Heading into the 2016 playoffs, the Los Angeles Kings were widely viewed as a team capable of making a run at the Stanley Cup.
It took the San Jose Sharks all of five games to dispel those notions.
So now, one year after missing the postseason entirely, the Kings find themselves at a crossroads. This group still has the bones of a contender. Anze Kopitar is a top-flight center just entering the prime of his career. Drew Doughty is a perennial Norris contender, the ideal anchor for their blue line. And even after this disappointing playoff performance (3.04 GAA, .886 save percentage), Jonathan Quick still has a place among the league's elite netminders.
Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez (sorely missed against the Sharks) are reliable top-four defenders and forward Tyler Toffoli scored a career-high 31 goals and is on the verge of stardom. Jeff Carter is a dependable 25-goal, 60-point second-line center.
But this team lacks the depth that helped them capture the Cup in 2012 and 2014. And that means a busy summer ahead for GM Dean Lombardi.
His first order of business is the future of Darryl Sutter. No doubt he's the finest coach the organization has ever employed, his legacy cemented with those championships and a franchise-best .608 regular season winning percentage. But there's a sense that both he and the Kings would benefit from a change. There's a mutual decision to be made here.
The captain could be gone as well. Dustin Brown is barely serviceable as a bottom-six player, but it is his contract, six years remaining at $5.875 million per, that's a blight. A buyout is one option, although that would cost the Kings more than $21 million and would see the 31-year-old linger as a cap factor though 2027-28. Swapping his entire commitment to a team looking to hit the cap floor is another, but buying that cap room would cost the Kings dearly, likely a top prospect or a first-round pick. And for a team that gave up its first in 2015 and 2016, that might be a price too high. Either way, this is a contract Lombardi needs to get out from under.
Vincent Lecavalier was a surprisingly effective third liner after a mid-season trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, counting 10 goals and 27 points in just 42 games. He looks like he has some hockey left in him, but he seems adamant about retiring, a promise he made prior to the swap.
One player who'd love to stay is Milan Lucic. “I definitely hope that this isn't my last game as a King," the pending UFA said after Game 5. "It was a lot of fun being a King. I enjoyed everything about this organization from the management, to the coaches, to the players, to the fans. The way everyone is treated here is definitely first class. Hopefully we can get something done here before July 1st so I can remain a King."
Lucic was a solid fit during the regular season, scoring 20 goals and 55 points, and has the tools and experience to be part of the core moving forward. But his expected ask, north of $6 million for at least five years, would be a tough fit under the cap. He's no better than 50/50 to return.
The Kings are likely to move on from UFA forwards Kris Versteeg and Trevor Lewis. Lewis is a Kings lifer and would be a nice fit on the bottom six, but he'll find a better offer on the market than L.A. can afford to pay. Their spots could be filled via the trade market, or by promoting prospects like Adrien Kempe and Michael Mersch into full-time roles.
On the back end, restricted free agent Brayden McNabb will be re-signed. UFA Jamie McBain will not, while UFA Luke Schenn is a possibility, but not a priority. Prospect Kevin Gravel could fill in on the bottom pair in his place. His affordability might be a factor if Lombardi, as expected, spends his capital upgrading his No. 4 and 5 defenders.
With few options available in free agency, expect the Kings to be busy on the trade market. They're short on picks (without their first and third, just four this year) so prospects could be the currency of the day. Those are always tough moves to make, but with the team in win-now mode, that's a price they'll have to pay.