EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Kings came into the 2015-16 looking to win the Stanley Cup for the third time since 2012 and were sure they could return to their old form after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.
But after becoming the first team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff berth and setting a franchise record with 48 wins, the Kings stumbled to the finish, allowing the Anaheim Ducks to win the Pacific Division on the final day of the regular season. They were eliminated by the San Jose Sharks in five games in the Western Conference First Round.
The Kings' core players remain in place, but there's little room for error by a team that's tight against the salary cap. The team met for one last time at their practice facility on Sunday. Coach Darryl Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi were not present, but the key players that helped Los Angeles to a three-year run of dominance assessed what went wrong.
WHAT THEY SAID: "I don't know if there was something missing during the regular season, but in the playoffs, definitely," defenseman Drew Doughty said. "We weren't the team we needed to be in the playoffs and there's no doubt about that. We can use all the excuses we want, but it came down to the fact that we didn't perform in the playoffs. I won't say San Jose was hungrier or more determined to win, but they played better than us."
Video: Drew doughty talks about the season and what's next
THE BURNING QUESTIONS: The salary cap is the trickiest issue. The Kings have had little to no space to work with in each of the past two seasons, and there's not a lot of room that will be freed up. Anze Kopitar's eight-year, $80 million contract ($10 million cap hit) kicks in next season, and despite their declining production, forwards Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik will still take up a significant amount of cap space for several more years. Bringing in a big-name free agent and even trying to re-sign forwards Milan Lucic and Trevor Lewis will be difficult with so little room to spare.
Sutter's contract is up as well, and he and the Kings have yet to agree to terms on a new one. Sutter has said repeatedly that he would like to continue to coach the Kings, but there's still no deal in place.
INJURIES: Defenseman Alec Martinez played one regular-season game in April, saw just 11:43 of ice time in Game 1 against San Jose and didn't play again. The team never disclosed his injury. Defenseman Matt Greene missed most of the season after shoulder surgery and additional work on his elbow. Forward Jordan Nolan underwent back surgery in March and missed the rest of the season. However, without Sutter and Lombardi present Sunday, there were no injury updates.
Video: LAK@SJS, Gm4: Schenn's shot deflects in off Lewis
WHO COULD GO: Lewis was drafted by the Kings and came up through the organization. Following the Game 5 loss, he expressed the desire to remain with the organization. Should he take a hometown discount, the team be able to make it work. A speedy, two-way forward who can play center or wing, Lewis has been an important part of the Kings' bottom six.
Defensemen Luke Schenn and Jamie McBain are set to become unrestricted free agents; each should be affordable and played key roles in the postseason.
Talks between Lucic and the Kings have been ongoing. Lucic described them as positive, saying the two parties are currently "in the same area code." He also said he does not want to test free agency.
Backup goalie Jonas Enroth might leave in search of more playing time. He earned $1.25 million to make 16 starts.
"I wish I played more games but I don't really feel like they gave me very many opportunities to play," Enroth said. "Just [looking] to be a bigger part of a team. I'm trying to play more games and just be a bigger part of a team. … I really thought they were going to play me more. If you sign a guy for $1.25 million, you're not going to play him 13 games. In my opinion, you should play him 20 or 25. I thought I earned more starts."
Video: LAK@EDM: Mersch jams home his first NHL goal
WHO COULD ARRIVE: For a system based on defensemen, the Kings were thin on the blue line during the postseason. Doughty and Martinez shouldered most of the load during the regular season and Jake Muzzin has proved himself as a solid top-six option. At 37, Rob Scuderi is still productive but lacks speed and mobility. What the Kings really need is one or two more mobile, puck-moving defensemen. "Kings Hockey" starts and ends at the blue line with big, physical defensemen who wear down their opponents and are capable of creating offense.
But those players command a high price, and cap space is not something the Kings have.
Some of the cap issues could be alleviated if a few of the Kings' top minor league prospects step up. Forwards Michael Mersch, Kevin Gravel and Nic Dowd, as well as defenseman Derek Forbort spent time in the NHL this season and appear to be close to full-time roster spots. However, none appears to be an immediate impact player.
2016 DRAFT PICKS: It's a light draft year for Los Angeles. The Kings have four picks, one each in the second, fourth, fifth and seventh rounds. They kept the conditional fifth-round pick that was part of the deal that brought Kris Versteeg from the Carolina Hurricanes because the Kings failed to make it to the Western Conference Final.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM: The key players who led the Kings to the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014 and the Western Conference Final in 2013 are still in place. Kopitar had a bounce-back offensive season, Jeff Carter is still productive, Doughty is in contention for the Norris Trophy and goaltender Jonathan Quick helped the Kings finish with the third fewest goals allowed. Kings Hockey, as it's come to be known in Southern California, isn't going anywhere anytime soon.