After coming up short in defense of their first Stanley Cup championship last season, the Los Angeles Kings are ready to skate a new path to a familiar place this season.
"It's not so much recapture the feeling [of winning the Cup in 2012]," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi told NHL.com, "it's writing a new chapter."
The Kings already know how the new chapter should end. It includes a celebration in downtown Los Angeles followed by a summer with Stanley. That's what they experienced in 2012.
After coming together as a team following a coaching change in the middle of the 2011-12 season, the Kings rode a hot goalie, a healthy lineup and a consistent approach to the franchise's first Stanley Cup championship.
They couldn't write a similar chapter last season, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final.
"Doing what we did in 2012 showed not only the players, but the staff and management, what it actually means and how special it is to win it," Kings captain Dustin Brown told NHL.com, "so the next year when you don't win it, you feel like you've lost a lot more than you did."
It'll feel that way again if the Kings can't make another Cup run this season. Their roster is similar enough and their championship fresh enough for that to happen.
But the Kings aren't planning on similar disappointment. They're congregating at the starting gate. They know exactly where the finish line is and how to get there.
They need to stay healthy, something they couldn't do last season, especially on the blue line. Willie Mitchell (knee) couldn't play and Matt Greene (back) was lost on opening day and didn't return until there were five games left in the season.
Jonathan Quick has to be on top of his game and remain one of the best goaltenders in the League. His cushion isn't as comfortable as it was in the past, when Jonathan Bernier was his backup. Bernier was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the offseason for forward Matt Frattin and goalie Ben Scrivens.
Star players Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty have to consistently be the Kings' best players. Justin Williams has to be among L.A.'s scoring leaders, a dangerous threat paired with Kopitar. Slava Voynov has to continue his development into an elite defenseman. Frattin has to add goals and some grind time.
The Kings need an active, aggressive, balanced defense. Secondary scoring is essential.
"We've reached the level of winning the Stanley Cup, being in back-to-back Western Conference Finals, so going forward it's not going to be acceptable to lose in the playoffs," Brown said. "That's a high expectation, but that's the expectation that the players have, the group of guys in here now. We know what we're capable of doing."
The Kings' top five scorers from last season are back. The only player from their top-six that is gone is Dustin Penner, who signed with the Anaheim Ducks as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Kopitar, Williams and Brown have formed a dynamic line because of their 200-foot ability, Kopitar's overall skill, Brown's power game and Williams' underrated scoring touch. They combined for 39 goals and 65 assists last season, and were also durable as Williams played in every game, Kopitar missed only the season-opener because of a knee injury and Brown was forced out of two because of a suspension.
However, Kopitar struggled in the second half last season. He didn't score a goal in the final 16 regular-season games and had three in 18 Stanley Cup Playoff games. There were rumors that he was battling an injury, but Kopitar said that was not the case.
"I think it's the first time he's ever had a real big slump," Brown said. "You expect him to get points because that's part of his game, but he is one of the top two-way players in the National Hockey League, and while it was awkward to see him go through a slump like that, it didn't affect his defensive game, the other 90 feet of ice that is so important to our team, with the way he plays."
Carter led the Kings last season with 26 goals and his center, Richards, contributed 12 goals and 20 assists. They need someone to step up on the left wing to replace Penner, who was inconsistent, but could be a grueling player to go against and was at times the perfect complementary player to Richards and Carter.
Enter Frattin, who despite being a right-handed shot has gotten the first crack to be the left wing with Richards and Carter. The 25-year-old had seven goals and 13 points in 25 games for the Maple Leafs last season.
Lombardi said he targeted Frattin as part of the Bernier trade because of his speed, his quick release and his powerful lower body.
"Frattin is clearly the main guy that we wanted in that trade with Toronto," Lombardi said. "He's got some things that are hard to teach."
Jarret Stoll should again center the Kings' third line, but here's where it gets interesting for L.A.
Trevor Lewis, Kyle Clifford, Dwight King and Jordan Nolan are options to join Stoll on that line, but Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are pushing. Toffoli, a right-handed shot, had six points in 12 playoff games last spring. Pearson, a natural left wing, is 20 and entering his second full professional season.
They each have top-six potential, but the Kings are deep enough to where they may start in a bottom-six role. However, if Frattin doesn't work on the second line with Richards and Carter, it's possible Pearson or Toffoli get a chance there. It's also possible that coach Darryl Sutter turns to Daniel Carcillo, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in the offseason, for that spot.
Carcillo could be any number of things for the Kings -- a top-six player with Carter and Richards, a role he formerly played for a stretch when all three were teammates with the Philadelphia Flyers, a fourth-line wing or a 13th forward.
"We lose Penner's size and we gain some nastiness and a guy that also could play with good players," Lombardi said.
Colin Fraser figures to center the fourth line again.
The most important development in this area is the return of Mitchell, who missed all of last season following knee surgery. All indications are that he's fine and should be paired with Voynov. They were together for the Kings' Cup run in 2012.
"He's still a pretty big question mark to me," Sutter said. "It's an awful lot to ask someone who missed 15 months to step right back in at age 36 and revert to his same level of play before the injury. He should be fine to start the season ... but it's still TBD how useful he'll be."
The Kings lost Rob Scuderi in free agency, but the blow of his loss is softened by Mitchell's return and the presence of Robyn Regehr, who was acquired in April and then signed to a two-year contract extension.
The other good news is that injuries to Mitchell and Greene last season meant Doughty and Voynov had to take on bigger roles in the overall defensive scheme, including penalty killing. They didn't miss a beat and should be better for it this season.
Jake Muzzin was given a chance last season to show what he could do, and he fared well with 16 points and a plus-16 rating in 45 games.
"He's just a young player that now needs to learn to be consistent," Lombardi said of Muzzin, "but what he did for our team at a critical time in adding that puck movement and power play with Doughty, he showed he was a pretty good player."
The Kings also have Jeff Schultz, Alec Martinez and Keaton Ellerby, giving them nine defensemen with NHL experience. Schultz led the NHL with a plus-50 rating in 2009-10 while with the Washington Capitals. Martinez was regularly paired with Greene two seasons ago.
It's unlikely the Kings will carry nine defensemen into the season, but Lombardi and Sutter like the options.
"I guess we're deep particularly if Willie is healthy, but to me they're like good pitchers; I don't think you can have enough of them," Lombardi said. "I'll deal with this a whole lot better than I would with a shortage, like I did last year when after one game we lost two in the top six. It's a good problem to have and we'll work through it."
After going through some bouts with inconsistency during the regular season, Quick rebounded and was again his brilliant active, aggressive, agitating, puck-stopping self in the playoffs.
He had a 1.86 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in 18 games to help the Kings get to the Western Conference Final for the second straight season. Quick, though, was burned for four goals on two occasions in the five-game loss to the Blackhawks.
The Kings could afford to let Quick work through some struggles last season because they had Bernier, who had a .922 save percentage and 1.88 goals-against average in 14 games.
Lombardi always knew that he wasn't going to be able to keep both of them for the long haul, and since Bernier was a restricted free agent this summer, he finally had to pull the trigger and trade him, sending him to the Maple Leafs for Frattin and Scrivens.
Scrivens doesn't have the same pedigree or potential that Bernier has, but it won't matter if Quick plays the way the Kings expect him to. Scrivens can play 20 or so games to give Quick a breather, especially in back-to-back situations, of which the Kings have 14.
ADDITIONS: Matt Frattin, LW (trade, Maple Leafs); Ben Scrivens, G, (trade, Maple Leafs), Daniel Carcillo, LW (free agent, Blackhawks), Jeff Schultz, D (free agent, Capitals), Mathieu Garon, G (free agent, Lightning)
SUBTRACTIONS: Rob Scuderi, D (free agent, Penguins), Jonathan Bernier, G (trade, Maple Leafs), Dustin Penner, LW (free agent, Ducks), Brad Richardson, C (free agent, Canucks)
Dustin Brown - Anze Kopitar - Justin Williams
Matt Frattin - Mike Richards - Jeff Carter
Kyle Clifford - Jarret Stoll - Trevor Lewis
Daniel Carcillo - Colin Fraser - Jordan Nolan
Robyn Regehr - Drew Doughty
Willie Mitchell - Slava Voynov
Alec Martinez - Matt Greene
ONES TO WATCH: Tyler Toffoli, RW; Tanner Pearson, LW; Linden Vey, C; Brandon Kozun, RW; Nick Shore, C; Andy Andreoff, LW; Derek Forbort, D
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer