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Great Expectations

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

Over the next couple weeks, members of the hockey world will yawn, stretch and arise from their summer hibernation. Coaches, though, haven't taken much time to rest.

For the bulk of the summer, housed in a small, windowless office in an industrial section of El Segundo, Terry Murray has been at work, laying the groundwork for a season in which he, his fellow coaches and Kings players will shoulder increased expectations.

Offseason additions of veterans such as Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Ethan Moreau, coupled with the natural maturation of a talented, young team, has led many league pundits to tab the Kings as top contenders in the Western Conference.

Can the KIngs pull it off? They'll take the first step on Sept. 17, when training camp opens and players officially take the ice for the first time. For Murray, in a way, it will be a culmination though, an end to months of preparation and planning.

"There's a method to the madness, in terms of what goes on before that first day of training camp," Murray said. "It goes way back, to literally the end of the previous year."

When camp starts, players essentially run on auto-pilot. Coaches and staff members tell them where to go and when to be there, and they follow. But all of that back work is done by Murray and his staff behind the scenes, during a long summer of work.

When will practices start? How long will they be? How many groups will players be split into at the start of camp? Which players go in which groups? What drills should be emphasized early in camp? Should it be more about competition or fitness?

To answer these questions, Murray draws upon his two-decade history as an NHL coach but also consults with general manager Dean Lombardi, his assistant coaches and -- in this unusual training camp that includes a trip to Europe -- a sleep consultant.

"You want to get things pretty much set in stone before the start of training camp," Murray said, "those areas that you're concerned with and really want to give that push to, so that you can get the repetitions in place and everybody can have a good feel about the areas that you might feel you need to improve on."

For Murray, the work began shortly after last season ended with a first-round playoff loss to San Jose. Based on his own instincts, with backup from team statistics, Murray started to set a course for 2011-12. What needed to improve?

In the Kings‚ case, the answer was clear: offense. So when camp opens, that‚s where the focus will be, Murray said. Having established, in his first three seasons, a strong defensive mentality, the Kings will look for a balance with improved scoring.

"The big focus in year one was on the checking part of the game, the defensive part, the play without the puck," Murray said. "That part of the game is in a pretty good position right now, and the numbers reflect that over the last three years. It's important that we maintain, and improve a little bit if we possibly can on that side of it. The big focus, as it was last year, is on the offensive part of the game. Going into the training camp, I want to talk about that and continue to work on 5-on-5 scoring.

"It's an area that we have to be better at. We know that, from looking at the numbers at the end of the year. Again, we feel it's something we've really improved, personnel-wise, and now we've got to get those numbers so that it's reinforced and the actual hard numbers do improve."

The work begins quickly. Training camp -- including exhibition games -- lasts three weeks, and while that might seem like sufficient time to prepare, it goes quickly.

The initial days of camp, per the league's agreement with the players‚ association, include a limited number of on-ice hours for players. There are seven preseason games, including a split-squad night and a set of back-to-back games.

And, as they did in 2007, the Kings will open this season in Europe. That means an Oct. 1 game in Las Vegas, followed by a flight to Germany and three games -- one exhibition, two regular-season -- in seven days in Germany and Sweden.

Based on all that, the early part of Murray's training camp is structured around competition and instruction, not fitness. Players are expected to report to camp in something quite close to playing shape, and not practice their way into shape.

"Going over to Europe, it's a different animal," Murray said. "I know that. We brought in a sleep expert, in the early part of summer, to review that part of the scheduling and just kind of break it down from the professional side of things, as to what to get ready for when it comes to practices in Europe. The practices would be later. We're trying to get that internal clock adjusted to European time, but that is a process.

"The early part of the training camp over there will be later-afternoon practices, even 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock practices, to kind of get ourselves accustomed to the change and get ready for the games at the end of the week. So there's a lot that goes into it, and the players are going to have to work as hard as everybody else has here, during the offseason, as far as the preparation -- even emotionally and mentally -- to get over there and play the right way."

By the time the Kings are on European soil, their ranks will have been thinned.

The initial size of a training-camp roster can number in the high-60s, if not higher, and even in the most ideal of situations, a team only has two sheets of ice to work on at a time, and only so much time to evaluate players.

Every coach's strategy is different. Some coaches break their players into two groups. Some coaches utilize two sheets of ice at a time, which maximizes ice time for players but can also minimize the amount of hands-on instruction from the head coach.

During his time with the Kings, Murray has settled into a training-camp routine. The Kings are broken into three groups that rotate ice time. On the average camp day, Group A will get the earliest ice time. Then, when Group A is finished skating, those players will do off-ice workouts while Group B players do off-ice sessions.

It makes for long days for the coaches, who, in the early part of camp, will spend upwards of five hours a day on the ice, but it's also the fairest and most accurate way to judge players, particularly young players looking to make an impact before initial roster cuts are made.

It's also an opportunity to build chemistry, which takes on increased importance for the Kings this season. The team's defense returns intact, but training camp will be particularly important to the forwards.

Early in camp, Murray will look to build chemistry among his top-six forwards. Summer acquisitions Mike Richards and Simon Gagne need to get acquainted with new teammates, and Murray said the pair is likely to start camp on the same line.

That means the first line is almost certain to include center Anze Kopitar and left winger Dustin Penner. The pair spent only 12 games together before Kopitar suffered a season-ending ankle injury in March. Camp will determine where veteran right wingers Dustin Brown and Justin Williams best fit.

"You want to get a look that you might possibly want to get to at the end of your training camp," Murray said. "I feel like that's important, with the way the game is today, to hit the ground running. You want to have good chemistry with each one of the lines, and a good understand of each other on the line or in a defense pairing. So I will try to get to that pretty quickly. Certainly you want to get two guys together there. In some situations, with your top couple lines, you probably want to get to those three players who you feel can be a line that can do good things together. Again, with the importance of getting ready for the games at the start of the year, I push that faster today than I probably ever did, but still with an understanding that there are a lot of young guys coming in and they want to have an opportunity to show their best too.

"So, at the same time, you're looking to give young players, who are starting to take that next step, give them an opportunity to play with your top players at times, whether it's in an exhibition game or a practice. So that's why you often see the lines, the way they end up being, different in some practices. Even in the early part of training camp, you want to give those young guys the opportunity to play. You have to give them an opportunity to play. They deserve it. So they end up, maybe, with your top players, and people might wonder why I'm doing that. 'Why is this line changed again?' But there is a method behind the whole thing."

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