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Kings make no secret of playoff aspirations

by Eric Stephens
Strike up a conversation or conduct an interview with any member of the Los Angeles Kings these days and inevitably one word seems to come up.


Most times it can be brushed off as the standard refrain of any player in the optimism that fuels training camp, but when the Kings are talking about the postseason, it often is brought up by the player himself and not in response to a reporter's question.

After seven years of hoping and dreaming and ultimately disappointing, it's time to make some big plans and follow through with them.

"You have to address the fact that we are trying to make the playoffs this year," said Kings coach Terry Murray, starting his second season. "That's our goal and we'll be very disappointed if it doesn't happen. You can't be afraid to talk about the elephant in the room."

The Kings feel it's time to get a return on the investment they've made in the rebuilding plan implemented by General Manager Dean Lombardi when he took over three years ago.

Lombardi signaled his intentions for 2008-09 when he plucked free-agent, shut-down defenseman Rob Scuderi from the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and traded for veteran hard-nosed left wing Ryan Smyth to complement a group of talented youngsters.

It will be tough squeezing into the playoffs in a Western Conference that runs at least 10 deep in quality teams. The Kings will have their hands full in the Pacific Division, competing against perennial postseason teams Anaheim and San Jose, along with Dallas, which figures to bounce back from an injury plagued year.

But Columbus and St. Louis broke through last season. Maybe it's L.A.'s time.

The acquisition of Smyth brings a four-time 30-goal scorer who is one of the best at being a presence in front of the net and occasionally driving goaltenders to distraction.

Renowned for his participation with Team Canada in international play, the 33-year-old's game isn't pretty, but it may be just what the Kings need.

"From the standpoint of the team, I was excited to just have another guy that's willing to go to the net," captain Dustin Brown said. "It just makes it that much easier on everyone else.

"Last year we maybe had two or three guys that would go in front of the net and get dirty goals. I think we'll see a lot more of those grinder-type goals. I think when you have three or four or five guys that go to the net, as opposed to one or two, it kind of starts rubbing off on the other guys a lot quicker."

Brown's message was clear. As skilled as scorers like Anze Kopitar and Alexander Frolov can be, the Kings also need grinders that relish the battles in front of the net.

An offense that finished 27th in the NHL in goals per game needs to improve if the playoffs are to become a reality. Smyth's arrival has drawn the most attention, but Justin Williams could be a major factor if he can stay on the ice.

Williams recorded back-to-back 30-goal seasons with Carolina and helped the Hurricanes with a Stanley Cup in 2006, but injuries have limited him to just 81 games over the past two seasons. He had a goal and 3 assists in 12 games with Los Angeles after coming in a trade.

Murray already has taken to putting Smyth, Kopitar and Williams together as a top line.

"Your responsibility is to get the team ready for the start of the year," Murray said. "The only way you can do that is to get these guys together as quickly as possible.

"I want to see my best players playing together. I want to see the chemistry they have to work hard at developing. And when it does come, it's real good stuff."

It appears Murray will try to form three lines that can provide offense. Frolov figures to start again on the third line, with center Michal Handzus and right wing Wayne Simmonds, leaving Brown likely to line up beside pivot Jarret Stoll, who is battling an arthritic right wrist. Teddy Purcell is in the running for the left wing spot on that line.

Competing for spots on the fourth line are prospects such as Trevor Lewis and Marc-Andre Cliche. Richard Clune, Brad Richardson and John Zeiler also are vying for energy roles while Raitis Ivanans must hold off Kevin Westgarth for the enforcer spot.

Ultimately, the Kings' offense could ignite if Kopitar and Frolov can become prime-time scorers. Kopitar's numbers (27-39-66) fell from 2007-08, while Frolov led Los Angeles with 32 goals but often has left Lombardi and Murray wanting more.

Even the hard-hitting Brown saw his numbers dip -- from 33 goals to 24 and 60 points to 53 -- from 2007-08.
"We all know we can be better than what we were last year," he said.

Like the group up front, the Kings are hoping they have the right mix of young talent and veteran experience on the back end to take another step forward in an area that fell into disrepair a couple of seasons ago.

A big part of L.A.'s ambitious plans this season hinge on the continued development of Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. Doughty earned universal praise as a 19-year-old last season for his puck-moving skills, veteran-like demeanor and ability to make plays while under pressure.

Johnson, 22, can be a difference-maker if he can stay healthy for a full season. A shoulder injury limited him to just 41 games last season and the former Michigan star struggled to regain his old form. But if his highlight-reel shorthanded goal last week against Phoenix is any indication, the third pick of the 2005 Entry Draft may be tapping into his vast talent.

Scuderi, whom the Kings signed to a four-year deal, has been paired with Johnson in camp, while veteran Sean O’Donnell is back to partner with Doughty. Both Cup-winning defenders are solid, stay-at-home types that should allow the young puck-movers to flourish.

Rounding out the top six is Matt Greene, who plays a simple, physical game, and Peter Harrold, who is versatile and can play on the wing. Greene is a fixture as he's signed through 2014, but Harrold could have to fight off a number of talented prospects.

Following a standout junior career, Thomas Hickey is pushing hard for a spot after captaining Canada to the gold medal at the 2009 World Junior Championship. Another offensive-minded rearguard, Vjateslav Voinov, got a long look before being sent to AHL Manchester. Like Hickey, Colten Teubert is a former first-round pick that is part of the parent's club future.

If anyone gets a promotion, it could be Davis Drewiske that could be penciled in as a seventh defenseman while Hickey could join Voinov in Manchester.

Nothing arguably has haunted this organization more than its inability to cultivate quality goaltending.

Some have provided spells of quality netminding for a few years (Kelly Hrudey, Mario Lessard, Felix Potvin) but none have matched the standard of top-flight consistency Rogie Vachon provided over the long term in the mid-1970s.

Could Jonathan Quick be the long-sought answer? Quick started last season in Manchester but stepped forward to claim the No. 1 job by the end of the season as he put up solid rookie numbers (21-18-2, 2.48 goals-against average, .914 save percentage).

If the 23-year-old Quick falters the Kings can turn to Erik Ersberg for some capable relief. Ersberg, however, hasn't held up well when called up on for regular duty.

And there is Jonathan Bernier in the pipeline. Bernier, the No. 11 pick of the 2006 draft once considered the Kings' goalie of the future, he had an erratic 2008-09 campaign with Manchester as he struggled with being passed in the club's hierarchy by Quick.

Bernier, 21, is getting a long look in training camp and the Kings would like him to press both Quick and Ersberg.

"I don't think the net is wide open," Bernier said. "The way I look at it, Quick had a great year and Ersberg just signed a two-year contract (through 2011). You can't worry about that. If you play good, they'll make a spot for you.

"That's how I'm approaching camp right now. Just take it day by day, work hard and hopefully get a job here."

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