Serious questions in September almost vanished by December around the Kings organization.
The Stanley Cup champion Kings can only hope they pull off that same slick magic trick once again. After all, a year ago they were looking at the twin tasks of replacing defenseman Rob Scuderi’s minutes and finding an adequate substitute for Jonathan Bernier, the man then considered by many to be the league’s best backup goalie.
Can you say Jake Muzzin and Martin Jones?
Muzzin made major strides last season and joined fellow defenseman Drew Doughty to form the Kings’ shutdown pair. Jones helped fill in for injured goalie Jonathan Quick and started off his NHL career by going 8-0-0.
The questions facing the Kings this time might not be nearly as significant, but there are areas of concern as they start their Stanley Cup defense.
Can leaders Mike Richards and Dustin Brown reverse their regular-season declines?
The early signs of meeting the challenge, according to Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi and the coaches, seem promising. Lombardi said in a telephone interview last week he saw Richards during the summer in Canada, saying, “He looked much better.”
Last season, Brown’s production fell off in the regular season and Kings Coach Darryl Sutter dropped him to the third line. But his play picked up significantly after he returned from representing the United States in the Sochi Olympics.
Richards struggled in a major way in the regular season, dropping to the fourth line. Shortly after the Cup win, Lombardi decided against buying out the still-lengthy contract of Richards, a statement of loyalty and a recognition of the heart-and-soul characteristics of the veteran.
How much mileage is there on Quick?
The goalie won’t turn 29 until January, but he has had three significant injuries — two of them requiring surgery — since the Kings won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 2012.
There was back surgery in the summer of 2012, a serious groin injury keeping him out of action for nearly eight weeks last season, and the latest, wrist ligament surgery in the summer. Lombardi said Quick had not suffered any setbacks, but he would have to go slow in camp. The Kings are unsure whether Quick will make any appearances in the preseason.
What is next for Generation Next?
The Kings are not old. You don’t even need to see Lombardi’s age-distribution charts to know that.
One of the intriguing story lines will be the progress of the kids, forwards Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, and even the young goalie, Jones. They all had sparkling rookie seasons, and does the upward trend continue or do they hit a plateau?
Lombardi even referenced Muzzin, who is 25.
“It’s about all those guys getting better. We’ve still got a number of guys on this roster who are far from their prime,” Lombardi said. “I look at Muzzin. He came in the other day … he looked like [Hall of Famer] Rob Blake. I don’t know if you consider that a wild card.”