Now that they've broken a playoff drought that extended back to 2002, the Los Angeles Kings feel they're ready to take the next step and contend for the Stanley Cup that has eluded the franchise since it entered the NHL in 1967.
The Kings are coming off their best season since 1990-91, a 101-point performance that ended their string of non-playoff seasons and confirmed that General Manager Dean Lombardi's plan for turning the franchise into a contender is on track. L.A. got 39 victories from unheralded goaltender Jonathan Quick, saw second-year defenseman Drew Doughty blossom into an elite player and got an 81-point season from emerging star Anze Kopitar. A first-round loss to Vancouver was a disappointment, but there's no question that the Kings are headed in the right direction.
Since arriving in L.A. in 2006, Lombardi has been adamant about building with young players, though he tried to jump-start the process during the summer by courting Ilya Kovalchuk, who would have given the Kings the home run hitter they've lacked. But the sides were never able to agree on a deal.
With no Kovalchuk, Lombardi and coach Terry Murray are going to have to rely on improvement from within as they work to get the Kings to the next level.
There are several youngsters on the verge of making the jump to the NHL who can give L.A. the boost it needs -- or give Lombardi the chips to get a key piece in a trade.
Left wing Alexander Frolov was a 71-point scorer four years ago, but his production dropped in each of the next three seasons, falling to 51 points (19 goals) in 2009-10, his walk year. The Kings allowed the 27-year-old to do just that, and he signed a one-year deal with the New York Rangers.
Aside from Frolov, the only departures were role players -- tough guy Raitis Ivanans went to Calgary and 39-year-old defenseman Sean O'Donnell signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia. O'Donnell played a useful role in helping to nurture young talents like Doughty, but with the Kings awash in defense prospects who are ready for a shot with the big club, he didn't figure to see a lot of playing time. The Kings also let defenseman Randy Jones, a waiver pickup from the Flyers last season, and late-season acquisitions Jeff Halpern and Fredrik Modin leave as free agents.
The romance with Kovalchuk lasted through much of July and included a visit to L.A. by the free-agent forward -- but in the end, there was no marriage, so the Kings looked elsewhere and wound up with Alex Ponikarovsky, a productive left wing for several seasons in Toronto who never found his game in Pittsburgh after being acquired at the trade deadline last March.
Ponikarovsky isn't Kovalchuk, but he is a consistent 20-goal scorer (four times in five seasons) and a big body who can play solid minutes on the second or third line.
The newcomer with the biggest potential impact is really a returnee. 2006 first-rounder Jonathan Bernier was rushed to the NHL -- he was the Kings' starting goaltender when they faced Anaheim in London to start the 2007-08 season -- and showed he wasn't ready for the NHL. That was then; this is now -- and Bernier figures to press Quick for the starting job after tearing up the AHL last season and impressing everyone during a March call-up. He has nothing left to prove in the minors.
The Kings took defenseman Thomas Hickey with the fourth pick in 2007 and hope he's ready to contribute. No one questions Hickey's talent, but his first AHL season was ruined by a shoulder injury that required surgery and an ankle sprain. Despite the lost time -- and a lack of size -- Hickey says he's confident he's ready for the NHL. If he's right, he'll join a young defense that features Doughty and Jack Johnson. The Kings are likely to give Hickey and 2008 draft picks Colton Teubert and Viatcheslav Voynov every opportunity in training camp because Matt Greene had shoulder surgery in late July and isn't expected back until late October at the earliest.
There are openings up front as well, and the Kings hope that youngsters like 2009 first-rounder Brayden Schenn and former second-round pick Oscar Moller are ready to take them. Schenn had a terrific junior season in Brandon (WHL) and got a one-game call-up from the Kings, while Moller has split the last two seasons between L.A. and Manchester of the AHL.
Lombardi's rebuilding job is starting to bear fruit. The Kings are a team packed with youth and talent that looks like it's ready for big things.
Quick will have to fight off a challenge from Bernier and can't afford the kind of slump he had down the stretch last season. Bernier's play and Quick's slump led to speculation that Bernier would get the nod in goal for the playoffs. That didn't happen, but it was a shot across the bow for Quick.
Doughty is already a star at age 20. He was a Norris Trophy finalist in his second NHL season, won an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada and should anchor the blue line in L.A. for years to come. Johnson, the No. 3 pick in the 2005 Entry Draft, is also on his way to stardom, while vets like Greene and Rob Scuderi handle a lot of the dirty work. If Hickey sticks, the Kings will have another solid puck-mover on the back line.
Kopitar is on the verge of NHL stardom; he and linemates Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams were one of the League's best trios before injuries knocked Smyth and Williams out of the lineup for long stretches. The addition of Ponikarovsky adds depth to a group that already includes captain Dustin Brown, Michal Handzus, and youngster Wayne Simmonds -- who improved to 16 goals and 40 points (and a plus-22 rating) in his second NHL season.
There figures to be a lot of disappointment in Los Angeles if the Kings don't get past the first round of the playoffs next spring. This is a team on the rise.