Sheng Peng The Hockey Writers
Kings of Disappointment: The Biggest Letdowns in Kings Goaltending
This article was originally published in April, 2014.
The night is Dan Cloutier just before the Jonathan Quick.
The Los Angeles Kings—for far too long before the ascension of their new career wins record holder—have had the wool pulled over their eyes by false goaltending idols like Cloutier, Stephane Fiset, and Roman Cechmanek.
But those kings of letdown mark just the edge of LA’s netminding black hole. Look into the abyss! You might recognize these Hollywood cliches: Fading stars—future Hall of Famers no less—seek to shine again. Young princes are told the sun revolves around them.
These are the most disappointing goalies in the history of Kings goaltending.
Kings Goaltending: Grant Fuhr
Acquired: Traded to Los Angeles by Buffalo with Philippe Boucher and Denis Tsygurov for Alexei Zhitnik, Robb Stauber, Charlie Huddy, and Los Angeles’s 5th round choice (Marian Menhart) in 1995 Entry Draft, February 14, 1995
Seasons in LA: 1994-95
LA fans were mystified. Why would GM Sam McMaster give up 22-year-old top-four defender Zhitnik for a “worn Fuhr,” especially with incumbent Kelly Hrudey enjoying a superb season? Nonetheless, the 32-year-old Fuhr had lifted five Stanley Cups with Edmonton. McMaster asked for patience: “We know why people are going to be upset. They just have to trust our judgment.”
People stayed upset. Fuhr was benched after losing five of his first six decisions (sporting a gaudy 6.14 goals against average and .831 save percentage). McMaster issued a damage control effort worthy of his Tinseltown brethren: “He’s a wonderful person and I’ve gained a lot of respect for him…He has not done one thing to hurt the L.A. Kings.” The veteran goalie could only joke when asked about his newfound secondary role, “I’ve got the pom-poms.”
Fuhr would eventually lose the most important game of the year, the season finale. Those two points would’ve earned Los Angeles a playoff spot. In all, he won only one game in silver, black, and white before bolting as a free agent to the St. Louis Blues. What’s forgotten is that he actually played quite well to close the campaign:
Kings Goaltending: Terry Sawchuk
Acquired: Claimed by Los Angeles from Toronto in Expansion Draft, June 6, 1967
Seasons in LA: 1967-68
The greatest goalie in the history of the league was on the way to Southern California. Already the NHL’s all-time leader in wins and shutouts, the 37-year-old Sawchuk had just earned a Stanley Cup for the Toronto Maple Leafs when the Kings picked him first in the 1967 Expansion Draft.
“Ukey” was immediately awarded a two-year contract that made him the team’s highest-paid player. Expected to be the face of the franchise, he “managed to alienate almost everyone he met in his new home city. He snapped short answers at journalists and coldly refused interviews at a time when the Kings needed all the publicity they could get.” Elbow and groin injuries also hampered performance. By the end of the regular season, backup Wayne Rutledge had appeared in more games than him.
However, Sawchuk was still regarded as the key to Los Angeles’s playoff hopes. The “money” goalie led the Kings to Game Seven against the Minnesota North Stars, a berth in the West Division Semifinals (the equivalent to today’s conference finals) on the line. By the second period, the veteran had surrendered a half dozen goals, and hometown fans began chucking programs and wads of paper at him. Keeping in mind that such misbehavior was more the norm back then, LA GM Larry Regan actually stuck up for them: “The fans were all right. They were mad at us, but that shows they were interested…I’m glad to see it.” (Maher, Charles. “Fans Fit for Kings?” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1968.)
Over the summer, Sawchuk claimed to be healthy enough “to win the rookie of the year award.” (Garrity, Chuck. “Kings Trade Sawchuk to Detroit.” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1968.) But after being outplayed by newly-acquired Gerry Desjardins in training camp, the Kings’ first legendary disappointment was traded back to his original team, the Detroit Red Wings.
Kings Goaltending: Ron Grahame
Acquired: Traded to Los Angeles by Boston for Los Angeles’s 1st round choice (Raymond Bourque) in 1979 Entry Draft, October 9, 1978
Seasons in LA: 1978-81
The Kings had just lost their first superstar to free agency. But they were sure that Grahame, one of the WHA’s top goalies and coming off a 26-6-7 campaign with the Boston Bruins, would help fans forget Rogie Vachon. Coach Bob Berry gushed, “It’s been no secret that we’ve been looking for a front-line NHL goaltender. Ron Grahame fills that bill to perfection.” He even took his predecessor’s No.30.
Detroit GM Ted Lindsay, who was mired in a compensation dispute with LA regarding Vachon, disagreed sharply: “They make a mockery out of the NHL by giving a No. 1 draft choice (to Boston) for a minor league goaltender.” At the time of the swap, Grahame’s wife was seven months pregnant, and the netminder admitted, “My attention has been pretty divided.” (Merry, Don. “Vachon Successor.” Los Angeles Times, October 26, 1978.) Unfortunately, Grahame proved “Terrible Ted” right, as he was soundly outdueled by the younger Mario Lessard:
After three years of watching Grahame lose ground to Lessard, Berry confessed, “I had lost a little confidence in him.” (Edes, Gordon. “Grahame Sold to Quebec.” Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1980.) Los Angeles then sold him to the Quebec Nordiques. On his departure, roommate Dan Bonar noted, “He seemed to be pretty sad.”
Kings Goaltending: Mario Lessard
Acquired: Drafted by Los Angeles, 9th round (154th overall), 1974 NHL Amateur Draft
Seasons in LA: 1978-84
Lessard should’ve been Jonathan Quick. While not the anointed one like Grahame or Jonathan Bernier, he grew into a world-class keeper. Well, for one season. In 1980-81, the 26-year-old was a Second Team All-Star (like Vachon and Quick) and a Canada Cup alternate. Kings goaltending looked set in the crease for a long time.
The next year, Lessard’s wandering and a porous defense turned him into one of the league’s worst, his 4.36 GAA leaving him 33rd out of 37 goalies (25 GP minimum). Eddie Johnston, Pittsburgh Penguins coach and ex-netminder, remarked, “He’s really drifting. He’s not getting set.” (Edes, Gordon. “Lessard’s Fidgety Feet Betray Him.” Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1981.)
Coach Don Perry wasn’t a proponent of this “flopping” style and Lessard was not Los Angeles’s opening night goaltender the next season. In fact, he didn’t even dress: “I didn’t like what they did the first game, not even suiting me up. That really hurt my confidence.” (McManis, Sam. “Lessard Waits His Turn and Wonders What It Is the Kings Have in Mind.” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1982.) The Quebecois native would play sparingly. “In mid-December, told he was going to start in a game in Boston, Lessard asked to [see] a reporter’s notebook to make sure it wasn’t a joke.”
It was the worst season of Lessard’s life. Teammate Terry Ruskowski emphasized, “He never knew where he stood or what his situation was.” (McManis, Sam. “Kings’ Lessard Has Goal but Won’t Talk About It.” Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1983.) The former All-Star remained defiant: “A couple years ago, I was one of the league’s best. You can’t go from the best to the worst that quick.”
Lessard was wrong. After a couple minor league stints in Birmingham and New Haven, he was out of hockey at 29.
Kings Goaltending: Jamie Storr
Acquired: Drafted by Los Angeles, 1st round (7th overall), 1994 NHL Entry Draft
Years in LA: 1994-2003
“He’s the best…I was in junior hockey 18 years and never saw another like him.” McMaster couldn’t believe that Storr had dropped to the Kings in the 1994 Draft, adding, “I really believe that the L.A. Kings are secure in goal for many years now.”
More like insecure. Dogged by freak injuries (he once twisted an ankle while wrestling with Coach Larry Robinson) and questions about his work ethic, Storr never put forth a convincing claim for the starting crown. Fiset or Felix Potvin constantly ahead, he even managed to be relegated behind Cristobal Huet and Steve Passmore for stretches. But in truth, he wasn’t bad as a No. 1, merely average:
Hot streaks would always be followed by deep slumps. In 2000-01, Storr opened the season for the Kings because Fiset was hurt. The ensuing rollercoaster summarizes his career as a starter:
Storr sat down with Coach Andy Murray and staff right before being replaced by Potvin that winter: “What they told me was that they expected my best, not most of the time but all of the time.” This was after six seasons with the Kings!
Murray probably felt like a broken record exactly two years later, repeating, “He hasn’t seized the No. 1 job.” After the season, Storr packed for the Carolina Hurricanes. The once-heir to the throne finished his career in Germany.
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