and both head coach Don Perry and GM Maguire were sacked. Coming in as the new General Manager was none other than Rogie Vachon, who had hung up the skates back in 1982; Vachon would eventually find a successor to Perry in Roger Neilson, the maverick coach who had been recently fired by Vancouver. Neilson would take over on an interim basis, but would not stick with the club past the 83-84 season.
Los Angeles’ goaltending was the anchor that kept their ship below water, as the team save percentage of .852 was the worst in the league by some margin. The Kings were once again in last place in the Smythe, but the talent that remained nearly got the team into the post-season with 69 points – four behind the Vancouver Canucks. This season would be the last for a few L.A. players, including Mario Lessard; having been eclipsed by multiple names on the depth chart, including Mattsson, Blake, Laskoski, and Marco Baron, Lessard would retire. Once thought to be the answer to the team’s goalie problems, Lessard had proven to be an unfortunate flash in the pan, even if he did win the legendary “Miracle on Manchester” game.
Though the Kings held the 5th Overall Pick, a Draft Day trade would see them drop down one spot in the order, swapping places with Chicago. Chicago would use the 5th Pick on Belleville Bulls D-man Al Iafrate, while the Kings would use Pick #6 on University of Denver blue-liner Craig Redmond. (Of peculiar note, that Draft Day trade saw the Kings also get a 4th-Rounder that year, which L.A. would use on Massachusetts high-school centre Tom Glavine. Tom would eventually become a Hall-of-Famer, but not as a hockey player; he would elect to play baseball instead, and entered Cooperstown in 2014 after a fantastic career with the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets.)
1984-85: Rogie Vachon was back, but he was not going to be the goaltending saviour that L.A. fans were hoping for. Instead, Rogie was in as GM, now in his first full season in that role. He got to work early in trying to bring the Kings out of the Smythe Division basement, bringing in former Philadelphia coach Pat Quinn to be the team’s new bench boss. Quinn had previously brought the Flyers to the Cup Final in 1980, and had previously been an assistant under Fred Shero. While pretty much no one had Los Angeles as instant contenders, a few fans were hopeful that the team could at least get out of last place in the Smythe.
Two key reasons factored in to L.A. finally breaking out of the cellar in 84-85. The first was the implosion of the Vancouver Canucks, who saw their coach dismissed within 30 games. The second was the emergence of Bob Janecyk as the new starting goalie. Janecyk, acquired in the Draft Day pick swap with Chicago, would play 52 games with the Kings that year, putting up a save percentage of .877, four points above the league average. With an actual respectable goalie in tow, Los Angeles now looked somewhat competitive, even in the Smythe. Janecyk’s reliability also allowed players like Marcel Dionne (126 points), Bernie Nicholls (a first career 100-point season), and Ray Bourque (86 points in 73 games from the blue line) to work their magic more often.
Los Angeles’ short drought was broken. With 88 points, they were 4th in the Smythe Division. Awaiting them in the first round, however, were a familiar foe: the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers were no longer the team-in-waiting of the earlier part of the decade, but now the defending Stanley Cup Champions, having broken the New York Islanders’ streak of four straight Cups. Wayne Gretzky was the real deal, the undeniable star of the NHL, and the supporting cast behind him was one that could roll over pretty much anybody they faced. Even with upset wins over Edmonton in the past, Los Angeles just couldn’t keep up anymore; not even a reasonably good goalie could stop the Kings from being swept in three games.
It wasn’t a lengthy playoff run, but it was progress. Bob Janecyk and Pat Quinn had come in and made the team somewhat respectable. Rogie Vachon had come in to improve the team, and with little regard for the P.R. hits he could take, he succeeded. Sure, it stung for Los Angeles fans to see long-time favourite Charlie Simmer leave for Boston in a trade, but his departure allowed a player like Bernie Nicholls to shine. It might take a few more gutsy trades, and a bit more temporary pain, but L.A. had the tools to one day be a rival to the likes of the Oilers and Flames.
L.A. would go into the 1985 Entry Draft with two 1st-Round Picks. The first one, at #9 Overall, was acquired from the Bruins in the Simmer deal, while the 13th Pick was the Kings’ natural selection. Both picks would be used on OHL-based wingers; the Kings would use Pick #9 on Sudbury Wolves prospect Craig Duncanson, then used the 13th Pick on Derek King from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
1985-86: The Kings were on the right track. A solid season, plus the implosion of the Vancouver Canucks, meant that if they could keep up their play from the previous year, Los Angeles was assured a playoff spot. But like Mario Lessard before him, Bob Janecyk’s good form would be temporary. The Smythe Division had figured him out, and by December, Rogie Vachon would swing a trade to bring in Roland Melanson from the New York Rangers. Melanson was an improvement, but his .865 SV% with the Kings that year in 22 games was still below league standards.
Fortunately for Los Angeles, they weren’t alone in the bottom of the NHL barrel, and while they were by no means good, neither were the Canucks or Jets. Both teams were clearly exposed, with the Jets firing their coach late in the campaign. The Kings would actually finish 3rd in the Smythe with 62 points, setting up a first-round clash with Calgary. The Flames had frequently been the second stop on Edmonton’s inevitable Cup run, and this year looked no different; yes, Calgary was good, but even they looked unlikely to topple the Oilers. Complacency nearly got the best of the Flames, as they won Game One handily, but were forced to work for their next two wins, eventually completing the sweep on an OT win.
For L.A., problems of the past had returned, but complicated by new challenges, as well. Once again, goaltending had let the Kings down, even if Roland Melanson had been brought in to stem the tide. But the Kings’ shining star, Marcel Dionne, was getting older, and it wouldn’t be long before Los Angeles no longer had him to rely on anymore. There was still Bernie Nicholls and Ray Bourque, but the once-promising Kings were back to having to scrap just for a playoff appearance.
The Kings would have the 8th Pick in the 1986 Entry Draft, selecting Pat Elynuik from the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders.
1986-87: The Kings’ failures of the past year were the least of their worries. GM Rogie Vachon’s focus had to be on the future, as the stars of yesteryear were beginning to see their best days go by. Charlie Simmer was already shipped out in ’85, and Dave Taylor was now past thirty. The biggest name of the Triple Crown Line, Marcel Dionne, was clearly past it, and this season would represent the end of an era; just before the deadline, Dionne would be traded to the New York Rangers in exchange for Bob Carpenter and Tom Laidlaw. Pat Quinn, too, would leave, but under much stranger circumstances, as he had signed an agreement to join the Vancouver Canucks as President and GM for the 1987-88 season. League President John Ziegler would suspend Quinn for the rest of the 86-87 campaign, and Mike Murphy would take over as the new head coach.
Of course, the changes, both on the ice and behind the bench, allowed new stars to flourish. Undrafted defenceman Steve Duchesne had an impressive rookie season, putting up 38 points in 75 games. Luc Robitaille, a 9th-Round Pick in the 1984 Entry Draft, would come out of nowhere to not only lead the team with 45 goals, but also lead all Los Angeles forwards with 84 points. By far the most important player was Ray Bourque, who was now in his prime at 26; after a season in which he led the team with 95 points in 78 games, Bourque would finally get his due, winning his first Norris Trophy, and nearly winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
Though the Winnipeg Jets rebounded from the previous season, the Canucks could not replicate the feat. As a result, the Kings were once again in the playoffs, faced once more with the Edmonton Oilers. Though Edmonton had been stunned by Calgary the previous year, they were still the class of the NHL, and things were going to get slightly more painful for L.A., as now, the opening round was a best-of-seven. The Kings, surprisingly, managed to win the opening game 5-2 on the road, but that only served to awaken a sleeping giant; the Oilers would win the next game 13-3, then claimed the next three to win the series.
As changes were made on the ice, so too were they made in the boardroom. A year earlier, Bruce McNall had bought a 25% stake in the Kings, and added 24% more that year to become the primary shareholder. It was clear that he was angling to buy the Kings outright, and the coin collector/movie producer seemed to have big plans for the club. Rogie Vachon’s job, for the moment, seemed to be safe, as he was allowed to focus on the 1987 Draft; with the 9th Overall Pick, the Kings would select Kingston Canadians blue-liner Bryan Fogarty, who had amassed 70 points in 56 games the previous year.
1987-88: There was a changing of the guard in ownership, as Bruce McNall was now the man in charge. Not only had he bought a majority of the team from Jerry Buss, but in September, he would be named the President of the Kings. The feeling in L.A. was that Buss seemed to care more about the Lakers than the Kings, and having McNall in charge meant having an owner that was 100% invested in the team’s fortune on the ice. Bruce definitely changed things quickly in Los Angeles, revamping the look of the team; instead of the old “Forum Blue” and gold look, the Kings switched to a black, silver, and white uniform, somewhat reminiscent of the NFL’s L.A. Raiders.
Of course, McNall wasn’t going to make the team successful overnight. The team still looked like one of the weaker clubs in the Smythe, and a poor start would cost Mike Murphy his job as head coach. Robbie Ftorek, formerly with the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks, would be given the coaching job, and set out to make sure his team could get into the playoffs. Though L.A. wasn’t quite as bad as, say, Vancouver, old problems still haunted the Kings, particularly in goal, as Roland Melanson was only barely holding on to his starting job (a 4.37 GAA and a .861 SV% in 47 games). Thankfully, the Kings could count of Luc Robitaille to lead the way offensively, as he showed his rookie season was no fluke, scoring 53 goals and totalling 111 points.
Thanks to the continuing ineptitude of the Canucks, Los Angeles were in the playoffs by virtual default, finishing 4th in the Smythe Division with 70 points. As was often the case, the Kings would have to deal with an Alberta team in the first round, and this time, it was Calgary that claimed 1st in the Division (and the NHL). The squad bore little resemblance to the ones that L.A. had faced in the early days of the Smythe, with players like Hakan Loob and Mike Bullard having their 1st 100-point seasons, and youngsters like Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Suter, and Al MacInnis playing key roles. Facing the league’s #1 team was a daunting task for the Kings, who just didn’t have the depth to match up, losing the series in five.
Los Angeles would get the 8th Overall Pick in the 1988 Entry Draft, selecting centre Jeremy Roenick out of the Thayer Academy program in Massachusetts. Despite his potential – or perhaps, because of it – Roenick wasn’t going to stay in L.A. for long…
THE KINGS AFTER TEN YEARS: The story of the Los Angeles Kings of the early ‘80s is one of constant desperation, either in finding a goalie that would stick around, or in trading away 1st-Round Picks for players that would make any sort of impact. In the case of Ron Grahame, both factors applied, and it backfired horribly. Now, even without Grahame, little changes. The Kings still struggle to find a reliable starter, cycling through Mario Lessard, Bob Janecyk, and Roland Melanson over the years without anybody staking a permanent claim to the #1 job. Now that they are in the Smythe Division, that lack of a good goalie is even more of a disadvantage, as Los Angeles is shelled night in and night out by the two Alberta teams.
Of course, while the Kings of the OTL found themselves as a team with no hope, the drafting of Ray Bourque changes things slightly this time. Even in the years in which Los Angeles fails to make the playoffs, they remain in the thick of the race thanks to the play of guys like Bourque and the Triple Crown Line. Of course, not even the addition of a superstar blue-liner can change the fact that the Kings are still destined to be cannon fodder for the Oilers or Flames; as long as their goaltending holds them back, Los Angeles has little chance of overcoming the Smythe juggernauts.
Of course, things are about to change massively for the club, and in a way, already have. While Jerry Buss never really spent heavily on the Kings, his successor, Bruce McNall, is considerably more ambitious, and has a massive target in mind: Wayne Gretzky. The “Great One” is nearing the end of his NHL contract with the Edmonton Oilers, and their owner, Peter Pocklington is in financial trouble. Knowing full well that he cannot keep Gretzky in Edmonton, Pocklington begins to flirt with the idea of trading a man previously considered “untradeable”, and standing above all others in his approaches for a trade is McNall. He has the money, the will, and the assets to offer the best trade, and quickly gets to work in planning #99’s departure from his only NHL home up to that point.
The infamous trade still happens, with some changes. Of course, Edmonton still gets the three 1st-Round Picks (1989, 1991, and 1993), as well as the $15 million. And as with the original trade, Gretzky, Marty McSorley, and Mike Krushelnyski still go to the Kings. But the players going the other way are changed out of necessity; the key player in the real-life deal was Jimmy Carson, who had put up over 100 points in just his second season as a pro. Without Carson, the Kings have to improvise a bit this time, and instead of Carson and Martin Gelinas (who was selected in the 1st Round of the ’88 Entry Draft), the players sent to the Oilers are Pat Elynuik, Bryan Fogarty, and Jeremy Roenick – the last three 1st-Rounders selected by L.A. in this timeline.
Opening Night of the 1988-89 season is a special night in Los Angeles. A sold-out crowd is on hand to see the L.A. Kings debut of Wayne Gretzky, the best player of the decade, and the face of the game. The line-up for the Kings that night looks as follows:
F1. Luc Robitaille – Wayne Gretzky – Bernie Nicholls
F2. John Tonelli – Bob Carpenter – Dave Taylor
F3. Derek King – Mike Krushelnyski – Mike Allison
F4. Paul Fenton – Ron Duguay – Marty McSorley
D1. Ray Bourque – Steve Duchesne
D2. Dale DeGray – Doug Crossman
D3. Tim Watters – Tom Laidlaw
G1. Roland Melanson
G2. Glenn Healy
If one were to look at the Kings’ offensive line-up without Gretzky, one would probably say that they were decent at best, somewhat poor at worst. Yes, the team had a pretty good duo in Robitaille and Nicholls, as well as a couple of old hands in John Tonelli and Dave Taylor, but the bottom six would leave a bit to be desired. Of course, the insertion of #99 into this group changes things massively. Virtually everybody benefits from having Wayne Gretzky on the team, as whoever is with him on the ice is bound to get a scoring chance thanks to his inhuman passing ability.
Defensively, the team may have a few problems, but the top pairing of Ray Bourque and Steve Duchesne is deadly. Duchesne might not have the best defensive awareness in the world, but Bourque more than makes up for it, while also being able to match Duchesne for offensive output. The second and third pairings might not be quite as good, but aren’t bad enough to match the L.A. teams of the earlier part of the ‘80s. In goal, a duel is shaping up, as Glenn Healy is gunning for Roland Melanson’s job, having played 34 games the previous year. As long as he can win a few games, Melanson will still hold the #1 spot. Despite the passing of ten years, the line-up for the Kings in this timelines looks remarkably similar to that of the OTL.
Obviously, the big name in bold is Ray Bourque, who is selected with the 1979 pick that the Kings never traded away for Ron Grahame. Bourque still ends up becoming a superstar, and though he isn’t the captain of the Kings, he is still a valuable presence in the locker room, as well as wearing an “A” on his jersey. The other new face is Derek King, who the Kings select instead of Dan Gratton in 1985; the appropriately-named winger is in his third season with Los Angeles, and is showing some decent promise, having put up 36 points in 55 games in his first full NHL campaign.
It’s bad enough that the Kings parted with the pick that became Ray Bourque, but in the next few years, they would trade away the picks that became Tom Barrasso and Phil Housley. Imagine those mid-80s teams with those three in the line-up, rather than the players they acquired like Jerry Korab and Rick Martin; they might actually be competitive, even in the Smythe.
Anyway, next week is Part II of this series, in which I take a look at the Bourque-less Bruins, as well as forecasting the future of both Los Angeles and Boston in this alternate timeline.