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Kings hope their strong core can lead them back to elite level in NHL

Kings hope their strong core can lead them back to elite level in NHL
Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, center, and defender Zach Trotman, right, defend the goal as Ducks center Chris Wagner comes close to scoring during the third period of an exhibition on Oct. 2. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It didn’t end well last season for the Kings.

But after a first-round loss to the San Jose Sharks, Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi had the chance to ruminate about the path to take next, giving it long thought during the summer. Perhaps, less could be more: minor renovation instead of a drastic overhaul.

Then the World Cup of Hockey gave him the opportunity to get feedback about his Kings players in the tournament, namely defenseman Drew Doughty for champion Team Canada and center Anze Kopitar for Team Europe, which lost in the finals. Also, Lombardi was the general manger for Team USA, which featured goaltender Jonathan Quick.

"It also makes you realize how good your own players are," Lombardi said.  "Sometimes when you've had good players … you start taking them for granted. You start looking more at what they can't do versus than what they can do. You always think the grass is greener."

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Although Kopitar won the  Stanley Cup twice with the Kings and a Selke Trophy (league’s best defensive forward) in June, it seemed as though the hockey world discovered his worth in Toronto during the World Cup. Again and again, Lombardi received positive feedback about Kopitar and Doughty.

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“I said, ‘What have you been watching?’ ” Lombardi said. “You guys don’t watch hockey after 10 [p.m.] , and you watch the highlights. It’s why you vote for [Erik] Karlsson [of Ottawa] over Doughty” for awards.

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Lombardi’s point of emphasis   came to light when he was in Colorado this preseason and took note of the Avalanche’s championships. He also talked about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup wins in 2009 and 2016.

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"They won a Cup in '96," Lombardi said of Colorado. "It was five years before they won the next one. You look at the same players on both teams. It was very similar to what we have, a strong core. But that team turned over 14 players.

"Then you look at Pittsburgh. They won that Cup. Six players are left from that [first] team [that won the Cup]. That's a classic example of people that used their window, had some ups and downs. You had that remodel even with Colorado, in a non-cap era.

"I did a lot of work evaluating this. This is the plan we have and we're going to stick with it. I think we got little away from that."

Another example would be Chicago's changes from its Stanley Cup win in 2010 to the Blackhawks' most recent championship, in 2015. There were many changes from the team in 2010 to the group in 2015, but still the core remained intact.

The focal point of the Kings’ core is Quick. Last season he played a league-leading 4,034 minutes in 68 games, and Coach Darryl Sutter was asked if the workload would be similar.

"It's always a tough one to answer," Sutter said. "Most of it is based on performance of your goaltenders and how your team is doing. You start mapping out a schedule for goaltenders and very seldom can you stick to that schedule.

"You want to be in the 60- to 65-game [range]. When you have a top goalie, that's what they expect to play and that's what you expect them to play."

They open the regular season Wednesday at San Jose and the usual preseason chatter featured a sense of optimism rather than a sense of a team having plateaued.

"Maybe there's a little time for renovation, a little bit," said Kopitar. "But at the same time, the big pieces are in place."

There was far more off-season turmoil for the Kings a year ago. Now Kopitar is the new captain, taking over for  friend Dustin Brown, and the transition appears to be a non-issue.

Kopitar's captaincy of Team Europe was a good test run.

"I know it's different but at the same time, it's nice to get a few games in that role," Kopitar said. "I've said it all along. I'm not going to change. I must have done something right: being myself with no pressure whatsoever. They trust me with this role."

Almost no one could have predicted Kopitar and Brown would be joined on the top line for the season opener by winger Devin Setoguchi. But a spot opened when winger Marian Gaborik suffered an injured foot during the World Cup. Setoguchi came to Los Angeles on a tryout and Tuesday agreed to a one-year, two-way contract worth $575,000 at the NHL level.

He has spoken about his past alcohol and drug troubles and stint in a rehabilitation clinic in Malibu about 19 months ago.  The contract represented a chance for Setoguchi to re-establish his career after being with three other NHL teams since 2011. He started his career in San Jose, drafted eighth overall in 2005.

"I met with him. I'm into second chances," said Lombardi on Friday in Las Vegas. "I'm not into third and fourth chances."

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