LOS ANGELES, Calif. – After the most successful two-year stretch in franchise history, the Los Angeles Kings just want to keep it going.
That’s because the Kings historically aren’t used to good times. The 2012 Stanley Cup champions returned to the Western Conference finals last summer, winning six total playoff rounds—twice as many as this long-struggling team had ever managed in any two-year stretch.
To stay on top, Los Angeles plans to rely on the same unflashy, workmanlike style that allowed coach Darryl Sutter’s club to raise the Cup for the first time.
“We’re looking forward to making another run,” forward Colin Fraser said. “We can never be satisfied. You’ve got to keep the edge to stay on top. It’s good to have that competitive edge.”
For the second straight season, the Kings made remarkably few changes to their roster. General manager Dean Lombardi concentrated on re-signing his carefully constructed core, inking captain Dustin Brown to Los Angeles’ latest lengthy deal.
Five reasons to watch the Kings attempt to put together five consecutive winning seasons for the first time in club history:
Defence CHANGES: Rob Scuderi was arguably the Kings’ most valuable defenceman over the past two years with his steady, heady two-way play, but the East Coast native spurned Los Angeles for a lucrative four-year free-agent deal with Pittsburgh.
The Kings have long realized they could lose Scuderi, and Lombardi already made plans to mitigate it. He re-signed Robyn Regehr, kept Keaton Ellerby despite his minor role last season, and then signed towering Jeff Schultz during the summer after his career stalled in Washington.
Los Angeles also could replace Scuderi from within. Willie Mitchell is on track to return after missing all of last season with knee surgeries, and Jake Muzzin emerged as a regular while playing extensively last season.
IS KOPI OK?: Anze Kopitar has been the Kings’ leading scorer in six consecutive seasons, largely a model of offensive consistency. That’s why the Slovenian centre’s slump last season was so perplexing.
Kopitar didn’t score a goal in Los Angeles’ final 16 regular-season games, finishing with the fewest goals and shots per game of his career. He then managed just three goals and nine points with a minus-2 rating in the Kings’ 18 playoff games.
Many fans suspected Kopitar was playing with a major injury, but that wasn’t the case. With Kopitar back alongside longtime linemates Brown and Justin Williams, Los Angeles is betting Kopitar’s slump was a minor blip in a major career.
WHO GETS LEFT?: The Kings are nearly out of left wings.
When Dustin Penner returned to Anaheim as a free agent, he left a void of regulars on the left side of Los Angeles’ offence behind Brown on the first line. Sutter will attempt to patch those holes with a variety of solutions.
Matt Frattin, acquired from Toronto during the summer, is getting a look as the second-line left wing with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Bruiser Kyle Clifford can play on the left side, while rambunctious newcomer Daniel Carcillo and youngster Tyler Toffoli could get a shot on the left side of the top four lines.
BEHIND QUICK: Jonathan Quick will be paid $58 million over the next 10 years as the Kings’ franchise goalie, but even a highly competitive Conn Smythe Trophy winner needs a few nights off.
The Kings had one of the NHL’s best tandems last season, but they traded Jonathan Bernier to Toronto in the off-season to allow the burgeoning talent to become a starting netminder. The deal included Ben Scrivens, the former Maple Leafs backup who’s competing for the job in Los Angeles with NHL veteran Mathieu Garon.
Goaltending has been a historically sore spot for the Kings, so Quick’s backups will be under pressure to meet Bernier’s standard.
BIG DIVISIONS: The Kings have been to the top of the league in the last two years, but they have smaller goals, too: They’ve won just one division title in their entire franchise history, and they would like another.
Los Angeles finished third in the Pacific Division and eighth in the Western Conference during its championship year in 2012. The Kings moved up to second in the Pacific and fifth in the conference during the lockout-shortened season.
But the Kings have the talent and experience to be a favourite in the expanded division race, and Lombardi has mentioned a division title as a meaningful goal for the current Kings. A second banner to hang next to that 1991 Smythe Division banner would signal Los Angeles’ ability to play consistent, top-level hockey through an entire regular season—and not rely so heavily on a road playoff push.