Los Angeles advanced to the Western Conference Finals, but injuries to Willie Mitchell, Matt Greene and Dustin Brown led to their demise and they failed to return to the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons.
The expectations are lofty for this season, the feeling among some in the organization is that this roster is better than last season's and they are the betting line favorite to win the newly-constituted Pacific Division. With most of the roster spots settled, the biggest question coming out of camp is who will win the left wing position opposite Mike Richards and Jeff Carter with newly acquired Matt Frattin getting every opportunity to win the job.
There may be a subtle change from the “size and strength” requirement of all Kings forwards throughout the Lombardi era entering the season. Perhaps the steady diet of watching Toews, Kane and the rest of the Blackhawks fly up the ice in the Western Conference Finals opened the door for more skill and speed over two way checkers on the bottom six.
Anze Kopitar -- Though he’s the No. 1 pivot, Kopitar must be able to eliminate the long stretches of lack of production if he is to reach the elite status. The aforementioned injuries aside, when Jonathan Toews outplayed the Slovenian middle man it went a long way to their five game elimination in last spring. Some have suggested that his conditioning has been a factor in the long stretches of little production but no matter what the issue is inconsistency needs to be eliminated from his game.
Jeff Carter -- If he’s healthy, book 40 goals for the rangy sniper with tools few players in the NHL can match. Since he’s arrived at Casa del Staples, the puck consistently finds him and his signature wrist shot is a powerful one. He’s comfortable both on (see: Mike Richards) and off the ice (beach life/no Philly media) in Los Angeles and could contend for the Rocket Richard Trophy with a big season.
Matt Frattin -- The apple of Lombardi’s eye for the past two seasons, the Kings GM got his wish when he had to deal Jonathan Bernier away. He’s converting to a position admittedly isn’t his strongest but the Kings are betting that they have another Dustin Brown on their hands. No question Frattin possess the offensive skills of a top six NHL forward, but adapting to the off wing role defensively and in transition is the task at hand for the Edmonton native.
The strength of the Kings lies with its defensive corps headed up by Doughty. The group has speed, size and skill that is the equal of any in the NHL. Though Doughty’s production was below par for a second consecutive season, the emergence of Voynov caught everyone’s eye and earned him a $25 million, six year deal.
The big question of the defense coming into the season is the health of two puck stopping defensemen, Mitchell and Greene, the former missed the entire lockout season with a bad knee while the latter lost virtually the entire regular season with a herniated disc suffer in the opening game against the Blackhawks. Jake Muzzin’s rookie season was a baptism by fire, starting off strongly but his inexperience and lack of conditioning took a big toll in the Conference Finals against Chicago.
Drew Doughty -- Clearly, the Kings best blueliner, but Mitchell and Greene absences taxed the 23 year old defenseman all last season. Doughty logged four minutes TOI more than any other Los Angeles rearguard (26:23 per game) which led to Assistant Coach John Stevens admitting that the target TOI this season for Doughty is 24 minutes per game. If he’s to win the first Norris Trophy of his career, he must increase his offensive productivity, reinforced by his omission by one sportsbook from the list of Norris Trophy candidates.
Willie Mitchell -- The X factor of the Kings blueline crew and his value to the team was showcased with his season-long absence. The verbose Mitchell was out of character last season, opting for silence throughout and now proclaiming he’s ready to go for the season. If he returns to the form of the Kings championship season, it makes the odds of emerging from the Western Conference far better.
Jonathan Quick’s big ticket contract clicks in this season, so the pressure to produce increases exponentially. Though he took a battered team deep into the playoffs, the image of the soft Duncan Keith goal in their elimination game likely provides all the motivation he needs coming into the season.
Expect a fast start from Quick as he’s in perfect health coming into the season and appears as he’s bulked up over the summer. He’ll need it as Sutter’s penchant of riding his goalie will have him between the pipes in upwards of 70 games. With personal good health and getting likewise from his defense, it would be no surprise if Quick was a Vezina finalist come June. Though he may be in the running for more silverware, his focus is solely on winning another Stanley Cup. When asked about being one of the favorites for his first Vezina, his response was a steely: "We're one of 30 teams that can win the Stanley Cup."
Though Ben Scrivens was obtained in the Frattin-Bernier swap, former King Mathieu Garon was brought to camp on a professional tryout deal to create competition for the dozen or so starts in support of Quick.
Los Angeles was a mirror image on special teams in the shortened regular season, ranking 10th in both power and penalty kill. They were a top-four penalty kill in the post season of the teams who lasted more than one round and were the statistical equal of the Cup Finalist Blackhawks and Bruins with the man advantage. The coaching staff has hinted that a change in strategy could lift them their top ten ranking with the man advantage.
In an effort to assist Kopitar, the Kings will likely position him in the slot as opposed his usual location on the half wall. The expectation is that Carter and Brown will ring up double digit goal production on the power play but they must find a scorer on the left hand side for the second power play unit as Brown was the only left wing to record a PPG in the combined 66 games of the 2013 regular season and playoffs.
A full year from Greene and Mitchell virtually guarantees a lift from their tenth ranked penalty kill, not only from their veteran physical presence but the reduction in minutes Doughty will see which should make his more effective as the season rolls on.
Though Sutter brought this team from an eight seed to a championship, he’s wise enough to know that repeating that championship trick won’t happen. Though improving to a five seed last season, the Kings stellar home record (19-4-1) reinforces Sutter’s goal of winning the division and ultimately getting the West’s top seed. Can they do it?
Pound for pound the roster rivals any in the West and some inside the organization feel this group is superior to the one that reached last year’s Final Four. If Greene and Mitchell can prove their can stand the rigors of a full regular season and Kopitar finds a way to overcome his inconsistency, a Western Division championship is in the offing.
Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period.