For the second straight season, the Los Angeles Kings made the playoffs and, for the second straight season, they were bounced in the first round.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a deep Kings organization that deserved a better fate than having their best player get injured in the final weeks of the season and what they can do to put together another playoff contender next season.
The Kings have been exceedingly patient, building through the draft and developing their prospects under GM Dean Lombardi and that organizational depth does give them some flexibility but, at some point, the team will have to move beyond first-round fodder.
Going 3-4 down the stretch, without Kopitar, the Kings ended up in seventh place in the Western Conference last season, but just one points out of fourth, so it's not like Los Angeles can't be right in the middle of the playoff mix on an annual basis, but to go beyond that may take more than just internal improvement.
While the Kings can count on players like Brayden Schenn and Andrei Loktionov coming through the pipeline, they also need to ensure that they keep their core together and there are few better building blocks than defenceman Drew Doughty, who is a restricted free agent, which should mean a healthy raise.
If Doughty is unsigned on July 1, there is the chance, however small it might be, that a team would look to make a blockbuster signing.
He's one the most valuable building blocks in the game -- a 21-year-old defenceman who plays more than 25 minutes per game and plays with the poise of a 10-year veteran -- so the Kings will naturally do what is required to get him signed, but if he hits the market and an offer sheet gets signed, rest assured that Doughty's raise will be more than what the Kings are budgeting for prior to July 1, which could have a domino effect on personnel decisions throughout the Kings' lineup.
But, putting aside any Doughty contract concerns, the Kings have a mix of youth and veteran talent, enough that they can stay the course and be a playoff team again next season.
While a more aggressive approach might accelerate the Kings' development plan, it could be a difficult time to get bold on the free agent market, at least until the Kings have their own castle in order.
Dean Lombardi/Terry Murray
Anze Kopitar may have been having his best season, scoring just under a point-per-game and leading the Kings at plus-25, when he suffered a broken ankle, causing him to miss the last couple weeks of the regular season and the playoffs -- a devastating blow for the Kings' chances.
Aside from a minor slump in January, Kopitar was very consistent throughout the season, solidifying his credentials as a premier talent around whom the Kings can build.
Team captain Dustin Brown is a nice complement to Kopitar. While skilled enough to have scored 109 goals in the last four seasons (tied for 30th in the league over that time), Brown's calling card is his relentless and hard-hitting style of play.
Brown has ranked in the top three in hits each year since 2006-2007 and, for a refreshing change, he finished 2010-2011 as a plus player (plus-17) for the first time in his career.
Finally healthy, playing more than 50 games for the first time since 2006-2007, Justin Williams showed that he still has his offensive chops, finishing with 22 goals and 57 points and earning a four-year contract extension form the Kings after the end of the season.
Scott Parse got off to a terrific start in his second NHL season, with four points and a plus-5 rating in the first five games, before hip surgery put him out for the rest of the season, returning for a couple of games in the first-round playoff loss to San Jose.
Parse is a hard-working winger with a little scoring touch who could earn a regular role on the third line, provided he's healthy.
He scored more than 20 goals for the 11th time in his career, but 35-year-old Ryan Smyth isn't as effective as he once was and played 18:02 per game last season, his fewest minutes per game since 1998-1999.
While he had a solid showing in the playoffs, Smyth scored two goals in a 36-game stretch in the second half of the season.
This isn't to suggest that Smyth isn't a useful player. He still knows his way around the net and has scored at least nine power play goals in each of the last three seasons, but he's better suited to a complementary role at this stage of his career.
It appears that Jarret Stoll's 68-point season of 2005-2006, when he scored 31 points on the power play for Edmonton, is in the rearview mirror, but he's settled into a productive second-line role, scoring 131 points in three seasons with the Kings.
Stoll is a versatile player who can play the point on the power play or take on checking assignments and a more defensive role may be in his future as the Kings have Brayden Schenn on the way to, presumably, become the second-line centre behind Kopitar.
To say the Dustin Penner acquisition was a disaster might be an insult to disasters everywhere, but the Kings surely hoped for more than two goals in 19 regular season games from the power forward who is a four-time 20-goal scorer.
Penner's work ethic has come into question several times in his career already, so his droughts can never come as a complete surprise, but he has such good hands for such a big man that he can really make a positive impact when he applies himself.
There's the rub; getting Penner to perform consistently can be a challenge for the best of coaches and frustrating for those that can't live with his lapses in intensity. Going into the final year of his deal, it's not inconceivable that Penner could be on the move again this summer.
While Penner is a big forward that doesn't get the most out of his ability, Kyle Clifford is cut from a different cloth. He earned a spot in the Kings' lineup as a 19-year-old, banged bodies and fought to stay a regular and then elevated his game in the playoffs, scoring five points in six games after scoring 14 points in 76 games during the regular season.
He's still young, so patience is needed and expectations need to be reasonable, but Clifford should be able to play a more offensive role in the years to come.
Kevin Westgarth gives the Kings a heavyweight to combat other heavyweights, but you don't need to have gone to Princeton, like Westgarth, to know that a forward with no goals and three points in 56 games isn't bringing a ton to the table.
After a breakthrough sophomore season, Wayne Simmonds took a step back in his third NHL campaign. As a result he ended up playing a career-low 13:27 per game and wasn't as combative as he'd been the year before.
Simmonds is only 22-years-old, however, so whether last season was disappointing or not, it would be too soon to assume that he won't continue to develop as an aggressive forward who can be effective in all areas of the ice.
For most of his time with the Kings, Brad Richardson has been placed in a depth role, occasionally moving up the depth chart when injuries strike, but the 26-year-old certainly responded well to an increased role (again, due to injuries) in the postseason.
Maybe it won't mean anything, and Richardson will return to fourth-line duty but, with the right linemates, he might be able to contribute more than that.
Trevor Lewis cracked the lineup and stayed with the Kings all season and he too played well in the playoffs, but with four goals and 16 points in 83 NHL games to this point, he's likely always going to be in a battle for his place in the lineup.
As the Kings make financial decisions, it seems likely that veterans Michal Handzus and Alexei Ponikarovsky will be able to test the free agent market and the Kings can look to their deep pool of prospects to fill in some of the holes up front.
Whether it's Brayden Schenn, Andrei Loktionov or some combination thereof, the Kings should have little trouble filling vacancies from within the organization.
Jack Johnson continues to emerge offensively, scoring a career-high 42 points last season, but hasn't been able to figure out the defensive end so easily, going minus-73 in the last four seasons (easily the worst in the league), including a career-worst minus-21 last year.
Like most young defencemen, Johnson could take a page or two out of Nicklas Lidstrom's book and gain a greater appreciation for positioning and that would likely help him make a positive difference at both ends of the rink; maybe that will come as the 24-year-old's game matures.
When he plays, Willie Mitchell can be a strong shutdown defender, but the physical challenges that come with that role have taken their toll on the 34-year-old defenceman.
Michell has missed 59 games over the last two seasons with a variety of injuries, including a concussion, groin, back and wrist injuries, making it harder to count on him in the lineup and harder to him to stay up to speed with the opposition's best forwards.
Matt Greene's role has decreased somewhat in the last couple seasons, but he provides a sturdy physical presence, recording more than 200 hits in each of his three seasons with the Kings.
Veteran blueliner Rob Scuderi does provide a steadying influence though, while his 20:17 average ice time per game was the highest of his career, Scuderi also had the worst shot differential (five-on-five, per 60 minutes according to www.behindthenet.ca) among Kings defencemen last season, though part of the issue there is partnering with Johnson.
Though he's played just 80 games over the last two seasons, Davis Drewiske has done a decent job as a depth defenceman for the Kings. He has good size and blocks shots, but his game doesn't figure to raise him much higher on the depth chart.
Priority number one for the Kings this summer will be to get restricted free agent defenceman Drew Doughty signed. While the Kings have a decent amount of cap room available, matters could get more complicated if a team sent a Godfather offer sheet (one he couldn't refuse) to Doughty.
Doughty's third season wasn't quite as good as his second year in the league, when he was a Norris Trophy finalist, but the 21-year-old has all the tools to be in the Norris discussion every year for the next decade.
A tremendous start (16 points in 20 games) in Manchester earned Alec Martinez a promotion to the Kings and he stayed in the lineup for the rest of the year. While he didn't play a lot, he did see time on the second power play unit and generally acquitted himself well in his rookie season.
Not unlike the forwards, the defence could be filled out by promoting from within, if necessary. Puck-moving blueliner Viatcheslav Voynov, who is only 21, has three AHL seasons under his belt and could be ready to make the jump.
Facing a challenge for the number one job, Jonathan Quick responded with the best season of his career, which included a 2.24 goals against average and .918 save percentage.
He's an above average starter at a reasonable cap hit, so Quick is valuable to this team, yet 22-year-old Jonathan Bernier will continue to push for a bigger role.
Bernier was up-and-down in his performances as a rookie, perhaps not getting in much of a rhythm as the backup, but there are plenty of teams that would be interested in Bernier as a number one if the Kings were to decide that they were content to go with Quick in that role.
||22-35-57,+19, 29 GP
||8-23-31,+16, 34 GP
||57-51-108,+44, 68 GP
||15-36-51,+21, 76 GP
||North Dakota (WCHA)
||0-15-15,+22, 39 GP
||23-27-50,+13, 59 GP
||13-30-43,+22, 48 GP
||6-18-24,+9, 77 GP
||2.25 GAA, .924 SV%, 39 GP
||23-25-48,+4, 73 GP
Brayden Schenn started last season in Los Angeles, but was only playing 11 minutes a game, when he played at all, so the Kings loaned him to the Canadian National Junior Team and then returned him to junior following the World Junior tournament.
Schenn excelled at junior, leading the WJHC in scoring with 18 points in seven games, then ripped up the Western Hockey League with 57 points in 29 games.
Those numbers would seem to indicate that Schenn should be able to score at the next level and the Kings might be able to move him into a second-line role as soon as next season.
Shoulder injuries have hampered Andrei Loktionov, but the 21-year-old is plenty talented and isn't far off from landing a full-time job in the NHL, if only he can stay out of the infirmary.
A second-round pick of the Kings last summer, Tyler Toffoli had a monster year in junior, scoring 57 goals, before a late-season cup of coffee in the AHL. With some time to acclimate himself to the pro game, Toffoli could become a valuable scoring winger.
Viatcheslav Voynov is a gifted puck-moving defenceman with a big shot and, with three years of AHL experience already, he's knocking on the door.
6-foot-5 blueliner Derek Forbort didn't score a goal as a freshman at North Dakota, but that doesn't necessarily diminish the long range potential of a raw talent with great size who can use further time in college to develop.
Oscar Moller's entry level deal is up, making him a restricted free agent, and the tiny forward hasn't yet been able to establish himself as an NHLer. He appears to be headed back to Sweden, which could take him out of the equation next season, but might give him time to physically mature.
A power play quarterback who had 63 points in 72 regular season and playoff games last season, Nicolas Deslauriers should have some time to develop in the American Hockey League, but has long-range potential.
The Kings reached to take Thomas Hickey with the fourth overall pick in 2007 and he doesn't look like he's going to justify that selection, but he was healthy last season after an injury-plagued 2009-2010 campaign.
Undrafted goaltender Martin Jones had a tremendous first pro season, giving the Kings nice depth at the position; of course, that also means there is no rush to get Jones to the NHL.
Winger Brandon Kozun is undersized, but has always been able to put up points, including a couple of 100-point seasons in the WHL. If he can build on his rookie production, the 21-year-old may have more upside than some of the other top prospects.
The Kings are deep in prospects, as they have Western Hockey League scorers Linden Vey and Jordan Weal, Russian winger Maxim Kitsyn and at least a trio of additonal AHLers -- defencemen Jake Muzzin, checking winger Marc-Andre Cliche and big winger Dwight King -- that could all have some kind of future value.
Check out a possible roster for next season on www.capgeek.com, with several promotions, but no major additions due to uncertainty over what the price will be to get Doughty signed: http://bit.ly/k80hWk
No first-round draft pick.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Kings have approximately $47.9M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 16 players.
Needs: One top six forward.
What I said the Kings needed last year: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, one additional defenceman.
They added: Alexei Ponikarovsky, Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis, Brayden Schenn, Kevin Westgarth, Jake Muzzin.
TRADE MARKET Dustin Penner, Jarret Stoll, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Greene.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.