For the first time in franchise history, the Los Angeles Kings open a season in defense of a Stanley Cup.
For 12 consecutive seasons, every team’s title defense has ended in disappointment.
There were two teams – the 2000-01 Devils and 2008-09 Red Wings – that lost in Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final. Six of the 12 teams won their divisions. Two teams didn’t win one playoff game, including the 2006-07 Hurricanes, whose follow up to a Stanley Cup was an 11th place finish in the East.
The 12 teams that failed to repeat won a total of 12 playoff series. On average, they finished the regular season between fourth and fifth place – though, to be fair, the 2005-06 Lightning had to wait a year due to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. And, of course, there’s the 2010-11 Blackhawks, a team forced to shed players such as Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd and Antti Niemi, among others, to remain salary cap compliant.
“I’d much rather have this than what Chicago had to do,” Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi said on the precipice of the 2013 NHL regular season.
What Lombardi has is the intact re-creation of the 2012 Cup roster. Centers Jarret Stoll and Colin Fraser were re-signed to maintain the team’s elite two-way depth down the center of the ice. Dustin Penner had other opportunities but chose to return on a one-year contract following a 12-month period in which he evolved from a target of fan discontent to a cultish playoff hero.
“Pens is a good teammate,” Lombardi said. “Obviously we’d like to get a little more out of him because he’s so capable, but it does say something that he turned down multi-year deals to come back and try to [win another title].”
With such continuity, there’s also the possibility of stagnation, which becomes a concern among teams trying to get through a regular season in defense of their title. It certainly happened to Boston a season ago in the form of a 14-17-2 stretch between January 7 and March 15. The Bruins were on the upswing, but were not playing their best hockey of the season when the playoffs began and were bounced on a Game 7 overtime goal by Washington’s Joel Ward in the first round.
With a 48-game season that begins in January, the peaks and valleys of an 82-game schedule are not as worrisome. It is not a marathon, but it is not a sprint, either. The natural growth of individuals in their career arc is what continues to widen the organization’s window.
“We’re still the fifth, sixth youngest team in the league,” Lombardi said.
Anze Kopitar, 25, Jonathan Quick, 26, Mike Richards, 27, Drew Doughty, 23 and Jeff Carter, 28 are all signed through at least 2016. Stagnation in development certainly doesn’t appear to be on the horizon, especially in the case of the team’s most skilled offensive player, Kopitar.
“He’s not even in his prime yet,” Lombardi said. “Arguably, how are you stale when 10 of those guys at a minimum have upside, should be getting better?”
But Kopitar is recovering from an MCL sprain suffered the day before the lockout ended, and is likely to miss a game or two to start the season. It has shifted lines around from the effective playoff pairings, slotting Carter into a center role alongside Penner and Justin Williams, while Richards centers Simon Gagne and Dustin Brown, who moves back to his comfortable right side.
Though Dwight King emerged as an unsung playoff contributor while maturing around some controversy for his hit from behind on St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo, he has never played in a full NHL season and will need to continue to be effective in all areas as a third line left wing alongside Stoll and Trevor Lewis. The chemistry between King and Lewis was clearly on display in the clinching Game 6 against New Jersey last spring and will need to continue with 20-year-old goal scoring prospect Tyler Toffoli waiting in Manchester for a call-up.
He’s a much different defenseman than a Shea Weber or an Alex Pietrangelo, but Doughty has to be considered among the best two or three defensemen in the game, if not the absolute best. His play from February forward a season ago highlighted his defensive dynamism as much as his pure skill. He’s quick to react and excellent positionally in his own zone, capable of winning battles and throwing his weight around with force. One of the more honest representations of his explosive two-way skill came in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. After he skated around practically the entire New Jersey roster before beating Martin Brodeur with a blistering shot off the rush in the first period, he leveled Zach Parise with an open ice hit in the Devils’ zone to serve as a wake-up call that the second period had begun. Winning a Cup as a 22-year-old has done wonders for Doughty’s maturation, and he must be considered an inside Norris Trophy candidate in a shortened season.
The rest of the blue line returns, though Willie Mitchell’s knee injury suffered in offseason training will keep him out for a considerable amount of the season, taking away one of Los Angeles’ premier shutdown defensemen and character leaders. It could also have an adverse effect on offensive defenseman Slava Voynov, as Mitchell was a valuable stay-at-home balance to Voynov’s aggressiveness and pinching. Jake Muzzin made the team and will compete with Davis Drewiske for ice time in Mitchell’s absence, unless the team decides to trade for a rental piece.
For the first time in franchise history, Los Angeles can look down upon all other NHL teams in goaltending talent and depth. Jonathan Quick is coming off a season in which he was narrowly edged out for the Vezina Trophy and posted a 1.41 goals against average and .946 save percentage in the playoffs. He signed a 10-year contract extension and underwent minor back surgery over the off-season and should be considered a preseason Vezina favorite for the first time in his career.
The more interesting questions in net revolve around Jonathan Bernier, who requested a trade over the summer following two full seasons as a backup and a career 2.50 GAA after making his debut as a 19-year-old in the 2007-08 season opener. Lombardi is in no rush to trade him, telling reporters his general message to the former 11th overall pick was to “Be a pro.” Certainly it will be an option considered once the April 3 trade deadline is approached and a more accurate picture of the Kings’ needs – and of Quick’s health – will have been revealed.
“Obviously, if the right thing’s there for the team, you look at it,” Lombardi said. “But you can’t be responding to this without the number one focus being on the team. And he’s too important to the team. Unless something hits us that really is going to help this team, it’s not feasible.”
Any acquisitions are likely to be short-term rentals. The team is nearly eight million dollars under the current $70.2-million salary cap, according to Capgeek.com, but will comply with a $64.3-million dollar next season. 12 players will also become free agents over the next offseason, with Gagne, Penner and Rob Scuderi among the six unrestricted free agents.
Of hockey operations changes, Jamie Kompon did not have his contract renewed and was hired as a Chicago assistant. Former St. Louis coach Davis Payne was hired by Los Angeles to replace him.
“I’ve always liked other head coaches on my staff,” Sutter said.
The Kings have recently held one of the league’s best shorthanded units, and once again it appears as though there will be penalty killers to spare. Kopitar, Richards and Stoll are all premier shorthanded options, with Carter, Fraser, Brown and Lewis all factoring into the team’s plans as well. For the last two seasons, L.A.’s wonky power play has occasionally been a frustrating topic for fans, though with Doughty’s readiness and sheer skill, it’s a unit that can certainly improve.
For the first time since Gretzky’s presence, it is expected that the Kings will draw raised performances from their opponents, and will certainly find themselves in interesting theatre, most noticeably in Pacific Division games. The dynamics of the Los Angeles-Anaheim and Los Angeles-Phoenix rivalries have certainly shifted over the past 12 months.
“I think it’s fun,” Scuderi said. “You have to be a competitor to make it this high in athletics, and I think any of the past champions kind of relishes the challenge of having everyone trying to take you down.”
There’s also the question of how a 48-game schedule following six days of practices impacts the level of play, and whether it benefits any particular team. It has been surmised that those who played during the lockout will be in better shape, though Sutter wasn’t one to draw any comparisons to the 48-game season of 1995.
“The pace of the league has changed, and how many players are actually still playing?” Sutter asked. “Again, we’re just sort of shooting in the dark on it.”
Though they’re certainly capable of a high seed, the key will be a playoff berth – hopefully one with home ice advantage – in advance of the crapshoot that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“We’re one of 30 teams right now,” Quick said. “We’re trying to be one of 16 and then we’ll go from there.”