Moves show Kings serious about taking next step
It marked the first time in a decade the Kings made the playoffs in consecutive seasons, as well as the first time in franchise history the team posted consecutive seasons of more than 45 wins. That success also translated at the gate, where the Kings sold out their final 18 home games and 35 of 41.
Unfortunately, it also marked the second straight season the Kings lost in the opening round of the playoffs.
While the first-round exit could be attributed partially to a late-season leg injury sustained by star center Anze Kopitar, there were other bright spots last season on which the Kings can build. The team managed 98 points in an ultra-competitive Pacific Division that almost saw all five of its teams reach the postseason -- this despite a scheduling quirk that saw the Kings embark on a team-record 10-game February road trip, on which they went 6-1-3.
Most importantly, the Kings established a youthful core of talented players around which coach Terry Murray and GM Dean Lombardi can build. Kopitar already had established a career high for assists in a season when he went down with a broken leg, and Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson established themselves among the League's top young defensive duos.
But the Kings' breakout player last season may have been goaltender Jonathan Quick. Just one season after establishing a team record for wins in a season, Quick set new personal marks for shutouts, save percentage and goals-against average.
Combined with the offseason addition of All-Star forwards Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, Los Angeles appears poised to finally take the next step in its development. A first-round exit no longer will be acceptable for a team that has been coming together for three years now -- especially since its core includes Richards and Gagne, who helped lead the Flyers to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final.
In obtaining Richards from Philadelphia, the Kings had to part with some top young talent -- hard-nosed forward Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, the franchise's top prospect and the leading scorer at the 2011 World Junior Championship.
The Kings also lost veteran forward Michal Handzus, who signed with San Jose. After scoring a disappointing 5 goals in his lone season in Los Angeles, forward Alexei Ponikarovsky was not brought back and eventually signed with Carolina.
Considering they were already among the League's youngest teams, it is a little ironic the Kings would trade away their oldest player. But the deal sending Ryan Smyth to Edmonton for Colin Fraser still made the Kings older by freeing up the cap space needed to bring in Richards and Gagne. With the trade, Smyth is the only player among the Kings' top seven scorers from last season not returning in 2011-12.
With the Richards trade and Kopitar's return from injury, it was surprising Lombardi made such a spirited push to sign another top-flight center in free agent Brad Richards. While Lombardi wasn't able to woo a second Richards to L.A., he still was able to bolster the Kings' front line by adding two of the key cogs from a Flyers team that came within two wins of a Stanley Cup in 2010.
That Philadelphia familiarity should benefit the Kings' locker room quickly. Gagne and Richards played for Kings assistant coach John Stevens, who was Philadelphia's coach for three seasons, leading them to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2008. Murray was an assistant coach on that team.
The Kings didn't have a pick in the draft until they selected goaltender Christopher Gibson in the second round. Considering Quick and backup Jonathan Bernier are entrenched in the crease, Gibson and the Kings' other draft picks are not expected to make the team's roster this season. Other than Richards and Gagne, the Kings did not make any sizeable additions to their roster. But the players they did add potentially could prove pivotal in taking the team to the next level.
With their marquee additions this past summer, the hope is the Kings will generate a more balanced style of play in their quest to win their first playoff series since 2001. While the Kings ranked in the League's top 10 in goals-against and penalty killing, they were in the NHL’s bottom third in goals-for and power-play efficiency. Adding two players who have combined for 409 NHL goals could go a long way toward providing that two-way balance.
Much like last season, the Kings' greatest challenge should come from within their state. The San Jose Sharks have been the class of the West Coast for some time now, winning the Pacific Division the past four seasons. Meanwhile, cross-town rival Anaheim had a historic offensive stretch in the second half of last season and now boasts the defending Hart Trophy winner in Corey Perry.
Between the homegrown core and recent offseason additions, the Kings might have their best combination of veteran poise and youthful energy since the Wayne Gretzky era.
Author: Tal Pinchevsky | NHL.com Staff Writer