The Los Angeles Kings failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season, but general manager Dean Lombardi has elected to view it as an opportunity more than a disappointment.
The Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014 and advanced to the Western Conference Final in 2013. But by missing the playoffs by finishing fourth in the Pacific Division, two points behind the third-place Calgary Flames, the Kings got something they haven't had in quite a while: a full offseason.
"You've heard me mention this before about the idea of the conditioning and nailing that down," Lombardi said Tuesday. "Because of what had happened in the past, it was more recovery-based offseasons than upgrading our conditioning. A lot of time was spent on evaluating that, coming up with standards now that we have that opportunity."
Lombardi said it's up to the Kings' core players, among them forwards Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, defenseman Drew Doughty and goaltender Jonathan Quick, to come to training camp in peak physical condition.
"Your first indicator from that is your top players will have a chance to be our best-conditioned players," Lombardi said. "Any great team, you look at the [Steve] Yzermans, the [Nicklas] Lidstroms, the [Tom] Bradys, Kobe Bryant; top players set the mark. Not the coach having to get in their ear. They show up in top condition ready to go a full 82 games.
"It's been hard because we've played into June. But this year there's no excuse. This is a marvelous opportunity to have our top players take over that room. They start by doing that, becoming the best they can be. I think they will. Because there's no doubt in my mind what guys like Kopitar and Doughty and Quick stand for. Hopefully this is a rude awakening; it's no fun watching the playoffs. In the long run we could benefit from this."
Lombardi is making plans for free agency. He'd like to get forward Tyler Toffoli and goaltender Martin Jones signed to new contracts; each can become a restricted free agent July 1.
The Kings would also like to re-sign defenseman Andrej Sekera, who was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes near the NHL Trade Deadline and can become an unrestricted free agent.
"I think we have the parameters of a number," Lombardi said. "Up until late last week ... oftentimes it's hard to get even a number and see if you can plug it in. So I think we have the range that it would take. Now have we been countered with an offer yet? No. That's all I can say on that one now. I would say I don't think his number is outrageous. He'd like to stay here. By virtue of that you kind of hope he winds up in some of your [salary] schematics."
There's also the question of what will become of veteran forwards Justin Williams and Mike Richards.
Williams, 33, had 18 goals and 41 points this season. Lombardi would like to have him back, but there are salary-cap issues.
Among them is what to do with Richards, who has five years left on his contract, with an average annual value of $5.75 million. The 30-year-old had five goals and 16 points in 53 games. He was placed on waivers Jan. 26, then spent two months in the American Hockey League hoping to rediscover his game; when he returned he had one point in six games.
"I don't think we've made a final determination in terms of ... you have a number of scenarios," Lombardi said of Richards, mentioning a contract buyout as well as a trade that would see the Kings retain money. "There's a number of ways to deal with that cap hit."
Lombardi said he has no intention of making major changes to a roster he believes still has room to grow and improve.
"We can learn from this," he said. "If you look at the cores of teams, if you believe a core is seven players, you have a team whose core is intact that's won two Cups, that's won 10 playoff rounds and their average age is 26.5. This is a marvelous opportunity for key players, secondary core guys who have won, that are still together, to learn from this and make us better. If this had all happened and our core was 34 years old, you'd say 'holy smoke.' ... But we've got a marvelous opportunity with this group to learn from it and make it stronger. If you approach it like that, it could be even stronger. Only time will tell."