The Los Angeles Kings couldn't have been more pleased with their improvement from 2008-09 to '09-10, when a jump from 34 to 46 victories not only opened eyes but the path to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The challenge for the Kings entering the 2010-11 season is building on that momentum to cement their place among the Western Conference's elite.
Based on the roster that produced a 46-27-9 record, the goal is achievable. The Kings jumped from 207 goals in 2008-09 to 241 in 2009-10, while defensively, they lowered their goals against from 234 in 2008-09, to 219 last season -- and these improvements were made by a team boasting an impressive core of young, home-grown players.
Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Wayne Simmonds and Jonathan Quick form a very strong core that figures to keep the Kings in contention for seasons to come. GM Dean Lombardi added a pair of veterans to the mix this summer in forward Alexei Ponikarovsky and defenseman Willie Mitchell to further solidify the lineup. The key point here is the two veterans are joining the roster as support players, not saviors. Los Angeles also was in on negotiations with Ilya Kovalchuk this summer, but he remained in New Jersey. While this was a disappointment to Kings fans, it doesn't detract from what the club accomplished last season and what could be a very exciting season in 2010-11.
Kopitar is only 23, so the sky is the limit. He topped Los Angeles in scoring last seasons with 34 goals and 47 assists in 82 games and was tops on the power play with 14 goals. Based on past performances, Kopitar is a lock for at least a 30-goal, 40-assist performance every year. The challenge for him in 2010-11 is to take his offensive game to the next level and reach the 100-point mark. He is very capable of making the jump.
Back-to-back 24-goal seasons from Brown, 25, show he has mastered consistency, but as is the case with Kopitar, the hope is he takes his burgeoning game to the next level and give the Kings two formidable offensive threats. If Kopitar can reach 100 points this season, then Brown is capable of reaching 70.
Another emerging youngster is Simmonds, just 22, who scored 16 goals and 24 assists, with 116 penalty minutes in 78 games last season. Simmonds' overall game in his second season saw him improve from 9 goals and 14 assists in 82 games. He also improved his plus-minus from a minus-8 as a rookie to plus-22 last season.
Two more young forwards to watch this season are Brayden Schenn and Oscar Moller. Schenn was the fifth selection in the 2009 Entry Draft and is the younger brother of the Maple Leafs' Luke Schenn. He scored 34 goals and 69 assists in just 59 games for the Brandon Wheat Kings last season and may be ready to make the jump to the Kings this season. Moller, a center, had 4 goals and 3 assists in 34 games with Los Angeles last season and scored an additional 15 goals and 18 assists with the AHL's Manchester Monarchs; he also appears ready to make the jump.
While the Kings boast some excellent young players, Lombardi hasn't forgone veterans. Ryan Smyth (22 goals, 31 assists in 67 games), Jarret Stoll (16 goals, 31 assists in 73 games) and Michal Handzus (20 goals, 22 assists) all chipped in with strong 2009-10 seasons. Now add Ponikarovsky to the mix. He split last season with the Maple Leafs (19 goals, 22 assists in 61 games) and Penguins (2 goals, 7 assists in 16 games) and can be penciled in for 20-plus goals and 20-plus assists each season.
What else can you say about Doughty, the 20-year-old defenseman who was a finalist for the Norris Trophy last season? He scored 16 goals and 43 assists in 82 games and was a plus-20, then had 3 goals and 4 assists in six playoff games against the Vancouver Canucks -- and also played for Team Canada, winning a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics.
A concussion limited Mitchell to just 48 games with the Canucks last season, but he is once again healthy and figures to be a strong addition to the Kings. Mitchell joins a defense that has seen Sean O'Donnell and Randy Jones move on, but the remaining defensemen are young and promising, led by Jack Johnson, who is just 23 and already has three NHL seasons under his belt. Last season he scored 8 goals and 28 assists in 80 games
The Kings selected Thomas Hickey with the fourth pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, and he may be ready to make the jump despite missing a good portion of last season with a shoulder injury. A couple other young defensemen to watch are 2008 draftees Colton Teubert and Viatcheslav Voynov.
Rob Scuderi came over from Pittsburgh as a free agent in 2009 and didn't disappoint, lending his veteran expertise to help the young players learn a demanding position. Matt Greene appeared in 75 games last season, but after offseason surgery he won't be ready to start the season. That could open the door for Davis Drewiske (42 games) and Peter Harrold (39 games) who each played a half a season with the Kings in 2009-10.
The battle in goal figures to be one of the most interesting around in the early going. The incumbent, Quick, 24, is coming off a tremendous second NHL season that saw him post a 39-24-7 record, a 2.54 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage -- and earn a spot on the United States Olympic team.
But Quick figures to be pushed in a big way by 22-year-old Jonathan Bernier, who was 3-0-0 with the Kings last season during a March call-up. The 11th selection of the 2006 Entry Draft, Bernier has outgrown the minors, having posted a 30-21-6 record with the Manchester Monarchs last season replete with a 2.03 GAA and .936 save percentage, earning him the nod as the AHL's top goaltender.
Lost in the shuffle is Erik Ersberg, Quick's backup last season who was 4-3-2 in limited duty owning to Quick's emergence as a No. 1 goalie.