|Drew Doughty having another Norris trophy worthy season as well as the continued development of Jack Johnson are two BIG keys for the Kings to be successful in 2010-11.
The Kings still play in Los Angeles, and at STAPLES Center, but in a figurative sense, they’re now residing in the NHL’s high-rent district.
For much of the first four years of the Dean Lombardi era, the buzz words around the Kings involved growth, learning and potential, positive terms that pointed toward a day, sometime in the future, when the team would be a contender.
This season, there’s only one word being tossed around: winning.
Expectations are significantly higher now for the Kings, who open their season at Vancouver on Saturday night. Simply making the playoffs, which had been considered the holy grail in previous seasons, is now considered the bare minimum for success.
Listen to league pundits, and there’s talk of a Pacific Division title for the Kings. There are shouts about Drew Doughty
’s Norris Trophy candidacy. There are discussions about Anze Kopitar
rising to the level of an elite NHL center.
Listen closely enough, and there are even whispers about the Stanley Cup.
That’s heady talk for a team with the youngest roster in the NHL, a team that lost to the Canucks in the first round last spring and made only minor roster changes during the summer, but the Kings are embracing the attention.
"I love the expectations that everybody has for this hockey club," third-year coach Terry Murray said. "They’re legitimate. We took huge strides last year, a nice run to the playoffs, and with that comes more expectation, and we accept that. We’re gladly embracing it and we’re excited about the season."
Based on preseason projections, the Western Conference might even be tougher than it was last season. Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose and Chicago are considered championship contenders, while Phoenix and St. Louis have top-eight potential.
With bubble teams such as Colorado, Nashville and Calgary looming, and the ever-present potential for a surprise team -- such as the Coyotes and Avalanche last season -- the Kings can’t afford to take a playoff spot for granted.
"Our goal is to get ourselves into the playoffs," Murray said. "Our goal is to be better in the playoffs than we were last year. That raises expectations to a pretty high level. You have to be a pretty good team to get to that next round."
Those who watched the Kings last season won’t notice many changes. The Kings are counting on a couple key additions, plus another year of maturity and experience for their core players, to push them beyond last season’s 101-point level.
Kopitar, entering his fifth season, returns as the leading scorer and anchor of a first line that includes veteran winger Ryan Smyth and team captain Dustin Brown
On the third line, Alexei Ponikarovsky was essentially signed as a replacement for Alexander Frolov, and the hope is that he can team with center Michal Handzus and winger Wayne Simmonds to form a "shutdown" line with some scoring ability as well.
The question for the Kings, up front, will be the second line. For the Kings to improve their 5-on-5 scoring, a stated goal since the end of last season, they will likely need a full, healthy season from Justin Williams
and more production from Jarret Stoll
The Kings started training camp with Scott Parse
on the second line, hoping he could be a 20-goal scorer, but Parse missed much of training camp with a sore groin and will be replaced, at least for the first few games, by Brad Richardson
The fourth line features a combination of caution and potential. The Kings are expected to start the season with three rookies, Kyle Clifford
, Brayden Schenn and Kevin Westgarth
, and only Westgarth has previous NHL experience (nine games).
"They’re going to be real important hockey players down the road," Murray said, "and I think they’re going to be real important players as we move through this season."
Since his arrival as general manager, Lombardi has set upon building the team around defense and goaltending, and in those areas he might have his most complete package to date.
Doughty finished third in Norris Trophy voting last season, at age 20 and in his second NHL season. Already he’s being touted as a favorite for the award this season, and his credentials are only likely to be enhanced by a new pairing with Willie Mitchell
Mitchell, who signed a two-year contract as a free agent, should provide the steady, solid play to allow Doughty to roam into the offensive zone more often and build upon the 16 goals he scored last season.
Jack Johnson could similarly benefit from a pairing with Rob Scuderi
, who proven to be a strong partner for Doughty last season and who could help Johnson have a breakout year. Defensemen don’t come much more steady and consistent than Scuderi.
Mitchell’s arrival allows the Kings to put Matt Greene
in a physical third-pairing role when Greene returns, perhaps at the end of the month, from a shoulder injury.
In Greene’s absence, rookie Jake Muzzin
earned a spot out of training camp, and will partner with Davis Drewiske
early in the season. An impression early-season showing by either player could lead to a permanent pairing with Greene.
In goal, the Kings would seem to have their most potent tandem in a long time. Jonathan Quick
set franchise goalie records for games and wins last season, but appeared in 72 games and appeared to wear down late in the season.
Murray has said that he wants to limit Quick to a maximum of 60 games this season, and that shouldn’t be a problem given that Murray can turn to backup Jonathan Bernier
, who was the top goalie in the American Hockey League last season.
Around the continent, many pundits are projecting a battle for the No. 1 spot between Quick and Bernier, but Murray has been adamant that Quick is his No. 1 goalie and that there is no competition. Regardless, it’s an important season for Quick.
Another kind of "quick" is important for the Kings: a quick start. One of the league’s better road teams last season, the Kings play seven of their first 10 games away from STAPLES Center, and gaining some early positive momentum will be important.
No longer will the Kings be sneaking up on anyone. They have shifted from the category of "team on the rise" to "contender," and how a young team deals with those expectations will determine whether this season is ultimately determined to be a success.