The Los Angeles Kings have a promising young nucleus, but it could take some time before that turns into a winning team.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at some possible royal plans for the summer of 2008.
Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Patrick O'Sullivan and Alexander Frolov are all top players on the rise and it's that core of skilled forwards that makes the Kings an exciting team for the future.
However, it's the backbone of the team that is at issue.
Goaltending remains a problem, if only because none of their guys have proven that they can do it for a full season.
The goaltending wouldn't be such an issue if the Kings defence was solid, but it's far from it. The Kings allowed 32.0 shots per game, ranking 28th in the league, and the only defencemen not carrying minus ratings were Kevin Dallman and Pater Harrold, who combined to play 59 games between them.
While it might be tempting to look at the Kings' young core and make big acquisitions this summer, shooting for an immediate improvement and a shot at the playoffs, it appears as though general manager Dean Lombardi is expecting the improvement to come from within the organization.
"I do think it's fair to say we'll get four to five players out of Manchester this year," Lombardi told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a pretty good class."
There's no denying that the Kings, brimming with young talent in the NHL already, also have more quality prospects on the way. It just takes time and patience for all of that to come together and that's not easy in an NHL where teams like Philadelphia and Washington can go from bottom feeders to the playoffs in one season.
But, if you picture this team a couple years down the road, there is reason to be optimistic about their future and that's all you can ask from a team coming off a season in which they finished 29th out of 30 teams.
Dean Lombardi/Marc Crawford
Ted Purcell, Brian Boyle, Oscar Moller
The Kings are well-stocked with good young forwards.
Dustin Brown had a breakout season, burying 33 goals and 60 points while leading the league in hits. The Kings wisely signed the 23-year-old to a six-year contract extension that should keep him as a cornerstone of the franchise.
Alexander Frolov is a gifted scoring forward just hitting his prime, but he's never tasted the playoffs, so it would be interesting to see what kind of production he might be able to achieve with a contender.
20-year-old Anze Kopitar is on the cusp of stardom, having scored 138 points in his first two seasons. There simply aren't many players in the league that combine size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and such elite puck skills.
Mike Cammalleri is coming off a terribly disappointing season in which his scoring dipped from 80 points in 2006-2007 to just 47 points, along with a career-worst minus-16 rating, in 2007-2008. Entering the final year of his current contract, Cammalleri is a prime candidate to be traded, especially if the Kings can land a quality veteran defenceman in return.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season for Los Angeles was the development of Patrick O'Sullivan, the 23-year-old who earned his playing time with solid defensive work early in the year before establishing his credentials as a bona fide top six scoring forward.
Veteran Derek Armstrong is a serviceable third-line player who plays a responsible game and has enough playmaking skills to contribute on the power play, if necessary.
For the second straight season, Kyle Calder didn't meet expectations and, unfortunately for the Kings, he's still on the books for next season, so the Kings will need to decide whether or not it's worth paying $2.8-million for a checking winger.
He'll still be a rookie next season, but Matt Moulson has shown that he's well worth a look, playing well in 22 games with the Kings in addition to having his second straight strong AHL season with Manchester.
Scooped up from the Red Wings off waivers, Matt Ellis is a hard-working player who could be a nice fit as a depth winger. He doesn't score enough to climb the depth chart, but he won't hurt in a limited role.
Enforcer Raitis Ivanans is a true heavyweight and the one source of muscle on a team of pacifists (the Kings ranked 29th in the league with 22 fighting majors).
John Zeiler is an energy player, but with four points in 59 career NHL games, he's established his level if he's going to stick with the Kings.
And that brings us to Michal Handzus, a 31-year-old who signed a lucrative four-year contract last summer then proceeded to have the worst season of his career. At $4-million per year, the Kings have to try and get some value out of Handzus and expecting him to be a solid third-line centre is hardly unreasonable. That doesn't mean it will happen, but it is a target for both the Kings and Handzus to shoot for in 2008-2009.
The Kings' forward ranks are already pretty well stocked, but there's additional help on the way. Winger Ted Purcell was the American Hockey League rookie of the year and sits third in the league with 83 points in 67 games. The lanky 22-year-old should figure into a top six role.
6-foot-7 seven centre Brian Boyle is another prospect who could make the jump after a strong pro debut, including four goals in an eight-game trial with the Kings.
For all the Kings' needs, their forward ranks seem to be in good (potentially great) shape.
Thomas Hickey, Joe Piskula, Patrick Hersley
The Kings signed Lubomir Visnovsky to a big money extension and he proceeded to put up a career-worst minus-18 and his 41 points was his lowest post-lockout total. Given his contract, Visnovsky is the go-to-guy for the Kings, but he'll need to bounce back quickly or that extension will be an albatross.
Tom Preissing is a decent puck-moving defenceman who performed better in the second half of the season. He's still capable of fulfulling a top-four role if he's paired with a more physical partner.
The Kings gave Jack Johnson a lot of ice time (21:41 per game), but the most that can be said is that the promising young blueliner at least gained experience along the way. He wasn't very productive, managing just 11 points and his minus-19 rating tied Rob Blake for worst among the team's blueliners. He's still just 21, though, so Johnson should only get better.
Promoted later in the season from Manchester, Peter Harrold was a solid addition who has to be considered in the mix for next year's squad.
Picking second in the draft, the Kings seem to be a slam dunk to take a defenceman after the Tampa Bay Lightning select Steven Stamkos number one. Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian and Alex Pietrangelo are the next three prospects in line and all are blue-chip defencemen.
Can the Kings count on an 18-year-old to make the jump on the blueline?
That would be asking a lot since the last first-round defenceman to make the jump immediately following his draft year was Jay Bouwmeester with Florida in 2002.
Even if the No. 2 pick is ready for the NHL immediately, that still leaves some holes.
Indications are that Rob Blake will want to stay in Los Angeles, after staying put at the trade deadline, but the Kings may not be thrilled with the idea of paying big bucks to a guy who, for all his experience and skills, is definitely slowing down and no longer the dominant force he was in his prime.
When the Kings hit the free agent market looking for defencemen, they could certainly take a shot at strong puckhandlers like Ron Hainsey or John-Michael Liles but, considering the team's abundance of smaller blueliners (including top prospect Thomas Hickey), adding defencemen with a physical edge may be preferable.
Hitters like Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik and Boston's Aaron Ward would be players of that ilk while Calgary's Jim Vandermeer could also increase the toughness on the back end, given his willingness to drop the gloves.
Free Agent Goaltender
Jonathan Bernier, Jonathan Quick, Jeff Zatkoff
Goaltending was the Kings' biggest hole last summer and, as Zeppelin would tell you, the song remains the same.
Jason LaBarbera didn't play poorly, recording a .910 save percentage in 45 games, but the 28-year-old isn't yet established as a clear-cut number one goalie in the NHL. Maybe an improved defence corps will be enough to help LaBarbera reach that level. Maybe.
Otherwise, Erik Erbserg was a pleasant surprise late in the season, injecting himself into the discussion for next year.
Dan Cloutier, entering the final year of an absurd two-year, $6.2-million contract, is a buyout candidate. Injuries gave Cloutier another chance in the NHL, but his 2-4-1 record, 3.44 goals against average and .887 save percentage did nothing to dissuade the Kings from looking elsewhere.
The Kings could try Jonathan Bernier, the top prospect who opened last season with the Kings, but that may be asking a lot of a goalie who will be just 20 years of age next season.
Given that cast of characters, perhaps the Kings would look to trades or free agency? Not likely, says general manager Dean Lombardi.
"That possibly is not even there to tempt you," Lombardi told the LA Daily News. "You can talk about trades. How many proven No. 1s do you feel really good about? I don't think there's much of a shot. I don't think there's a No. 1 out there like that. Do I see a free-agent goalie? No. Do I see us forcing a trade? No."
So, there you have it, Kings fans. Hope that the trio of LaBarbera, Ersberg and Bernier is enough to get through next season.
2nd - Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo
23rd (via Stars) - Jordan Eberle, Tyler Ennis, Michael Del Zotto
The Kings have approximately $30-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Two top four defencemen, one depth defenceman, starting goaltender
What I said the Kings needed last year: One top six forward, one top four defenceman, one-two depth defencemen, starting goaltender
Who did they add? Ladislav Nagy, Michal Handzus, Kyle Calder, Tom Preissing, Jack Johnson, Jason LaBarbera
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org