Last season: (46-27-9, 101 points, 3rd in Pacific Division, 6th in Western Conference) Last season was a big step forward for the Kings. They went from one of the worst teams in the West to the sixth seed. Drew Doughty burst onto the scene and became a Norris Trophy candidate while Jonathan Quick managed a Brodeurian workload. Most look at last season as a stepping stone for bigger things to come.
Head coach: Speaking of stepping stones, Terry Murray seems like the right kind of coach to help a team transition between a bad one and a solid one. He preaches defensive responsibility and seems like a solid bench boss, but I get the feeling the Kings won’t be true contenders until they hire a proven entity.
Key departures: F Alex Frolov, D Sean O’Donnell, F Jeff Halpern, F Fredrik Modin. The Kings might have been better off if they brought back Frolov, but it was clear that the Kings and Frolov had a falling out last season. O’Donnell is a steady defenseman but is far from irreplaceable. Halpern and Modin are two injury-prone guys who can bring something to the table but won’t be missed too dearly.
Key arrivals: D Willie Mitchell, F Alex Ponikarovsky. Mitchell is the big coup of free agency for the Kings. If he can stay healthy, he’ll provide L.A. with a genuine shutdown defenseman. Ponikarovsky seems to be a replacement for Frolov. He flopped badly with the Penguins, but the Kings hope he can be the useful player he was with Toronto.
Under pressure: The Kings top line is under pressure for a simple reason: the rest of the team won’t provide much offensive punch. They don’t really have a true second-line center (Michal Handzus and Jarret Stoll are nice checking centers, but won’t score very often) and get pretty thin at wing once you get past Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth and eternally-injured Justin Williams. Anze Kopitar, in particular, will face a lot of pressure.
Protecting the house: Quick is coming off a strong season, even if it was more on the ‘quantity over quality’ side. The team could probably get into the playoffs based on his play alone, but the other Jonathan (Bernier) will make things interesting. It’s unclear if he’ll be able to take the top job from Quick this season, but the Kings might have two solid goalies on their hands at a cheap price, something many teams envy.
Doughty is truly a force of nature. It’s one thing that he’s blessed with incredible talent, but he also possesses the hockey IQ of a veteran defenseman. To imagine that he might just be scratching the surface of his potential is staggering. Beyond Doughty, the Kings have a great shutdown guy in Mitchell, a promising, if occasionally infuriating, talent in Jack Johnson and another solid defense-oriented player in Rob Scuderi. Many teams seem to focus on forwards and goalies, but the Kings are built from the blueline.
Top line we’d like to see: Smyth-Kopitar-Williams. When healthy, this trio is an impressive first line. Smyth is fearless when attacking the net, Kopitar is possibly the most underrated center in the NHL, while Williams can bring speed and goal scoring skill to the table.
Oh captain, my captain: Dustin Brown is one of the many young captains in the NHL, but he breaks certain trends by throwing his body around with reckless abandon. I’m not sure if he’s a natural leader, yet Brown hopes to get the job done by leading by example.
Street fighting man: With Raitis Ivanans ‘playing’ in Calgary now, the Kings lack an obvious fighter. Beyond that fearsome enforcer, it honestly doesn’t seem like the Kings really emphasize fighting anyway, but we’ll see if Wayne Simmonds or someone else picks up the pugilistic mantle.
Best-case scenario: The Kings make a big jump from a middle of the pack Western Conference team to Stanley Cup champions thanks to great goaltending and fantastic defense led by Doughty. Smyth and Williams stay relatively healthy to support Anze Kopitar on a great first line while Brown and Ponikarovsky provide timely offense. Johnson flourishes while Mitchell stays healthy.
Worst-case scenario: Doughty plateaus, the team tunes Murray out and injuries and a lack of depth keep the Kings from producing consistent offense. The Kings barely make the playoffs and then the Sharks punt L.A. out in the first round, leaving Dean Lombardi & Co. to ask what’s next.
Keeping it real: Los Angeles should be able to get solid goaltending from one or both of the Jonathans. Their defense is among the best in the league, particularly with their top two pairs. Kopitar is a truly elite player who would receive a lot more credit if he played in the East. Those are the positives, but this team could be very shallow, especially if they get hit by injuries. They could win the division, yet I’m inclined to say they will probably finish second in the Pacific and fifth in the West.
Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Kings justify a 4. If they manage to land another scorer or two via trade, waiver pickup or a late free agent signing, their ceiling might be even higher.