Can the Kings become an NHL power?
By Stu Hackel
The Kings are making the rounds with the Stanley Cup -- The Tonight Show, the Jimmy Kimmel Show (here, here and here, Off the Record, etc.), Wednesday night's Angels-Dodgers game -- and will show it off to their fans as they ride on double-decker buses in a parade through downtown Los Angeles on Thursday. ("Fans are encouraged to celebrate responsibly and be prepared for warm weather by drinking water and wearing sunscreen," cautions The Los Angles Daily News.) After the parade, there'll be a rally at the Staples Center. Tickets for the rally are free, distributed to season ticket holders, team sponsors and the like, although KCBS-TV reports some are ending up on eBay and Craigslist for over $200 each.
"In the days when the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup almost every spring," writes The Los Angeles Times' Helene Elliott, "the city's mayor would succinctly announce the details of the championship celebration. 'The parade will follow the usual route,' was all he needed to say, and everyone knew what that meant. There is no usual route for the Kings, who Monday won the first Cup title of their 45-year existence....They actually took an unusual route to get here, but if a few things go right, their parade could become a familiar ritual."
"We built this for a long run. It's a good young team with the core tied up, and we have the resources to keep our key guys and look to add," Tim Leiweke, the Kings' governor and chief executive of parent company AEG, told Elliott. "We want to compete for a long time now."
Can they? Do the Kings have the makings of an NHL powerhouse?
This is all new territory for this franchise, which has never been able to build a consistent winner. The Kings have finished first in their division only once in club history, back in 1990-91, and their most sustained period of good play was the mid-70s to 1981, when Rogie Vachon and the Triple Crown line of Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer skated in gold and purple. However, they had no playoff success.
While the Kings were under everyone's radar after underachieving for most of the 2011-12 regular season, it's easy to forget that they were considered a team on the rise last fall, even thought of as a serious contender. They had lost in the first round during the prior two postseasons, but didn't look bad doing it. Getting Mike Richards and Simon Gagne in the offseason was designed to boost their personnel up front. No one questioned their defensive abilities; their problem was scoring, and that apparently was cured when Darryl Sutter took over and the players got used to playing his more aggressive style.
Their record under Sutter, who arrived in late December, was 25-13-11 in the regular season and 16-4 in the postseason. They summoned big, physical forwards Dwight King and Jordan Nolan from the AHL in February and acquiring Jeff Carter at the trade deadline gave Sutter another offensive weapon. With Jack Johnson going to Columbus for Carter, it opened a larger role for Slava Voynov as a puck moving defenseman. From March 11 until Game 6 of the Cup final, they won 25 games and lost only nine. Of their five regular season losses in that span, only two were in regulation. That's impressive.
Now, it would be folly to say that the Kings are poised to begin an NHL dynasty or even repeat next year as Cup champions. There hasn't been a repeat champion since the 1997-1998 Red Wings. To some, last year's Bruins undoubtedly looked as if they had all the ingredients to win it again. With some key players gone from the roster due to free agency, retirement and injury, and some who didn't play up to the level they showed during the 2010-11 season, the B's didn't get past the first round.
When teams win a championship in any sport, everything magically falls into place. Most or all of the core players are at the tops of their games, depth players have career years, younger players inject freshness or come into their own, the coach pushes all the right buttons, and the team gets lots of breaks. Sometimes that just lasts for one season, then everything falls apart. Sometimes you can continue to play at a high level for a while, and maybe find that magic again down the road. It all starts with the players on the roster, especially the core of the organization and, from there, how well they mesh as a team.
So can the Kings become as dominant in future years as they were this spring? Let's start by examining the major pieces they have -- and that always begins in goal, where they have a top netminder in Jonathan Quick, the Conn Smythe winner and, some believe, the game's best at his position. He's 26 years old, a year away from free agency and due to make a mere $1.6 million next season, which means he's likely in for a hefty raise. You can bet the Kings will want to keep him.
On defense, Drew Doughty is a Norris Trophy-caliber player, although he didn't play like it for a good part of the season, in part because he missed most of training camp in a contract dispute. Once touted as the best young defenseman in the game, he began to pick up his play in mid-March, around the time the Kings started rolling toward the postseason, and his performance may be as big a barometer of their fortunes as you can find. He's only 22 and has many years ahead of him, and as long as he maintains his high level of play, generating offense from the back end, this team should follow suit. But if he lapses into inconsistency, the Kings could struggle again offensively.
Behind Doughty are rookie Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez, both in their early 20s and both of whom moves the puck well (Voynov especially has upside potential as an offensive defenseman), but limitations in the defensive side of their game could limit how high up the depth chart they can go.
For shutdown defensemen, the Kings can boast Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi, both going strong at relatively advance ages. Mitchell is 35 and Scuderi is 33. While they showed no overt signs of slowing down, they're each unlikely to maintain this level of play at over 20 minutes a game for too many more seasons. Matt Greene could move up the depth chart in that role, but if the Kings want to stay near the top of the league, this is an area they will have to address sometime in the next few years. Keep in mind it that takes longer for an NHL defenseman to develop and learn his craft than it does for a forward.
Up front, the Kings have three excellent centers in Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll. Kopitar is, as we mentioned during the final, simply the most underrated superstar in the game, a guy who does everything well and is still only 24. The versatile and fierce Richards is 27 and would be the top center on most other teams. His acquisition by GM Dean Lombardi last summer allowed L.A. to move Stoll to the third line, where he really blossomed this year as a shutdown center, face-off specialist and penalty killer with a distinct physical edge. The 29-year-old Stoll can be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. The Kings supposedly want to retain him before he hits the market, but his value may never be higher and he'll attract lots of interest if they can't agree on a number. Considering all that he brings to the team, replacing him would not be easy.
At power forward, the Kings have captain Dustin Brown, 27, who isn't massive, but he plays a big game and plays in all situations. His performance this spring ( he was considered the Conn Smythe leader through the first three rounds and was a dynamo in the clinching game) showed his worth. Dustin Penner, 29, who had a good postseason and would be an All-Star if he had Brown's motor and consistency, is a pending UFA. His long slumbers and the questions about his conditioning may mean that he and the Kings won't be able to find common ground in negotiations. If he returns and stays committed to the program, he'd give L.A. a second line force that other clubs would envy.
For scoring wingers, the Kings have 30-year-old Justin Williams and 27-year-old Jeff Carter. The former, as long as he stays healthy, has the high-end skill and smarts to be productive for a few more seasons; the latter is sniper who can also play in all situations. Simon Gagne, 32, has another year left on his deal, and if he stays healthy, he'd add lots of offensive punch, but that's been an issue for him since the lockout ended.
Depth guys like Dwight King, Jordan Nolan, Trevor Lewis and Brad Richardson are all under 26. The first two are only 22. They played a big role in the Kings' fortunes and no team is successful without guys like them. King is a restricted free agent and probably not going anywhere. Fourth line center Colin Fraser, who was also on the Blackhawks 2010 Cup team in a more limited role, is 27 and a UFA. The Kings supposedly want him back if they can agree on terms.
So here is a team where most of the key assets are relatively young and in the fold contractually. It has a backup goalie in Jonathan Bernier who some teams are said to be eyeing in trade, meaning Lombardi could parlay Bernier into a player he believes will further strengthen his squad. No one can tell how injuries might impact the Kings in the future, who might suffer a decline in form or otherwise not live up to what they did this year. But if you're a Kings fan, there are reasons to believe in this team's future.
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