The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and got to the Western Conference Final last season, losing in five games to the Chicago Blackhawks. Most teams would consider being among the final four teams playing a somewhat successful season, but Kings players parted for the offseason with a sour taste, feeling they never played up to their high standards in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Four years ago we were getting a parade for making the playoffs," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi told NHL.com. "That sentiment is gone. They expect the best."
The Kings again have a roster good enough to be crowned the best next June, but there are questions that need to be answered.
Here are six:
1. Did learning how to handle success last season make them a better team? -- That's what the Kings are out to prove this season. After spending several years learning how to win before becoming Stanley Cup champions, the Kings spent last season learning how to deal with success. It wasn't a straight ride and they had their share of adversity -- injuries and slumps -- along the way, but the Kings made it to the Western Conference Final, so it was a successful season considering 26 NHL teams didn't get that far.
Now that the Kings have learned how to win and deal with success, they need to prove they are better because of it. The only way to do that is to win the Stanley Cup again.
"We've gotten to that point, where a few years ago it was just getting in the playoffs," Kings captain Dustin Brown told NHL.com. "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. 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."
2. Will defenseman Willie Mitchell play? -- That's the hope. Mitchell missed all of last season trying to recover from a knee injury that presented more problems than initially thought. The team survived without him and fortunately was able to let defenseman Jake Muzzin go through a development year that should be beneficial to both the player and the Kings this coming season.
However, Mitchell, even at 36 and coming off a major knee injury, is a key part of the Kings' blue line, especially because Rob Scuderi left to sign a four-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Robyn Regehr was brought in midway through last season to spell Mitchell. If Mitchell is able to play, Regehr would turn into Scuderi's replacement.
Mitchell has been skating this summer at the Kings' practice facility in El Segundo, Calif., but according to the team he has turned down interview requests.
If Mitchell can't play, the Kings covered themselves by signing Jeff Schultz and re-signing Alec Martinez and Keaton Ellerby. Including Mitchell, they have nine defensemen under contract.
3. How will Anze Kopitar rebound from a second-half swoon? -- Nothing about Kopitar's age (26 when the season starts), history (476 points in 522 career games) or talent suggests his struggles in the second half and in the playoffs last season will carry into 2013-14. The center is the last guy the Kings are worried about at this point. They know what to expect and how much Kopitar demands from himself.
That said, Kopitar was not even remotely close to being himself in the playoffs, when he had nine points, including three goals, in 18 games -- a long way from the 20 points in 20 games he had during the 2012 Cup run. Kopitar also went the final 16 regular-season games without a goal.
There was talk about injuries, but nothing ever came of it. Kopitar, who wore a knee brace all season, a necessity after he got injured while playing in Sweden during the lockout, said he wasn't hobbled by any type of significant injury during the playoffs.
If that's the case, then he was dramatically off his game. The Kings should have every reason to believe he'll find it again.
"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."
4. If Tyler Toffoli makes the team, does it have to be in a top-six role? -- The answer to this one appears to be "No."
The Kings will no doubt wrestle with the concept of what's best for Toffoli, a top prospect who appears ready for the NHL, especially after producing six points in 12 playoff games. They have enough depth to give Toffoli, 21, more time to develop his game in the American Hockey League, but if he has a good training camp it'll be almost impossible to keep him off the NHL roster.
Lombardi, though, said if Toffoli makes the team, it could be in a bottom-six role even though he projects as a top-six forward. The idea would be to keep the pressure off Toffoli and allow him to showcase and develop other parts of his game. Lombardi said the concept comes from what the St. Louis Blues did with Doug Gilmour 30 years ago. He came in as a high-end scorer out of the Ontario Hockey League, but the Blues made Gilmour a checker for a few seasons so he could become a more complete player.
Gilmour turned into a three-time 100-point player, a Selke Trophy winner, and in 2011 was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"It's easier to do this if you're a good team," Lombardi said. "If we're here five years ago building this, yeah, he's probably going to be there [in the top-six], but now you can earn your stripes the right way. That's a very underestimated thing."
5. Where does Matt Frattin fit in? -- Frattin came to the Kings in mid-June in the trade that sent Jonathan Bernier to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who always projected Frattin to blossom into a top-six forward.
Frattin may be better suited for a third-line role with the Kings, perhaps playing with center Jarret Stoll. It could have the makings of a dangerous checking duo that could take advantage of the opposition's top scorers by forcing them to play defense. Stoll can win faceoffs, and Frattin, who had seven goals in 25 games last season, has a resume that suggests he can be a goal-scorer.
"Frattin is clearly the main guy that we wanted in that trade with Toronto," Lombardi said. "He's got a great release, a knack for finding scoring areas. You look at his numbers in college, what he did in the minors and the short stint when he was in Toronto, he's got some things that are hard to teach. He needs more structure. He's got to become more dependable in his own end. I was a little concerned about our lack of speed and he certainly adds to our team speed."
6. Will Daniel Carcillo reunite with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter? --This scenario seems likely, at least on paper, especially if the Kings don't have a problem starting Toffoli in the bottom-six should he make the team. The Kings acquired Carcillo from the Chicago Blackhawks because they needed a left wing to replace Dustin Penner, who was a regular with Carter and Richards. Carcillo played with Carter and Richards when they were with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Carcillo is a wrecking-ball type of player who can clear space, dig pucks out of the corners, go to the net -- basically do all the dirty work.
It makes sense for Sutter to put Carcillo with Richards and Carter, at least at the start of the season, but Carcillo has a history for committing the questionable penalty at the wrong time of the game. He's a high-risk, high-reward player if a coach wants to use him in a significant role.
"He's played with a lot of our players, so we lose Penner's size and we gain some nastiness and a guy that also could play with good players," Lombardi said.