EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – After two straight playoff runs extending well into June, Dustin Brown believes the Los Angeles Kings only get the full benefit of all that experience if they stay together.
Two days after the Kings’ title defence ended in the Western Conference finals in Chicago, Brown echoed his teammates’ desire Monday to keep the Kings’ core largely intact this fall. The captain echoed the thoughts of general manager Dean Lombardi, who said he’ll endeavour to keep nearly every significant contributor to the team coming off the most successful two-year stretch in franchise history.
When they return in September, the Kings likely will make more changes than they did before this season, when everybody who touched the ice during their Stanley Cup title run returned. Brown just hopes the changes only enhance a team that has earned the right to keep working toward another title.
“We’ve been in a lot of tough situations,” Brown said at the Kings’ training complex. “Experience is one thing, but experiencing it all together is much more valuable. It’s different when you’ve gone through not only what we went through last year, but the three, four previous years. What you want to build on is that group of guys that stick together, because at the end of the day, that’s all you have to lean on when times get tough.”
The Kings have experienced some remarkable times in the past two seasons, winning the club’s first championship and returning to the playoffs this spring with a strong title defence. Los Angeles had never won more than three playoff rounds in a two-year stretch before winning six rounds in the last two years.
Although the Kings have several impending free agents, Brown believes last season’s champions have the base for a perennial Stanley Cup contender. Coach Darryl Sutter also likes the base on which the Kings are built, particularly with the young players already taking on significant roles, including defencemen Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin.
“You can’t win the Stanley Cup every year,” Sutter said. “I know there are some awful spoiled people in the media and awful spoiled people in this organization. (The Kings) played more playoff games in this last year than any other team in hockey. I have no problem with anything, other than we’re a really young hockey team and we can get better from an individual standpoint.”
Keeping the Kings together will be difficult under the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement and salary cap. Lombardi already has several key players signed to long-term deals, but fitting all of those deals under the cap while retaining room to sign free agents will be a challenge for the summer.
Lombardi already got a jump on the off-season during the playoffs by re-signing defenceman Robyn Regehr, the new acquisition who fit in splendidly in Los Angeles. Sutter said Regehr will have surgery on his elbow this week after playing through the post-season with an undisclosed injury.
The Kings have several restricted free agents, along with three veteran unrestricted free agents: defenceman Rob Scuderi and forwards Dustin Penner and Brad Richardson. Penner and Richardson provide toughness, and Penner occasionally provides valuable offence, but it’s clear Scuderi is the most valuable asset that could slip away from Los Angeles in free agency.
Scuderi has finished the four-year, $13.6 million deal he signed as a free agent in 2009, and preliminary talks during the season failed to produce a deal.
“I understand a team has other priorities bigger than just myself, and that’s the way it’s always going to be, so I’m not offended,” Scuderi said. “I don’t get disrespected by any of that stuff. It’s unfortunate that maybe it could have been taken care of, but it’s not like I harbour any ill will towards the Kings or how they’ve done things. That’s just not how I think.”
Although the 34-year-old defenceman likely is on the back half of his career, the two-time Stanley Cup winner’s impressive all-around game and veteran experience should make him a popular target in free agency. When asked about his desire to return, the Long Island native kept his options open.
“I haven’t even talked to my agent yet,” said Scuderi, who lives in Boston in the off-season. “I haven’t had any time to think about that. I imagine (in) the next few days there will be some conversations and short discussions, but as a player, this is a place that certainly is a desirable location. It’s got everything you need for … my family. The team is good. I’ve been here. I’m comfortable here. It’ll just take me a little time to gain a little perspective and just relax for right now.”
The Kings have seven key restricted free agents, none more valuable than Voynov and Muzzin. Voynov is likely to get a significant pay bump after his breakthrough season, including his franchise record for playoff goals by a defenceman.
Backup goalie Jonathan Bernier also is a restricted free agent, and his outstanding play this season makes him a valuable asset in a potential trade. Bernier isn’t likely to be the Kings’ starter any time soon with Jonathan Quick’s 10-year, $58 million contract extension kicking in this fall, so the promising netminder could be moved, as Bernier apparently requested last year.
The rest of the Kings’ problems could be addressed partly through those moves—and like any team, they could use a little more scoring punch. After making impressive improvements on offence in the regular season, Los Angeles struggled mightily to score in the post-season, managing only 2.06 goals per game.
Brown blames part of the Kings’ post-season failures on himself, saying he should have produced more offence despite his torn knee ligament. Leading scorer Anze Kopitar also lamented his lack of scoring punch in the playoffs, realizing the Kings might still be playing if either top-line forward had played to the peak of his abilities this spring.
“I think we learned to deal with adversity in tough times, and that’s stuff we can use going forward as a group,” Brown said. “And then the other thing you take away is how you feel (Sunday), how you feel (Monday). That stays with you. As a player who wants to win every year, the feeling of losing actually, in a reverse kind of way, (stinks) more than as great as winning is.”