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Lombardi looks at what Kings must fix in offseason

by Curtis Zupke
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The defensive-oriented system that Dean Lombardi brought to the Los Angeles Kings was supposed to pay dividends beyond the first round of the playoffs this season.
This was supposed to be the season that a team stocked with young talent and some playoff tested veterans broke through with a postseason series win or two.

But the general manager's master plan suffered a setback when the Kings failed to take care of the puck and couldn't curb San Jose's skilled forwards during a six-game loss in their Western Conference quarterfinal-round series, an inexplicable turn L.A. has all summer to mull over.

"We were very uncharacteristic of what is supposed to be a staple of our game," Lombardi said in a season-ending media session Wednesday.

"I told you this two years ago: We're going to build this from the back out, and defensively it's the first step. We were (seventh) in the League in goals against, and we accomplished that. Then we got in the playoffs and we scored goals, and all of a sudden we're giving them up. So that's something we've got to look at closely."

Lombardi said he will stick to his plan and continue to pursue a scorer even though they acquired Dustin Penner. The Kings will also address a power play that took a step back this season and look for their young defensemen to grow from this latest disappointment.

A lack of experience on the blue line was a factor when Los Angeles faced one of the deepest offensive teams in the NHL.

For all their ability, it's easy to overlook that Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson played in only their second short postseason. Alec Martinez, who didn't make the team out of training camp but ended up playing a top-six defenseman and seeing time on the power-play unit, played his first playoff games.

While L.A. also has veterans Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene to lean on, it will need Doughty and company to mature.

"I look at the experience of those guys, the three puck movers who have to show poise, you're dealing with (limited) playoff game experience," Lombardi said. "I think that was part of the issue. That part, those kids will figure it out."

Will the Kings figure out their power-play struggles? A unit that was ranked seventh in the League two seasons ago fell to 21st this season as longtime fans were again yelling for them to shoot instead of pass.

Even though San Jose scored just two power-play goals in the series, Lombardi watched San Jose's slick passing and transition from blue line to blue line and saw a glaring disparity.

"When you see San Jose enter the zone with possession all the time, there's a level of skill there that I've got to help them get on the rink," he said. "If you're gaining the zone with possession versus having to dump it in and having to spend 20 seconds getting it back, that's kind of telling me some things there."

L.A.'s season was distilled into a five-minute power play at the end of Game 6, and they failed to get a shot on goal with 1:37 of the man-advantage remaining in overtime.

Ironically, the Kings had scored on two power plays earlier in the game. That was fitting, considering the contradicting nature of how their postseason played out.

The Kings ranked 25th in scoring during the regular season but scored as many goals (20) as San Jose in the series. The difference came at the other end, where coach Terry Murray saw his team stray from its foundation.

"The number of turnovers on breakouts and neutral zone where we wanted to do a little extra all the time, and it came right back at us," Murray said. "And just our structure as far as the play without the puck, that was so far away from who we've been through this past couple of years that, to me, today it's still a concern."

Murray said it hasn't made him re-think the team's defensive philosophy because their system has been in place for three years.

It's a system that Penner will have to adapt to after he had no goals in a 17-game stretch from the regular season to Game 5 of the quarterfinals.

Highly scrutinized for poor conditioning throughout his career, Penner must make fitness his top priority in the summer, according to Lombardi and Murray.

"It's almost like you look at it (like) there's some upside here if he's going to buy in because this is a strong man," Lombardi said. "It's buying in to what your teammates believe in, in terms of how you prepare. It's as simple as that. It's not only going to make him a better hockey player, but clearly it's about attitude."

Penner was supposed to deliver skill up front but Lombardi said he will "continue to address what I tried to address at the trade deadline or I would have addressed in the summer."

Los Angeles needs to re-sign restricted free agent Doughty, and his contract will affect how Lombardi approaches the offseason. Key role players Brad Richardson and Wayne Simmonds are also restricted, while Michal Handzus and Alexei Ponikarovsky are due to become unrestricted free agents.

But really, the most pressing offseason adjustment probably has to do with how much the Kings have learned.

After starting the season 12-3, L.A. lost 19 of its next 32 games but righted the ship and made the playoffs despite losing leading scorer Anze Kopitar and briefly Justin Williams.

Kopitar was a huge blow because he had improved his two-way play immensely, and that was missed more than his scoring.

But the Kings made the playoffs without him, and they hope that by doing so they will be better equipped for next season. They can also take solace that Jonathan Quick further established himself as the franchise goalie, and Kyle Clifford was a pleasant rookie surprise.

Murray sounded as if the top priority for the Kings was simply finding their identity again.

"It has nothing to do with character," Murray said. "It has nothing to do with being good people. System-wise, the system has been in place for three years. There's not a change there. So how do we deal with this emotionally, mentally?"
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