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Los Angeles Kings have higher hopes this season after rebuilding year

Only seven players remain from the roster that hit the ice on opening night two years ago. A young emerging core was bolstered this summer by five key free-agent additions - defencemen Tom Preissing and Brad Stuart as well as forwards Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy and Kyle Calder.

"With the five new free agents and the one or two guys that will make our team as young guys - we could have as many as seven or eight changes this season," says Kings head coach Marc Crawford.

The Kings opened camp Monday fully expecting an improvement on the 14th-place showing in the Western Conference last season. Last year's performance wasn't unexpected for a team that was gutted, but Crawford is ready for the next phase now.

"Step 2 is to become a team that challenges to make the playoffs," Crawford, entering his second year behind the Kings bench, told The Canadian Press. "We're not kidding anybody, I don't think this team is going to win the Stanley Cup this year, although stranger things have happened. We would sound ridiculous if we made that our goal this year."

But Crawford wants his club to become a good team, one that plays closer games.

"We weren't close in a lot of games last year," he said.

The encouraging signs last season included breakout offensive campaigns from Mike Cammalleri, who led the Kings with 80 points (34-46), and Alexander Frolov, who had a career-high 71 points (35-36), as well as a surprising rookie year from Anze Kopitar - who had 61 points (20-41) despite missing 10 games.

Now the Kings hope second-year centre Patrick O'Sullivan might be ready for a similar coming-out party.

The blue-line, meanwhile, is impressive. Preissing and Stuart join a group that already features Rob Blake, Lubomir Visnovsky, Jaroslav Modry and rookie Jack Johnson.

"It is a strength, we do have some depth there," said Crawford. "We're pretty pleased with the improvements we made in that position."

Johnson, who played five games with the Kings late last season, was the third overall pick in the 2005 NHL entry draft by Carolina. But the Hurricanes, frustrated by his refusal to leave the University of Michigan in time for last season, dealt him to the Kings last September along with defenceman Oleg Tverdovsky in exchange for centre Eric Belanger and defenceman Tim Gleason - another promising young blue-liner.

The Kings were more than happy to wait for Johnson. Crawford has already pencilled the 20-year-old into his lineup.

"We saw him for five games late last year and actually had a better chance to see him all summer in the development camp and here at rookie camp (last week)," said Crawford. "He was a cut above everyone we've got in that same position (rookie camp). He's the guy that really jumps out."

At issue still is what the Kings have in goal a year after ranking 27th in the league in goals against. Jason Labarbera, Dan Cloutier and J.S. Aubin will battle it out for the No. 1 job.

Labarbera, who was stuck in the the minors last season because of the collective bargaining agreement, is the favourite after a super season in the AHL in which he posted a 2.20 GAA and .933 save percentage.

But unlike last year, Crawford won't anoint a starter before camp.

"First of all, I have to acknowledge the mistake I made last year - and I made a huge mistake," Crawford said of naming Cloutier the starter. "I still think about it, and I say, 'Why did I anoint Dan the No. 1 goalie?' It wasn't necessary. What it ended up doing is putting this enormous amount of burden on him that didn't need to be there. Complicating that it probably pissed off Mathieu Garon and it gave Jason Labarbera no chance."

Having just come from Vancouver where he had coached the Canucks for more than a half decade, Crawford figured it was important to have a clear starter.

"I guess from having been in a hockey-mad market where everybody needs to know who's the No. 1 goalie, that was my training and I felt it was the right thing to do," he said. "But I didn't need to do that. And it hurt everybody involved. It ended up being way too much of an issue for us all year."

He's bringing all three goalies to Europe and doesn't have to demote one until after they come back to North America.

"It's up for grabs and I think from that standpoint, all of those guys have to be happy," said Crawford. "As a player all you want is to know you're going to have an opportunity."

The Kings are on the rise, but a playoff spot this season in the tough Western Conference might be a stretch.


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